Seven crude semicircles scratched into the surface of an ancient stone slab may not make much of an impression on modern-day viewers. But two archaeologists in Spain believe these humble lines represent a hunter-gatherer campsite, which would make the 13,800-year-old drawing the first known depiction of a man-made landscape.
Archaeologists Marcos García-Diez and Manuel Vaquero Rodríguez explore that possibility in “Looking at the Camp: Paleolithic Depiction of a Hunter-Gatherer Campsite,” published last week in the peer-review journal PLOS ONE. The paper examines markings on a rock just seven inches wide and three inches high, made during the Upper Paleolithic period. It was discovered at the Molí del Salt archaeological site in northeastern Iberia, where archaeologists have been excavating rock art since 1999.
Stone engravings from the Upper Paleolithic period tend to feature figurative motifs like animals and abstract symbols associated with magic or religion. Depictions of campsites — which served as the first domestic and social spaces for humans — would have gone against the grain, the authors say.
“Landscape depictions were very rare and human landscapes, as that depicted in the Molí del Salt slab, were totally absent [in the Upper Paleolithic period],” Rodríguez told Hyperallergic. “Therefore, the Molí del Salt artist broke the rules that governed the selection of the themes normally depicted in Paleolithic times.”
The artist might even have created the work en plein air. The flat terrain surrounding the rock shelter is rich with archaeological artifacts, suggesting that it may once have contained an open-air settlement like the one shown in the drawing. “It seems likely, therefore, that the engraving represents a reality that was in front of the artist’s eyes at the moment of the depiction,” the authors write.
There is, of course, a chance that the drawing shows something else. According to New Scientist, Paul Pettitt of Durham University has suggested that the shapes represent abstracted animals. If the engraving really does depict a campsite, however, that would make it the predecessor of all paintings of human-constructed landscapes, from Fra Angelico to Edward Hopper and beyond.