Upper Paleolithic Notation Systems in Prehistoric Europe

By: Simon Holdaway and Susan A. Johnston

Originally Published in 1989

View PDF

The search for an indigenous writing system among the prehistoric cultures of Tem­perate Europe has a long history which may in part be motivated by the desire to show that they were not barbaric and culturally back­ward, but rather possessed of one of the hallmarks of “civilization” (Childe 1950). Systems of writing and counting in other areas of the prehistoric world were developed primarily, it would seem, for re­cording economic and religious information, as in the Near East and Mediterranean area. However, before the Roman invasion, there is no evidence that similar types of communicative devices existed in Temperate Europe. While some scholars continue the search for an indigenous writing system, special­ists in European archaeology have used a chronology based on radio­carbon dating to show that the prehistoric peoples of Temperate Europe were neither backward nor barbaric, but simply followed a different path of cultural develop­ment (Renfrew 1979).

Beginning in the last century, research on indigenous writing sys­tems focused on the decipherment of marks made on the walls of caves dating to the Upper Paleo­lithic (30,000-10,000 B.P.; Fig. 1) that were regarded as precursors of writing (Forbes and Crowder 1979:359). More recently, claims for an early writing system have been based on a series of tablets found on the site of Tartaria in Romania, dated to the 3rd millen­nium B.. (Hood 19137). The ear­liest definitive writing system in­digenous to Temperate Europe is, however, a script used in Ireland and parts of Britain in the 4th century A.D. Known as ogham, it is a kind of stroke writing based on long and short dashes arranged around a central stern line. Ogham inscriptions appear on stone monu­ments (Fig. 2), with the edge of the stone providing the central line (Thomas 1986:142-144).

Along with the quest for early European writing systems, efforts are still made to identify possible forerunners of writing systems. Alexander Marshack in particular has turned attention once again to the symbols, signs, and other marks found on both cave walls and on portable artifacts dated to the Up­per Paleolithic. Using a micro­scope, Nlarshack has identified a “notational system” which appears most frequently on bone and stone objects from sites all over Europe. These were previously interpreted as hunting tallies or as abstract sexual symbols, but Marshack has attempted to show that the en­graved lines and notches conform to a pattern which can be matched, not with the vagaries of a hunter’s luck, but directly against an ob­servable phenomenon—the monthly cycle of the moon.

Lunar Calendars

The moon takes around 29.5 days to complete an orbit of the earth. At new moon (M1 in Fig. 3) the moon is between the earth and the sun, hence the hemisphere facing the sun remains dark. As the moon orbits the earth, more and more of its surface becomes illumi­nated until the complete hemi-significance of time-factoring to other types of Upper Paleolithic artifacts. In particular he suggested that seasonal changes in flora and fauna would have had a great impact on Paleolithic people and so might be expected to appear in their representational art forms.

Perhaps his best known “seasonal” artifact is the engraved bone (or baton de commandement) from the site of Montgaudier (Charente, France; Mar5hack 1970b). Here a series of animals including a fish, two seals, two snakes, an ibex head, and what Marshack identifies as a slug is engraved on a reindeer bone together with some plant forms (Fig. 4). Marshack argues that the fish is a male salmon and that this along with the seals (which are known to follow salmon well upriver in Europe) and the snakes (which reappear in Europe after winter) is indicative of late spring or early summer. Rather than hunting magic, then, the baton may relate to some form of ritual connected with the rebirth of seasons.

In his monumental The Roots of Civilization (Marshack 1972) Marshack gives other examples of ani­mal engravings with seasonal signifi­cance. Plaques with both animals and lines and notches may indicate calendrical recording. From La Vache a baton bearing marks representing seven and a half months of lunar observations incorporates the engraving of a preg­nant mare and the head of a second horse. The mare has five sets of marks associated with it (claimed to represent darts), each set made with a different tool. Given that the foal would be born in spring, the darts, engraved sequentially, might represent acts of participation or rites related to the time of foaling. This combined with the lunar nota­tions suggests a “complex time-factored symbolism and mythology” (Marshack 1972:195).

