Modelling the landscape: iconography, and visual and sound perceptions in Macroschematic rock art




Geographic Information System (GIS), landscape, macroschematic rock art, Neolithic, viewshed, soundshed


Since the 1980s different approaches have been followed to analyse the spatial distribution of rock art shelters and their relationship to the construction of social landscapes by prehistoric societies. These approaches focus on finding out the clues that shelters offer as to how symbolic landscapes were structured or whether these were chosen following visual preferences. Previous work on post-Palaeolithic art in the Iberian Peninsula has used Geographic Information Systems (GIS) as a tool for analysis. However, sometimes, the results obtained reveal some contradictions, which could be linked to either the low resolution of the cartography available when those models were designed or to the random treatment of data.

This paper attempts to overcome these contradictions by focusing on macroschematic rock art (ARM, in its Spanish acronym), an artistic manifestation with a well-defined geographical location —north of the province of Alicante (Spain)— and chronological framework —Cardial Early Neolithic; ca. 5600-5200 cal BC—. In order to analyse the symbolic and sensory landscapes generated around this artistic manifestation, different scales of analysis (Chippindale, 2004) have been implemented.

Firstly, a new typology of macroschematic motifs based on an iconographic analysis is proposed. For this purpose, four major motif types are considered: anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, curvilinear geometric and minor motifs. This categorization allows for a better understanding of the semantics of this manifestation (Hernández Pérez, 2003), which draws significant parallels with other Neolithic manifestations in the Mediterranean area.

Secondly, the spatial location of each rock art shelter is studied, with special attention to the quantity and variety of motifs represented in each one of them. This work has resulted in the observation of a different distribution of certain motifs. It has also revealed a different concentration in the number and variety of motifs in certain shelters that can be considered sanctuaries.

Lastly, a set of GIS analytical tools have been applied to model the visual and sound perception of and from the macroschematic rock art shelters. To avoid distortions as identified in similar reconstructions carried out in previous works a prior assessment of the cartographic requirements has been made. Regarding the visibility issue, the methodology of the GIS analysis conducted has been finetuned by adding the following factors: visual field and range. For its modelling, the Individual Distance Viewshed tool designed by Fábrega-Álvarez & Parcero-Oubiña (2019) for ESRI ArcGis 10.5 has been used. In the analysis of sonority variables related to musicality, as documented in the archaeological and anthropological record, alongside technical issues associated with the propagation of sound in outdoor spaces, have been considered. For the GIS study of sound propagation Sound Mapping Tools v. 4.4 for ESRI ArcGis 10.5 (Reed et al., 2012) has been applied. This analytical work has permitted the mapping of sensory-related aspects for each site, thus facilitating a cross-site comparative analysis which has ultimately led to the identification of interesting recurrences and differences.

This systematic and orderly analysis proposed has resulted in a holistic approach to the study of an artistic phenomenon as specific and unique as is macroschematic rock art. Based on the results obtained, the existence of a social landscape articulated around this artistic manifestation, in which each shelter could have played a different although complementary role, can be claimed. In this sense, we propose the existence of "main sanctuaries" that could have played an important role as social gathering spaces where visual and sound messages were conveyed. Moreover, "secondary sanctuaries" may be related to the movement of communities through the landscape and, especially, to the paths leading to the central sanctuary of Pla de Petracos (Castell de Castells, Alicante, Spain).

The results of the research conducted offer a new and richer interpretation of how the communities that painted the macroschematic rock art perceived the landscape in which they lived. The importance of approaching symbolic landscapes through the prior analysis of rock art, especially of its iconographic variety, but also its internal sequence, should be emphasized. It can be concluded that the procedure followed has allowed the creation of new methodological bases for the study of other symbolic manifestations related to the social articulation of prehistoric landscapes.


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Author Biographies

Gabriel García Atiénzar, Universidad de Alicante

Gabriel García Atiénzar is a lecturer and researcher at the University Institute for Research in Archaeology and Historical Heritage. His main line of research focuses on the study of the social, economic, and territorial behaviour of Recent Prehistoric communities in the Levant of the Iberian Peninsula, using different spatial analysis techniques and geographic information systems.

Virginia Barciela González, Universidad de Alicante

Virginia Barciela González is a prehistoric archaeologist and a lecturer at the University Institute for Research in Archaeology and Historical Heritage. Her main lines of research focus mainly on objects and symbolic manifestations - personal ornaments and rock art - in the Mediterranean area of the Iberian Peninsula, especially in Recent Prehistory.

Neemías Santos da Rosa, Universitat de Barcelona

Neemias Santos da Rosa is an archaeologist and a postdoctoral researcher at the ERC Artsoundscapes Project. Throughout his professional career, he has been researching the technological, social, and symbolic aspects of post-Palaeolithic rock art of the Iberian Peninsula.

Margarita Díaz-Andreu, ICREA, Institut d’Arqueologia

Margarita Díaz-Andreu is an ICREA Research Professor. She is a prehistoric archaeologist who has worked on rock art for more than three decades. She has conducted fieldwork in Western Europe (Spain and UK) and, more recently, in the framework of the ERC Artsoundscapes project and in collaboration with local rock art experts, in other parts of the world including Siberia, Baja California and South Africa.


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How to Cite

García Atiénzar, G., Barciela González, V., Santos da Rosa, N., & Díaz-Andreu, M. (2022). Modelling the landscape: iconography, and visual and sound perceptions in Macroschematic rock art. Virtual Archaeology Review, 13(27), 81–99.




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