Rites of Passage – Rock Art in Sweden

Mike Haigh summarises ‘Design, structure and narrative in southern Scandinavian rock art’, by Christopher Tilley

The rich array of rock carvings at Hogsbyn in southern Sweden has been intensely studied in an attempt to unravel their meaning. Tilley used a number of techniques, from statistics to archaeo-astronomy, to try to decipher these ancient engravings.

One clue to the possible meaning is to be found by studying the landscape in which they are found. The carvings are stretched out up a hillside in a roughly linear fashion. The southernmost are clustered around the shores of a lake, while the northernmost are found where the hillside gives way to arable pasture. Tilley also studied the individual motifs statistically, relating each motif with respect to other symbols and to where they appeared in the landscape.

Basically, he found that the complex of carvings could be divided into three zones – one, around the lake shore, another further uphill and the third merging into the rich arable land to the north. In each zone there is a key richly decorated rock surrounded by a scatter of other incised boulders.

One key to understanding what might have occurred at this site is to study the way that humans are depicted in each of the three zones. In the southern zone there are few depictions of humans; those that do occur are small, stick-like forms with no apparent gender and not engaged in any activities. On the key rock of the second zone, humans do not occur at all and humanity seems to be represented by the carving of feet; towards the north of the second zone, however, carvings of humans occur but are of a different character to those to the south – they are taller and fuller figures carrying tools and wearing headdresses. Finally, in the northernmost zone humans are depicted in large groups, gender is specified and in one carving some sort of ‘marriage’ ceremony appears to be shown. Tilley interprets this zonal sequence in terms of rites of passage. Initiation ceremonies in tribal societies usually involve three stages. First, the initiate is ritually removed from society . He or she then spends time in a liminal state before being re-incorporated into ordinary society ready to assume a new role. The landscape thus becomes a kind of ritual theatre in which the initiation is enacted, and the carvings are interpreted as teaching aids to educate initiates about the changes they are going through and their new role in society.

Tilley’s explanation is reinforced by considering the form of some of the carvings. There are a number of abstract symbols etched on the rocks. The most common include cup marks, wavy lines, grids and a cross within a circle. These abstract carvings are most common in the second, liminal, zone [it reminds me of the Zen process, ‘first there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is’- which is where Donovan got it from. JB]. Tilley takes these as aids for teaching initiates the secrets of agricultural astronomy. In his view the cross within a circle represents the cycle of the seasons; the circle is the solar year and the cross stands for the solstices and equinoxes. Similarly, the wavy lines represent the movement of the moon through the ecliptic (Tilley accepts and acknowledges Martin Brennan’s 1983 work The Stars and the Stones), though I might also point out that circles, grids and wavy lines are entoptic images, so it is possible that the liminal zone was used to initiate those involved into trance states.

Tilley goes into far greater depth than I can summarise here – anyone who has read his seminal A Phenomenology of Landscape (see review last issue) will know he can be dense but rewarding. I would recommend that anyone interested in this subject try to get hold of the original paper.

Published in NE63 (Autumn 1995), p.22

This paper was published in the Institute of Archaeology Bulletin 31 (1994)

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