Similar links between seasonality and calendrics have also been dis­cerned in cave art. A painting of a pregnant horse at the famous French cave site of Lascaux has images superimposed upon it which were previously interpreted as darts. Marshack, however, con­siders them to be branches; the presence of “foliage” might then indicate spring, or alternatively its sparseness might refer to autumn. He suggests that other leafy branches are associated with preg­nant mares, cows, and does, while bare branches are found with stags, stallions, and bulls. These relation­ships are then taken to mean that seasonality was a method of con­veying time-factoring in Upper Paleolithic cave art.

Just as the baton from La Vache had darts superimposed on the main engraving at different times, so the famous cave paintings are composite creations produced over a considerable period. The famous spotted horse at Pech-Merle, for instance, was originally painted only in outline. Using infrared photography, Marshack claims to have determined that the spots were made with ocher from dif­ferent sources and were therefore applied at different times. He infers then that the painting we see today was created in a number of separ­ate episodes and is best interpreted as a type of time-factored cere­mony (Marshack 1985).

Multiple use also helps to explain the so-called “macaroni” forms found in many painted and en­graved caves. “Macaroni” aptly describes the masses of painted and engraved lines and meanders which often seem to form random jumbles (Fig. 7). Marshack argues that rather than compositions created at one time, careful observation indicates that many of the lines were made at different times using either different en­graving tools or different pig Lents. Further, if the “macaroni” on different artifacts and paintings from various sites are studied, a system consisting of a central core meander (in a serpentine shape) associated with various branches and subsidiary markings can be identified. This system can, ac­cording to Marshack, be traced over much of the Upper Paleo­lithic into the later Mesolithic, and perhaps has antecedents in the earlier Mousterian. Meanders ap­pear on both portable artifacts and in painted caves, perhaps most clearly in the cave of Rouffignac (Dordogne, France). The “Rosetta Stone” for understanding the signi­ficance of these meanders comes in the form of an engraved bone from late Magdalenian (15,000-10,000 B.P..) contexts in the site of Peters-fels (Germany). Here, three en­gravings said to be of fish are associated with a series of “running angles” representing water. On the basis of this example, Marshack concludes that the meanders sig­nify “acts of participation in which water symbolism or water myth system. If the roots of writing lie in it, as claimed by Marshael, then how do we account for the gap between the end of the Upper Paleolithic and the first true writing system indigenous to Temperate Europe, that of 4th-century A.D. Ireland? While ogham does super­ficially look like Marshack’s nota­tional sequences, it has a clear, consistently repeated system of denoting letters by their position relative to the central stem. Fur­ther, these inscriptions, although in the Old Irish language, are at least in part based on Latin principles of grammar. A consistently repeated pattern, which is characteristic of ogham, is entirely absent from the artifacts Marshack analyzed.

The explanation for what hap­pened to the Upper Paleolithic system of notation may lie in the function which writing serves in other societies. Writing is de­veloped to fill some particular need, such as providing informa­tion about economy or group member­ship. If in the prehistoric society characteristic of Europe that func­tion was already being met by a longstanding artistic, religious, or symbolic tradition, there would be no impetus to develop a second system for conveying the same information.

Marshack may well be correct in his view that Upper Paleolithic art, including his notational systems, functioned to provide complex and organized information through the interaction of symbolic and verbal communication. But whether or not the notational systems actually recorded lunar or some other sea­sonal changes must remain an open question. As for writing, it would seem that Europe displays a dif­ferent pattern than much of the rest of the prehistoric world. The evi­dence which we have at present can be taken to show that the conditions which necessitated the development of writing in other areas of the world were either not present in Europe, or were fulfilled by some other aspect of culture, or both, until comparatively late in the prehistoric sequence. While there may not be written records to help in the interpretation of these cultures, there is a long, rich tradi­tion of artistic and symbolic repre­sentation which is slowly beginning to be understood.


Cite This Article

Holdaway, Simon and Johnston, Susan A.. "Upper Paleolithic Notation Systems in Prehistoric Europe." Expedition Magazine 31, no. 1 (March, 1989): -. Accessed February 28, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/upper-paleolithic-notation-systems-in-prehistoric-europe/

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

Report problems and issues to digitalmedia@pennmuseum.org.