An Enquiring Mind: Studies in Honor of Alexander Marshack – BAHN (DP)

BAHN, Paul G. (Ed.) An Enquiring Mind: Studies in Honor of Alexander Marshack. Oxford; Oakville: Oxbow Books. 332p. Resenha de: PRIJATELJ, Agni. Documenta Praehistorica, v.37, 2010.

This volume represents a tribute to Alexander Marshack – an eminent science journalist and photographer who came into the field of Palaeolithic research in 1963 at the age of forty-five as a self-taught outsider with the idea that “certain marks, etched in patterns on bone, represented a calendrical system” (p. 3). In the next forty years, Alexander Marshack contributed enormously to the field of Palaeolithic art research; particularly through his work on the cognitive abilities of early humans and themes such as notational systems, female imagery, finger flutings and net-like motifs, archaeo-astronomy, but also by introducing the new techniques of infrared, ultraviolet and fluorescence light into examining cave paintings.

In accordance with the various research interests of the late Alexander Marshack, twenty seven contributors in twenty two chapters elaborate on such diverse themes and topics as mnemonic systems, rituals, evolution and human cognition, and Palaeolithic art.

Their expertise in various fields, ranging from archaeology, anthropology, ethnography, astronomy and economics, along with their personal acknowledgements of the inspiration of Marshack’s work, testify to his great legacy. Although the papers in this volume are organised alphabetically, this short overview presents them in four sections as recognised by themes they share.

The first thematic section in the volume comprises two papers (Soffer, Tattersall) that seek to explore evolution and human cognition. Soffer, who is concerned with the ‘Neanderthal enigma’, argues against interpreting the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition as a revolution, and against the use of environmental determinism for the last Neanderthal niches, since

“it is not only Neolithic or Bronze Age “man” that made “himself” but so did “his and hers” Middle and Upper Paleolithic predecessors – creating both their cultures and biologies through day to day decisions and their intended and unintended consequences” (p. 303).

If Soffer stresses as the principal element of modernity “institutionalized interdependence – the various social ties that create permanent inter-sex bonds between adult individuals through such grouping principles as marriage, kinship, and descent ideologies” (p. 290), Tattersall seeks to explore modernity through the advent of symbolic cognition in Homo sapiens. The author elaborates on the view that the symbolic intellect is

the result of a qualitative rather than a quantitative revolution in hominid cognition: something equivalent in scale developmentally to the unanticipated and apparently abrupt appearance of the essentially modern hominid body skeleton much earlier in hominid evolution” (p. 320–321).

Four papers in the volume (Aveni, Hudson, Krupp and Schmandt-Besserat) are concerned with mnemonic systems. While Hudson tracks the evolution of counting systems from the Palaeolithic to the earliest city-states and stresses the continuous importance of calendrical systems for social structures, Schmandt- Besserat compares and contrasts two major symbolic systems of art and writing to conclude that not only did “The two communication systems had a different origin, history and evolution” but also “art became a universal phenomenon, writing remained the privilege of a few societies” (p. 266). Aveni contributes to the topic by presenting a particular type of Mesoamerican petroglyph – pecked crosses, whose various uses were connected to celestial phenomena and calendars. A paper by Krupp, on the other hand, explores an ancient Greek constellation myth that captures the seasonality of the rains.

The third thematic section in the volume consists of two chapters (Frank, Lorblanchet) that are concerned with rituals. While Frank examines masked figures visits in Europe during winter and links them to bear ceremonialism, Lorblanchet analyses various types of human traces in caves, some of which tend to imitate claw marks. The author interprets them as ritual remnants and “evidence for ritual activity in the heart of the paleolithic sanctuaries” (p. 165). By far the most extensive section in the book comprises chapters examining Paleolithic and rock art.

The contributors present diverse case studies, ranging from portable and parietal art from European and Near Eastern Paleolithic contexts (Belfer-Cohen & Bar-Yosef, Bosinski & Bosinski, Delluc & Delluc, d’Errico, Martin, Mussi, Otte, Pettitt & Bahn & Züchner, Sharpe & Van Gelder) to Altai Bronze age petroglyphs (Okladnikova) and Australian aboriginal rock art (Clegg). The paper by Belfer-Cohen and Bar-Yosef thus focuses on abstract and figurative art in the Near East which is dated to the late Pleistocene. The authors argue that some of the abstract Natufian markings, previously interpreted as decorations, might be notation marks, perhaps “markers of specific groups” (p. 32). While Bosinski and Bosinski analyse the representations of seals from the Magdalenian site of Gönnersdorf and interpret them as evidence of the long-range mobility of the group occupying a site 500 km away from the ocean, D’Errico re-examines plaquette 59 from the very same site with the oldest depiction of childbirth. The author draws attention to several new components of the engraved composition, most importantly to a third female figure.

According to the author, the depiction of childbirth in an upright position assisted by other women indicates that “relationships between women had attained a degree of complexity comparable to that of traditional societies in which these practices have been documented” (p. 107). Delluc and Delluc examine a particular aspect of Paleolithic art – depictions of animal and human eyes to illuminate the mind of Palaeolithic artists. Otte, on the other hand, focuses on the semantic qualities of cave art by an interesting comparison of Paleolithic signs with modern road markings and graffiti. The author aims to penetrate the codified meanings of parietal art by, first, examining primary units or ‘morphemes’ consisting of “drawings, outlines, colors and textures” (p. 229) and, second, by analyzing complex compositions and their relationship with the space and the viewer. While Martin publishes for the first time a detailed study of the engraved and carved block from the cave of Guoy, Mussi, on the other hand analyses the Upper Paleolithic Venus figurine of Macomer from Western Sardinia. Pettitt, Bahn and Züchner question the dating of Chauvet art to the Aurignacian and Gravettian periods as proposed by the Chauvet excavation team and convincingly argues on the basis of features, motifs and techniques ascribable to the later phases of the Upper Paleolithic, problems connected with the radiocarbon dates obtained, and the lack of parallels in the decorated caves of the region that “while one cannot rule out the possibility of a limited amount of Aurignacian art in Chauvet, by far the greater amount of its parietal figures should be attributed to the Gravettian, Solutrean and Magdalenian” (p. 257). Lastly, Sharpe and Van Gelder discuss various types of finger flutings – “the lines that human fingers leave when drawn over a soft surface” (p. 269) – which have been frequently overlooked in interpretations of Paleolithic art. By differentiating several forms of finger fluting on the basis of body movement and the number of fingers used, as documented in Rouffignac Cave, they open a new avenue for investigations of this particular type of sign.

I put this book down with mixed feelings. Reading through the collection of papers, I did not have the sense of a well integrated volume, primarily for two reasons: first, the quality of the papers varies (which is alluded to also by the editor; cf. p. x). Second, the alphabetical organisation of chapters enhances the sense of thematic incongruity. While it is not uncommon for Festschrifts to compile heterogeneous themes, it is also common to present the personal recollections of an honoured scientist (in this volume Marshack, Lamberg-Karlovsky) and a complete bibliography of the person whom the book is honouring.

Unfortunately, Marshack’s bibliography is missing from this volume. Nevertheless, several well-balanced, theoretically firmly grounded pieces made my reading enjoyable. In spite of the vast range of themes covered, I believe this is a book which will be read primarily by people working in the field of Paleolithic art.

Agni Prijatelj – Durham University

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