Skip to main content

Art and Death in Neolithic Europe

Final Report Summary - ADINE (Art and Death in Neolithic Europe)

In Neolithic Western Europe, monumental tombs were frequently decorated with engraved and painted art. Archaeologists have rarely asked why there is such an association between art and death. How was art used to create spaces appropriate for the performance of deathways? Since the 1960s research on this art has stagnated both theoretically and methodologically, leaving this important question unanswered and unanswerable. The ADINE project proposes a comprehensive study of how art was created and used in the Neolithic tombs of Sardinia, which are by far the largest group of decorated tombs in Europe but also the least studied. The project had three research objectives.

1) Digital documentation of unpublished decorated tombs
The first objective was to document unpublished decorated tombs, using both standard techniques and several innovative photographic techniques for revealing poorly visible art. Different series of fieldwork in Sardinia were conducted and digital recording of art and architecture were made in c. 20 tombs. Various techniques of visualisation and modelling were used, such as photographic enhancement (DStretch, VeDPOL), 3D photgrammetry, hand-held 3D scanner (Artec Eva), as well as chemical analysis of paint (pXRF). These new data and recording of Sardinian Neolithic art allowed to fill important gaps in the documentation of Neolithic tombs in Sardinia. The creation of these data have made it possible to do detailed analysis of the contextual setting of the art.

2) The role of art in Neolithic death rituals
The second objective was to answer the project research questions: why is there such an association between art and death in Neolithic tombs? How was art used to create spaces appropriate for the performance of deathways? Two approaches have been used to do so. The first approached consisted in analysing the spatial distribution of the motifs inside the architectural space of the tomb. With a detailed analysis of the art in the 250 deocrated tombs in Sardinia, the project looked thoroughly and systematically at where the symbols are placed inside the tombs’ architectural space and how they interact spatially with both structures and planimetry of the monuments. Such a contextual analysis has resulted in the identification of different series of patterns in the placement and orientation of the motifs, revealing for example that particular motifs are repeatedly associated with doorways and limits between the different rooms of the tombs or that bucrania motifs are often arranged in apposing pairs so as to “frame” visitors in the different rooms of the tombs.
These patterns observed across Sardinia clearly demonstrate that art was used together with architecture in order to structure and sequence tomb space and therefore to provide a setting for death rituals. These patterns give insight on how the tombs were though out and designed as a whole as a complex and dynamic ritual space. They also give us new insights on some key aspects of these rituals, for example the emphasis on doorways (by both art and architecture), which indicate that Neolithic death rituals give particular importance on notions of passage and transitions.

The second approach consisted in looking at how similar forms of tomb art were used ritually and socially in traditional societies in South-East Asian and East Africa through an examination of the ethnographic records. This research focused on four different cultural groups in which, as in Neolithic Sardinia, tombs are frequently decorated with cattle head motifs (bucrania): the Naga of North East India, The Toraja of Sulawesi, Indonesia and the people from West Sumba, Indonesia and the Mahafally of South Madagascar. Why these ethnographic societies depicted bucrania in tombs? What was the role of bucrania in tombs, within death rituals and within the society? In order to answer these questions, a systematic review of the ethnographic litterature dedicated to these groups was made with (following the work of Alfred Gell in “Art and Agency” 1998) particular attention to aspects such as the sponsors/creators of the decorated tombs, the targeted audience of the art (bucrania), the effects and actions of art generally and on individuals, etc. This ethnographic review shows that in South-East Asia and Madagascar, displaying bucrania and cattle horns on tombs has multiple and cumulated functions: commemoration (providing ostentatious evidences of prestigious sacrifices of cattle), competition (promoting social status and encouraging emulation among individuals/families), protection (warding off evil influences, especially when placed in relation to doorways), and reproduction (by both representing and attracting agricultural and social success and prosperity). The results of this ethnographic review allow to reconsider completely the significance of cattle head representations in Sardinian Neolithic tombs (so far only interpreted as representations of a bull divinity) by providing new ways of understanding making and displaying bucrania on monumental tombs as a social practice.

Since the 19th century Neolithic tomb art has been usually interpreted and presented as a passive form of religious or cosmological representation. The results of ADINE provide a new understanding of this art by showing its active role in death rituals and its potential as a social index of prestige within competitive social relationship during the Neolithic. Such a new view and approach will generate new debate and open new research possibilities within the academic sphere, and provide new substantial ideas to professionals involved in the presentation of decorated Neolithic tombs to the public.

3) Building new digital technologies for the study of rock art
The third objective was to build up a new generation “total recording” methodology for rock art sites by testing and developing together a suite of complementary methods (photographic techniques, portable digital microscopy, and non-destructive, portable XRF spectroscopy to identify painted areas and pigments) and by organising an international conference to assess and discuss the application of these techniques. The project conference “Documenting Prehistoric Parietal Art: recently developed digital recording techniques” (21-22 May 2014, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge) brought together 22 specialists from the UK, France, Spain, Ireland, and Austria and working on different prehistoric periods and in different areas (from Palaeolithic caves to Neolithic tombs). The 17 papers of the programme presented recent fieldworks using cutting-edge technical developments in 2D and 3D digital techniques and discussed their advantages and limitations for both documenting and analysing prehistoric rock art.

See programme and further description of the conference on the McDonald Institute website:
http://www.mcdonald.cam.ac.uk/events/ppa_conference

The impact of the conference on rock art digital applications and its resulting publication will certainly extend beyond academia to the large worldwide public interested in rock art and to organisations responsible for cultural heritage development and management of rock art sites.

The researcher: Dr Guillaume Robin, now based at the University of Edinburgh (guillaume.robin@ed.ac.uk)
The scientist in charge: Dr John Robb, University of Cambridge (jer39@cam.ac.uk)