Material images: Visual modes of material articulation in south Scandinavian rock art

The premise of the project is to stress the production and active use of Bronze Age rock art as a way to understand the social complexity of the period. The project uses a novel theoretical perspective inspired by recent research in visual culture studies. It is a relational approach, in which the imagery is considered a fully integrated materiality in social processes with the ability to affect the course of events. By analyzing how new motifs relate to older ones different phases of activity can be identified, which add an important temporal depth to the practice. This is achieved by advanced photogrammetry, which helps to identify stylistic variability, alterations, re-cuts, displacements, and superimpositions of the imagery.

Traditionally, Bronze Age rock art is studied in terms of symbols or as representations reflecting a general Bronze Age cosmology. The emphasis on the pictorial and presumed narrative aspects of the imagery tends, however, to be reductionist. Much interesting information is lost when the variability is simplified to type of motif, and half-made, recut, manipulated or abstract and undeterminable motifs are often omitted. The focus on the pictorial also neglects the importance of the materiality of the medium, the rock. The resilient nature of the bedrock provides a resistance and demands an effort to make and destroy images, which also places emphasis on aspects such as size and depth, level of detail, and aesthetic appearance. Such aspects make little sense from a traditional art historical perspective, but are excellent points of departure to understand what really was important in the practice of making and using rock art.

The way an image is made, by which tools, as well of which material are considered equally important for its meaning as the pictorial content. By emphasizing the ways in which rock art are entangled in different sets of relations instead of being mere representations it is possible to bypass much of the kind of binary thinking that has plagued rock-art research (e.g., real/imaginary, mobile/sedentary, Bronze Age/Neolithic, material/immaterial, general/particular, local/global, death/fertility, ritual/social, etc). The project also uses a ‘from the ground up’ methodology that depart from detailed analyses of a single case study rather than generalizing and combining aspects of different locales from the top-down. This allows for detailed analysis of how rock art has been articulated in a particular environment and keeps the interpretations on an empirical level. By studying the rock art relationally rather than representationally it is possible to produce a much more complex image of the social developments in the area during the Early Bronze Age.

Project time table: 2017-19,
Project financing: Riksbankens jubileumsfond: The Swedish foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences

Elaborated project description:

Read about some preliminary studies here