Rock Art... signs of the mind

Valcamonica, rich of natural mountain beauties, is nowadays well known for its rock art heritage the world over.

Rock art: figure of house at Ronchi di Zir-Naquane (Capo di Ponte, Valcamonica)Through time mankind has spread the world with graphic signs (painted scenes, engraved or moulded on any possible support that could be obtained: stone, wood, ceramic, metal), to testify and hand over to Time what they saw, thought, believed in and thus communicate it to the their divinity or to other men.

Rock art is one of the most used prehistoric form of communication and it's present in every continent.

What is rock art

Rock art: deer from the Big Rock of Naquane (Capo di Ponte, Valcamonica)Rock art is made of signs intentionally engraved by men on rocks, most of the times polished by the erosive action of the moving glaciers.

Most of the times they can be found on horizontal or slightly inclined rocks. There are rare cases of engravings found on a vertical wall.

How they were made

Illustration: the ancient artists at workIf we accept the idea that once the engravings were coloured, two were the techniques used: percussion (on the left of the illustration), obtained by hitting directly or indirectly on the surface with carving tools made of stone (quartzite or Flintstone) or metal; scratching (on the right of the illustration), obtained by scraping the surface with sharp tools made of stone or metal.

Where to find Rock Art

Rock art have been found and is still found nowadays in several different environments (forests, deserts, valleys etc.) on all continents. It is easy to verify the consistency of the arrangement stone-engravings-men. It means that in mountainous areas where men dwelled rock art is always been produced. This lead to the logical conclusion that rock art was not produced only by the ancient Camuni (Valcamonica dwellers), but is a common product of all human groups, leaving aside when or where they were located.

Map of main rock art sites in Northern Italy

Valcamonica is one of the most renowned rock art field of the world, not only because it was one of the first of such sites to be published on a large scale, but because it is the richest for the number of engraved rocks, variety of subjects and one of the widest in its chronology.

In the Alps, scattered everywhere with engraved signs, together with the Valcamonica there are other sites well known to scholars, like Mt. Bego, the Swiss Vallois, Valtellina and Mt. Baldo.


Rock art: schematic human figure (Capo di Ponte, Valcamonica)The ancient population of Valcamonica were, in Europe, among the most prolific producers of rock art, an incredible graphic tradition still visible today on both sides of the Valley along seventy of the ninety kilometres of its course.

Certain areas were more popular than other for this purpose and there can be found a high concentration of signs.

The biggest of these areas occupy the middle part of the Valley, in a range of altitude between 300 and 1400 metres a.s.l., occasionally reaching the 2000 metres. The municipalities of Capo di Ponte, Nadro, Cimbergo and Paspardo have the highest concentration of them all.

Capo di Ponte, where the Naquane National Rock Art Park is located, is the centre and point of reference.

How many engravings are there in Valcamonica?

The inventory carried on by several research groups puts the number of engravings in the order of hundreds of thousands. This number, thanks to new excavations and findings, will grow for sure in the future.

When was Valcamonica rock art produced?

Rock art: a bird (Naquane, Capo di Ponte, Valcamonica)Once the Würmian glaciation was finished, Valcamonica saw its first inhabitants between 18.000 and 15.000 years ago. The most ancient signs recognized by the scholars in the Valley date back to the Epipalaeolithic age (about VII millennium b.C.).

The most recent figures, excluding vandalism of the modern generations, dates back to the beginning of the XIX century.

In the incredible time span of 10.000 years the engravings were produced with different rhythms' and intensity. The striking fact about Valcamonica rock art is not much the sheer number of engraved rocks as much as the millenary persistency of the engraving tradition, a fact that unfolds within a cycle unparallel in European prehistory.

Who were the ancient creators of rock art?

Rock art: Iron Age warrior with sword and shield (Valcamonica)Even if they share a steady engraving tradition thorough the centuries, different human groups implemented it. The Camunni, of whom we have some information in Latin literature during the first imperial period (I century b.C.-I century a.C.) engraved rocks during the Iron Age.

About their ancestors of the Bronze and Copper Ages and beyond, up to the Neolithic and the Epipalaeolithic ages we do not know, and will not know, their names and, in the end, nothing but a few things painstakingly deduced from archaeological research and from their mysterious signs.

What was the purpose of Rock Art?

The figures give us clues, sometime very clear, sometimes faint, about the degree of knowledge reached by these ancient populations, about their activities, dwellings, tools, beliefs. If this, somehow, allows us within certain limits a general view through the ages of their lives, it does not explain the reason behind the carving of a cart, a hut, weapons, labyrinths...

Any kind of sign is, by its own nature, a message.

What is its meaning: a tale of events, a declaration of concepts? Who was it for: men or god? When was it used: anytime they wanted, only in specific moments during the year, or within a lifetime, was it private or public? Who was the author: anyone who wanted or only someone entrusted with that task?

Carving the messages in stone signify the will for them to last forever, as much as the themes and symbolisms declare a spiritual field, where ideas live, the ones concerning the religious sphere of men (as suggested by rites held around big boulders erected during the Copper Age) or his lay status (as suggested by the extolling of virility, heroism, social status, armed force).

Rock art: warrior standing on the back of the horse from rock n. 50 di Naquane (Capo di Ponte, Valcamonica)

Scholars agree that rock art was produced during celebratory, commemorative, initiation or propitiatory rituals, during specific events, a one-time thing or recurring, under the supervision of priests-shamans-medicine men-chiefs. Through the ages the rituals were at first focused on the religious sphere, then more on the lay one, linked to the dominant caste of the warriors during the Bronze and Iron Ages.

How and when these were done it is completely unknown to us and we do not want to make any statement without any sound evidence. It is better, while we wander through the green labyrinths of Naquane, to let our imagination create characters, dances, music, prayers, invocations, processions, military ovations...

And above all stands the rhythmic, persistent and substantial blows of stones carving, and carving, and carving...