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Over 15,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age, a massive glacier carved its way through the Italian Alps in what is now the province of Brescia. Its melting waters left behind the 56-mile long valley, which became a major crossing place for herds of game followed by hunter-gatherers and later for the exchange of goods and ideas.


With so much game around, the hunters remained in the valley where they soon discovered that the smooth sandstone valley walls were the perfect surface for creating scenes with a hammer stone or pointed tool. They left over 300,000 rock engravings spanning 10,000 years from the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) period to the Middle Ages.

 

The valley is named after the Celtic tribe the Romans assimilated in the 1st century BCE: the Camuni.  Scholars have identified a number of distinctive phases in the rock art that reflect changes in interests and concerns of the period: the economy, beliefs and rituals, social organization, and external contacts.

 

The earliest scenes comprise simple line drawings with schematic figures. The main themes depict hunting large animals, identified as elks, sometimes shown hit by spears. Elks may have been hunted to extinction as they do not appear in later periods. One engraving depicts a basket-shaped fishing trap holding a fish. Bivouacs of modest size suggest that the first inhabitants lived in small hunting groups at the foothills of glaciers amid forests of pine and birch.

 

By 5500 BCE, the beginning of the Neolithic, the Camunians’ interests had turned to farming scenes. The artists were more likely to portray domesticated animals: dogs, bovids, goats. While they still hunted, their art focused on farming and ritual; they may even have worshipped dogs. Towards the end of the period they began to record the latest technological advance: metallurgy. First copper, then bronze weapons such as daggers, axes and halberds. Hunting scenes became frequent once more. A new warrior class was beginning to emerge, with the wealth and leisure to enjoy hunting as a sporting rather than subsistence activity.

 

Horses appeared in scenes in the Bronze Age. Images of hunters riding after wild deer, which were also worshipped, became popular. Camunian hunters, armed with spears and shields, are depicted as virile and aggressive, pitting their manly skills against the wild forces of nature. In one scene a horseman, led by an armed servant, holds a long curved stick, rather like a hockey stick. Strabo wrote about a spear-like stick that Celts to hunt birds,‘with a range greater than an arrow’. The spear or lance continued to be commonly used by huntsmen during the chase or to dispatch prey caught in traps or nets,

 

By the Iron Age, ties to other Celtic tribes become more apparent in religious scenes. Rock 70 has probably the oldest depiction of the divinity known as Cernunnos, who sports huge deer antlers on is head. Stags were both quarry and divinity. One hunt scene shows hunters surrounding a half-human, half-stag creature with huge antlers. Another shows hunters seemingly in prayer grouped around a trapped stag. In a third, a circle of people and other smaller stags worship a stag with huge antlers, as if it is divine. Or perhaps, like many other traditional societies, the artists wish to acknowledge the great gift their quarry offers in allowing itself to be eaten.


by Celine Castelino


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