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New Worlds: Kilroy Was Here

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Humans have been marking up walls for a long time.

Like, more than forty thousand years — maybe even longer than that, depending on how you feel about the results of some recent archaeological studies. Long enough ago that some rock art may have been created by people who weren’t anatomically modern Homo sapiens. The urge to leave some sign of our presence is very deeply rooted.

Some definitions to start us off: petroglyphs are carved into stone, while petrographs or pictographs are painted onto it. The carved sort may be scratched or engraved into the surface, or it may be “pecked” by using one rock as a chisel and another as a hammer, knocking out small chips. The painted sort, especially in the oldest instances, is often found in caves or at least rock shelters, but this comes with a caveat, which is that those are also the places where paint is most likely to survive. We really have no way of knowing if the people of the Upper Paleolithic also painted more exposed surfaces, and sun and rain and wind have simply erased their work over the intervening millennia.

While there’s no worldwide artistic tradition, some commonalities do crop up. You naturally see a lot of animals — particularly large animals, though the frequency of prey species depicted may not match the actual bones found at or near those sites. Full human figures are much rarer, but hand prints are a very common feature of cave paintings, whether that’s a full print, a design painted onto a hand before being applied to the rock, or a “negative print” or “stencil” created by blowing pigment out of the mouth around the hand. Sometimes the hands seem to be missing part or all of a finger, which leads to questions about whether that was a common injury, whether finger joints were removed for ritual purposes, or whether the depiction is incomplete while the hand itself remained whole — maybe for magical reasons.

Speaking of ritual and magic . . . a lot of effort has been poured into trying to figure out why people made this kind of art. All of it is speculation, of course — made harder by questions like “was there also open-air painting that hasn’t survived?” — but it isn’t completely unfounded speculation. When images of bison or reindeer are painted in a very inaccessible cave you can only reach by crawling, where the only light is the flickering light of fire that makes the animals seem to move, you can be pretty sure it wasn’t done on a lark. Where we have ethnographic records of modern indigenous groups creating such art, it usually has a religious purpose. But what specific purpose did it serve?

Some of it may have been a kind of sympathetic magic intended to ensure the abundance of large prey animals (though if so, why the mismatch between what’s on the walls and what’s in the trash?). Or perhaps it was meant to impart the spiritual qualities of those animals to the people who created or experienced the art. Some interpretations suggest a shamanic element, supported by the images that seem to show hybrid animal/human figures — a common concept in shamanic beliefs, where the practitioner may dress up in animal costume and spiritually blur the lines between those worlds.

Petroglyphs are a little different. Those show up inside caves, too, but because they’re carved, they also survive in other contexts. In addition to recognizable figures of animals and people, they include more geometric patterns, which may likewise have held religious significance now lost to us. (Apparently one study, by David Lewis-Williams, has shown that those patterns are inherent to the human brain and triggered by drugs or migraines, which supports the shamanic interpretation that this art was created by practitioners in a trance.) Some petroglyphs are maps, and some of them seem to be proto-writing, e.g. with symbols to indicate astronomical features like the sun and moon.

We tend to reserve the term “rock art” for prehistoric works, but this impulse never went away. As mentioned above, indigenous groups still create petroglyphs and petrographs out in nature, and of course our entire traditions of sculpture and painting grew from this root. But I want to segue here into something decidedly more profane, and yet interesting in its own way: graffiti.

In modern usage, graffiti is considered a kind of vandalism, marking up property that isn’t your own. In older usage, you’re still marking up somebody else’s property, but the sense of criminality goes away; in fact, we often consider the marks left behind by previous visitors to be a fascinating part of the history of the site. It can tell us a great deal about the past, ranging from personal names to ancient tourist behavior to sexual mores — because yes, historical graffiti was just as prone to declaring that so-and-so banged somebody hot or accusing that guy over there of being a pervert as the modern bathroom stall kind.

But that’s not the only purpose it has served over the years. Sometimes it’s like a guest ledger, a list of who came to a famous site. Sometimes it’s political, recording support for a certain candidate or railing against the excesses of the people in power. The “mirror wall” at the rock fortress of Sigiriya in Sri Lanka apparently contains more than fifteen hundred poems written by visitors over the centuries. Past individuals, like modern ones, have sometimes treated flat surfaces as a canvas on which to create works of visual art — albeit art not requested by whoever owns that surface.

One way or another, we have an impulse to record our presence on the world around us, and what we choose to record says a lot about ourselves. For prehistoric hunter-gatherers, it was a connection to the natural world and maybe — here I’m speculating wildly — something about the importance of our hands marking us out as tool-users, different from most other animals. For visitors to famous places, it’s a desire to be a part of history or prove they were there, like a low-tech selfie. For the person spray-painting “ACAB” onto an overpass, it’s rage against injustice. For one twentieth-century American soldier in Verdun, it was an understated commentary on the chaos in Europe:

Austin White – Chicago, Ill – 1918
Austin White – Chicago, Ill – 1945
This is the last time I want to write my name here.

Eighty years on, we know Austin White was there, and didn’t want to be. There’s a kind of magic in that.

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1 thought on “New Worlds: Kilroy Was Here”

  1. For people who want to view some of the best preserved rock art, and you happen to be in Las Vegas, drive about an hour north to the Valley of Fire State Park. The park itself is fascinating. The desert climate has preserved vast walls of art that covers many, many generations. Some quite modern, like a depiction of a train wreck, some very ancient.

    Some believe it is all created since the coming of Christian missionaries because of the prevelance of equal armed crosses in some of the oldest sections. Consider that these could also indicate a cross road or intersection of trails. In many cultures a cross road is sacred and a neutral meeting place. Or the artist might simply be giving directions.

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