The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Genitals of Stone

So, if you have not yet heard, there is a bit of buzz out right now regarding the discovery of 37,000 year-old rock art in France.  The discovery, made in 2007 and being published currently, indicates the early presence of Homo Sapien Sapien (ya' know, our species) in Europe, and corroborates a narrative that holds that anatomically modern humans were in Europe by 40,000 years ago. 

Also making a bit of a buzz is the claim that the rock art depicts a vulva. 

While most of us are interested in this find because of its age, there is a contingent of my colleagues who are fascinated by the proposed subject matter of the image.  And get your minds out of the gutter, the interest comes from the fact that for so much of human history, we have had an obsession with either discussing or not discussing sex and genitals, and it is really not understood where this cultural predilection comes from, nor what it means about us as a species.  So, when we see early examples of either genitals or sexual intercourse in ancient art, it gives us another piece in the puzzle that (we hope) illustrates just how much our sex obsessions are based in biology, and how much they are based in culture.

Or, at least, it gives us another piece if the rock art actually represents what we think it represents. 

See, the problem is that many of the images that we see in rock art are not clear insofar as what they represent.  When we deal with recent rock art, we can often ask the people who made it, or their direct descendants, what the images may mean and reach some sort of conclusion.  With older rock art, it is much less clear.  Even when we know what an image represents, we still have to work out its actual meaning - sure, that's a painting of a wild goats, but does that mean that you were hunting goats?  That you were using some form of sympathetic magic to take on some attribute of a goat?  That you just like goats? 

Often, we can find clues to help us make a bit more sense in the surrounding rock art, or from features and artifacts present at the rock art site.  However, even then, our ideas regarding the meaning of the rock art remain preliminary and incomplete. 

I wrote, several years ago, about a rock art site in California where we saw images that have typically been assumed to be vulvae.  At the time, I was struck by just how amazingly close the rock carvings were to another human body part: the eye.  These things seriously looked like human eyes that were just glaring at anyone passing by.  However, much of the rock art interpretation written for the area described them as female genitals, which just seemed odd to me.  While I am admittedly not an expert on rock art, I really felt like repeatedly writing the phrase "sometimes an eye is just an eye" on the site forms.

The rock art from Europe, pictured below (linked to Gawker media), may represent a vulva.  It also may represent some other object, or perhaps even be an abstract representation of a concept.  I don't know.  I am, again, not an expert on rock art, but when I read about rock art, I often have to wonder just how many experts on rock art actually are experts.  While many of the descriptions seem reasonable and make sense, it is just as common to read odd flights of fancy about the alleged inherent human bio-psychology regarding colors or shapes that, frankly, typically makes little sense.

So, does the presence of a circle with a line in it indicate an early human attempt to represent genitals, and thus sexuality?  Yeah, maybe, it's a perfectly plausible explanation.  However, it is also entirely possible that we're applying our own often loopy post-Freud assumptions about sex onto ancient peoples who were trying to represent something completely unrelated. 


Unknown said...

Once I was bicycling along with a guy, and a car in front of us had one of those license plate frames where two over-built naked female forms act as the decorative side elements. It was mounted upside-down and I could not figure out what the lumpy patterns were supposed to represent, but he knew immediately, and claimed it was like an instinctual thing to recognize the form. Given the common notion that men are so much more visually oriented, and sexually obsessed, I wonder if the percentage of people seeing a vulva in the rock art shown is more highly weighted to male observers. I also wonder if either of those initial assumptions have any validity at all, but I am far too lazy to hunt down the truth. At least I recognize and admit it!

The pattern looks a lot more like a big, fluffy, dandelion seed ball to me. Now I will spend the afternoon concocting a non-testable religious theory of the meaning of dandelion seed-blowing to prehistoric peoples. Good times.

Anthroslug said...

I have absolutely no idea who you are, but I like you already.