Prehistoric artists who carved giant rock canvas in Italian Alps were "precursors" to Picasso and Giacometti, say archaeologists

By Ben Miller | 14 January 2016

Archaeologists have headed to Italy to create films and apps based on prehistoric rock art - and say the giant canvas is contemporary with classical works

A photo of an archaeologist working on a grey rock
Archaeologists have taken to the Alps to create new interpretations of ancient rock art© Marc Steinmetz / VISUM
On rock surfaces in the Italian Alps, dozens of artists spent 4,000 years adding to a giant “canvas” of sandstone rocks, scraped clean as glaciers shuddered across the land.

The earliest of their 150,000 stick-style pictures date from the Neolithic period, but most of these Pitoti – “little puppets” – of the Valcamonica valley are thought by archaeologists to originate from the Iron Age. As the sun rises and falls, they gain a sense of movement.

“Many of the images at Valcamonica are contemporary with classical Greek art,” believes Dr Frederick Baker, a Cambridge archaeologist and film-maker who is one of the founders of a quest into the UNESCO-protected, three-square kilometre area which could be the world’s largest piece of anonymous art.

A photo of ancient rock art carved into a grey rock
The stone carvings are in Brescia© Luca Giarelli / Wikimedia Commons
“When I first saw the Pitoti, my immediate thought was that these are frames for a film. Initially I envisaged an animated film. But over time I’ve come to realise that the quality of colour, the play of light and shadow and the texture of the rocks make the Pitoti much more sophisticated than 2D animated graphics.”

With that in mind, the Pitoti team captured thousands of images of people, sheep, deer, horses and dogs on the rocks, creating what they consider a casting directory of characters. They believe their subsequent use of pixels and dots echoes the way prehistoric practitioners would repeatedly peck out the surfaces, producing a storyboard of lines and shapes.

“We need to work in 3D,” says Dr Baker. “I believe that the Pitoti are an example of minimalism, an early precursor to work by Alberto Giacometti and Pablo Picasso. They can be just as powerful as the classical art of Athens and Rome in their own way.”

A photo of ancient rock art carved into a grey rock
A deer-hunting scene© Luca Giarelli / Wikimedia Commons
Next week, the public will be able to see some of the technological techniques - scanners, unmanned aerial vehicles, virtual reality, computer sectioning and beyond - and question the archaeologists at Cambridge’s Downing College, where the neo-classical architecture will clash with and enhance the singularity of a style seen as barbarian or tribal.

“Our tools will give more people online access to culturally-important heritage sites and negate the need to travel to locations which can be inaccessible or vulnerable to damage,” thinks Dr Sue Cobb, from the University of Nottingham, calling the computer renderings “stunning”.

“We overcame a number of technical challenges to innovate the technology, including developing weatherproof, portable laser scanner to take detailed images of the Pitoti in situ in harsh, rugged terrain.

A photo of two archaeologists standing on a hill
Michael Holzapfel (left) and Martin Schaich (right), from the international team carrying out the work© Marc Steinmetz / VISUM
“We used both a vehicle and glider to take aerial shots of the valley for the computer model and process huge masses of data to recreate an immersive, film-quality version of the site in 3D.

“The aim is to show to public audiences that with archaeology there isn’t a single answer to the art’s meaning - there are theories and interpretations - and to teach the importance of the rock art as a biographical record of European history.”

The event will include a test screening of a 15-minute film, Pitoti Premetheus: a reimagining of Prometheus, the legend who created men from clay, via animated digital images from Valcamonica.

A photo of ancient rock art carved into a grey rock
The Camunian rose© Luca Giarelli / Wikimedia Commons
“We use the word ‘pipeline’ to describe the process by which we’ve scanned and channelled the rock art images through time and space to bring them to mass audiences,” says Dr Baker, who has also been involved in the creation of an app to help children better understand the rock art.

“It’s a pipeline which stretches well beyond what we’ve produced and future technologies will undoubtedly open up new understandings of art forms that communicate so much about humanity and our relationships with each other, with the environment, and with imagined worlds.”

Lida Cardozo Kindersley, a leading craftsperson who knows all about the “intensely physical” process of letter cutting, will also demonstrate the art, while Marcel Karnapke, the 3D engineer of the film, will take part in a concluding discussion about the European Union-funded exploration.

  • Events run January 18-19 2016. Visit to find out more.

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Three prehistoric places to see

Avebury Stone Circle, Wiltshire
One of the most important megalithic monuments in Europe and spread over a vast area, much of which is under trust protection. The great stone circle, encompassing part of the village of Avebury, is enclosed by a ditch and external bank and approached by an avenue of stones.

Caer Drewyn Hillfort, Denbighshire
Unlike other hillforts in the area Caer Drewyn doesn't have earthen banks or ditches (ramparts), but a large dry stone wall, the remains of which can still be seen today. The hillfort interior would probably have contained roundhouses constructed of stone and wood, providing shelter and safety for the occupants.

Cairnpapple Hill, West Lothian
One of the most important prehistoric monuments on the mainland of Scotland, Cairnpapple was used as a burial and ceremonial site from about 3000 to 1400 BC. There are good views of east central Scotland to be had from the hill.
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That "Camunian rose" looks more like a mustard or cabbage flower to me. The family these belong to is named for the usually four-petalled flowers - Cruciferae. These plants would have been incredibly important as food at that time- both as leafy vegetables and oil/protein-rich seeds. The bright yellow flower would also have been a potent solar symbol.
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