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John Coles. Shadows of a Northern Past: Rock Carvings of Bohuslan and Ostfold.

JOHN COLES. Shadows of a Northern Past: Rock Carvings of Bohuslan and Ostfold. viii+222 pages, 264 illustrations, 16 colour plates. 2005. Oxford: Oxbow; 1-84217-181-X hardback 30 [pounds sterling].

John Coles--doyen now, surely of active British field archaeologists (the library catalogue, knowing no reticence, says 'born 1930')--has given us a modestly presented and wonderful book. Its topic is not the Somerset Levels, or wetland studies more generally, for which he is so known; but the Bronze Age (broadly) rock-carvings of southern Sweden, where he has also been quietly working for 30 years. He presents his journey across the rocks as a solo journey, a journey which at the start repaired his back, damaged by too much work in the peatlands.

His book is an informed analytical report of sites, small and large, in Bohuslan and Ostfold, on the west-facing coast of Sweden. After the text, with its 16 plates and 160 varied images, photographed or drawn, come a set of about 100 site-plans, each drawn in detail at a 1:25 scale.

Following an introduction setting the conventional themes, analysis begins with the character of the images, their shape and variation, arranged by identifiable subjects--of which boats are the most numerous. Here a host of sharp-eyed observations are reported: when humans are arranged in lines, then their feet all point in the same direction; if an even number of humans, they face or move to their right, if odd to their left. I much enjoyed the analysis of horses as a motif, and of which creatures the other quadrupeds might be. Also the alert and excellent study in the geometry of complex shapes, in which the varied components of two-wheeled and four-wheeled horse-drawn vehicles are depicted in such a way that each element is clear, and the rule respected that no line of the carving can cross another. In a closing section, Coles reports results from excavation of the land below the rocks, their structures and debris hinting at the social contexts from which the images derived.

The next scale of analysis is of 'site structure', the arrangements of figures across surfaces. It begins with the common problem of defining what a rock-art 'site' is: how distant panels or figures must be from each other before one site becomes two. Again, there are many acute observations and insights, starting with the firm signs the figures were intended to be seen from the base of the panel.

At the yet larger scale of analysis, the rock-carvings sites are set in their landscapes, and their 'minor' and 'major' catchments explored. The framework here is the long-established observation that surfaces just above the shore-line were selected; so the chronology of the sites will reflect the intricate local pattern of late postglacial shifts in sea-level.

In these studies, Coles finds again that rock-art analysis is usefully structured by a nesting scale of physical dimension: it closely resembles the nesting set of millimetre, centimetre, metre and kilometre scales independently devised by the present writer for studying other European rock-carvings (Chippindale 2004).

So what does all this painstaking field observation tell us, what do the regularities mean? A closing and short chapter, tellingly titled 'The meaning of it all, or of nothing', intends to be 'suitably cautious'. Yet it immediately states without reservation a strong social interpretation in four stages: the story or belief(I) that prompted the symbol was controlled by a griot or elder (2) instructing the artist-craftsperson (3) empowered to mark the rock with images then revealed (4) to a wider on-looking society. But we are told nothing of the evidence or analogue this persuasive scheme is based on. The chapter ends with an awkward fictitious account, a 'Traveller's Tale' which supposes a young Northern man travelling alone in ancient times as far as Egypt and, returning to the North, there becoming a wise elder by the truth of his travels.

A curious discrepancy has now opened in rock-art research, as we see in Coles's approach to meaning. His Scandinavian research seems afflicted by northern glums, with the brief release of an imaginative and--one hopes--well-based interpretation quashed by the old insistence that secure interpretation is impossible since there are only opinions; the precarious theory of close linkages to the remote Mediterranean is then re-stated. Yet the possibility that the society of the rock-carvings might have some social continuity in the same region with Viking times is dismissed--despite common elements such as the prominence of boats and of men with weapons. Look to research instead in South Africa and Australia, and we see a confidence that distinctive elements in the ancient images can be related, with some sufficient reliability, to the social structures and beliefs of later times. If the Rainbow Serpent of modern Aboriginal knowledge can, in northern Australia, be traced in the images of the rock through 4000 and more years of continuing tradition (and change), as I believe we have done (Tacon et al. 1996), then why is it inconceivable to see congruences across the 2000 years between the Bronze Age and early Middle Ages on the Northern rocks?


CHIPHNDALE, C. 2004. From millimetre up to kilometre: a framework of space and of scale for reporting and studying rock-art in its landscape, in C. Chippindale & G. Nash (ed.) Pictures in place: the figured landscapes of rock-art: 102-17. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

TACON, P.S.C., M. WILSON & C. CHIPPINDALE. 1996. Birth of the Rainbow Serpent in Arnhem Land rock art and oral history. Archaeology in Oceania 31: 103-24.


Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg; Cambridge University; Australian National University
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Author:Chippindale, Christopher
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2006
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