Natura, arte rupestre, archeologia, turismo culturale

Rock art of Valcamonica

Welcome to Valcamonica, a narrow, populous and industry-rich Alpine valley located north of the cities of Bergamo and Brescia in the region of Lombardy. Lake Iseo is to the south; to the north, the Alps with lofty mountain peaks such as the 3554 metre-high Adamello. Rock-art areas cluster on slopes in the middle of the valley.

Here, on rocks smoothed by former glaciers, prehistoric people continually left traces of their societies. These creations change through time, from post-Ice Age hunters, through the Neolithic period with the advent of of herding and agriculture, to the Copper and Bronze Ages when the potential of metal gave rise to commercial exchange networks, bringing about profound transformations. The Iron Age appears to be the belle epoque of the communities living in the valley, the Camunni, when the creation of rock-art blossomed, revealing strong ties with neighbouring peoples, especially the Raeti and Etruscans. When the Romans vanquished Valcamonica in 16 before Christ, they encountered a population with well-organized social and political structures.

In 1979, UNESCO placed Valcamonica’s “Rock Drawings” on its World Heritage List, Italy’s first entry. Many may have wondered why this honour went to seemingly indecipherable rock-engravings left by groups of prehistoric inhabitants of the valley. Similar recognition was later granted to works and places of which there is greater awareness, undoubtedly fostered by countless pages in books about them, Venice and its lagoon, Leonardo’s Last Supper in Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Rome’s historical centre and Roman Forum.

The commission, with representatives from more than sixty countries, considered the “Rock Drawings of Valcamonica” were not only an expression of brief moments of glory or national identity, but testimony to the history of Europe, of a still largely unpublished story. The valley, with its thousands of rock engravings, dated, ordered by period and subject matter, gives 15,000 years of the past back to Europe, 8000 of which, before the advent of Rome, had been largely forgotten by contemporary literature.

What a narrative! A marvellous comic book story, etched on rock during thousands of years by the makers, artists who were also compilers, scribes or storytellers. Remaining in situ, then brought to light again, it is even possible to make out where where people sat as they engraved rock surfaces.

Quite rightly, the rock engravings of Valcamonica are considered a cultural heritage of humanity. No other single source, for now, gives us a similar amount of data to study the origins of Europe. Stories can be pieced together by decoding and analysing clues the Camunni left marked on rock. This seems to warrant the name “Civilizations of the Stones” for a sequence lasting several thousand years that has been brought back to light in the valley.

Prehistory often evokes mental pictures of “primitive men, cave dwellers armed with clubs”. Nothing could be further from the truth – prehistory spans thousands of years of technological, social and environmental change.

People have inhabited the area now called Europe for at least 35,000 years and settled in the Alps at the end of the last glacial period about 11,700 years ago. This long period of time, dotted with revolutionary discoveries, refined technological developments and achievements of great artists, eliciting scenes fit for a Hollywood film set, deserves to be studied and understood.

A common mistake when it comes to the Camunni is to imagine an ancient people stuck in the Stone Age, a trivialization many textbooks often make. As mentioned, the first signs of human settlement in the valley can be traced back to the twelfth millennium Before Christ; however, about 80 percent of the rock engravings are much later, made in the first millennium Before Christ during the Iron Age when the Camunni already had a well-organized socio-political structure, a mature cultural and artistic heritage and were trading with the Etruscans, Raeti and Celts, before finally entering into contact with the Roman Empire.

The rock imagery allows us to reconstruct a civilization by analysing the figures the makers left behind, enabling us to put the phenomenon of Valcamonica in a broader time frame and to give depth and perspective to 10,000 years of history!

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Maggio  2017