When archaeologists examine artistic evidence to learn about the past, crude rock drawings are rarely given as much attention as aesthetically complex pieces of art in ancient Israel. In a column titled “The Archaeology of Scribbles,” in the July/August issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Davida Eisenberg-Degen examines how rock drawings, or petroglyphs, in the Negev Desert provide a “direct entry to the lives and thoughts of real human beings.”
Davida Eisenberg-Degen’s examination of over 7,000 Negev Desert petroglyphs not only exposes artistic individuality not seen in “mainstream” or mass-produced artifacts, but also highlights broader trends about the local population. While the drawings sometimes include little more than a few lines or incorrect numbers of arms and legs, “the drawing and its style can reflect the carver’s interests, his state of mind and even his relationship to the society in which he lived. Among the Negev’s rock art, for example, are scenes of hunting, trapping, combat and worship.” The Negev Desert petroglyphs highlight roles rarely seen in the art of ancient Israel, from parental to sexual.
Analysis of the Negev Desert petroglyphs is fraught with challenge. There is a dearth of previous scholarship on the petroglyphs because violence kept many explorers away from the Negev desert, and those who came dismissed the crudeness of the rock drawings, focusing academic study on more monumental art of ancient Israel. Moreover, those who do study petroglyphs have a difficult time dating them; inscriptions rarely accompany the drawings, and scientific dating methods have rarely been applied to the art.
Davida Eisenberg-Degen tackled these complex problems by analyzing thousands of drawings, shapes and motifs and learning relative chronology from subtle clues such as layered carvings, patina coloration and depictions of extinct animals. Her examinations have isolated distinct periods of interaction and movement in the Negev Desert. An Early Bronze Age (c. 3300–2000 B.C.E.) group in the central Negev highlands frequently carved images of ibexes, a commonly depicted animal that often held sacred connotations in the ancient Near East. Petroglyphs carved by a contemporary group to the north frequently depict bulls, and the separation of art subjects indicates two culturally distinct neighboring groups.
In the Iron Age (c.1200-586 B.C.E.), local groups in the Negev Desert still carved petroglyphs of ibexes, contrasting with the bull-centric imagery seen at the Negev caravan stations and roadside shrines of Horvat Qitmit and ‘En Hazeva. By examining the art in ancient Israel, a picture emerges of the contemporary Negev culture, with trading posts oriented around outsiders that were seldom visited by the local Negev nomadic groups.
Davida Eisenberg Degen writes “I see rock art as a graphic reflection of an individual’s thoughts at a specific time—the lone desert shepherd who carved an image, most likely for his own use. This personal, individual act stands out in contrast to the innumerable and often mass-produced finds that archaeologists typically study.”
Read Davida Eisenberg-Degen’s “The Archaeology of Scribbles” as it appeared in the the July/August issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.