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Chronology of Valcamonica rock art

One of the great archaeological heritages of Lombardy is the immense assemblage of prehistoric rock-art, mainly in Valcamonica, the first from Italy be included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Smaller rock-art areas are scattered along the Alps in Lombardy. This heritage, as well as being a key asset for education and culture, is an outstanding source about the origins of Europe in the preceding 10,000 years, giving Lombardy the distinction of being the custodian of documentation that lets us retrace the roots of European civilization.

The rock-art of Valcamonica is like a pictorial notebook that scholars can study, catalogue and use to date engravings. Researchers soon realized that many engraved surfaces have different phases of being worked, thus enabling them to piece together Valcamonica’s past, from the Mesolithic to the present day. Observing all the engraved surfaces is akin to opening a huge family album through which onlookers can follow an epic human adventure, from nomadic hunter-gatherers, to the first herders and farmers, until the emergence of a more complex society that came into contact with Raeti, Etruscans and Celts before being assimilated by the Roman Empire—a story of cultural revolutions and technological achievements!

Mesolithic hunters

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. A changed environment able to sustain wildlife such as elk, deer, goats and other mammals attracted groups of Mesolithic hunters. Seasonal camps by mountain watersheds attest their presence in Valcamonica. Some of these camps were made near the bottom of the valley, as shown by rock shelters at Foppe di Nadro Nadro and Cividate. These same people probably made the large contour figures of herbivores found on rocks of Luine.


Communities with a new Neolithic culture started settling in the valley around the fifth millennium before Christ. Remarkable breakthroughs gradually changed the daily life of semi-nomad hunters to a sedentary one tied to agricultural cycles. Finds from a small Neolithic settlement discovered in Breno—fine pottery, remains of huts, graves, burnt seeds, bones and tools—throw light on the daily life of the time. The rock-art reveals an elusive schematic art where several strokes delineate figures, mostly anthropomorphic orant forms (in prayer, arms bent, forearms and hands stretched upwards). A certain emphasis on female figures suggests a cult of a “Great Goddess”. Even the rock-art seems to evince the importance of the advent of agriculture. Some researchers note the presence of other schematic topographic representations called mappiformi during the Neolithic period and Copper Age.

Copper Age

A new economic, social and ideological influence spread over much of the European continent during the Copper Age between the late fourth millennium and most of the third
millennium (about 3300 to 2200 before Christ). Innovative and important technology clearly effected mindsets and social organization. Agricultural productivity increased with the introduction of the ard or scratch plough and use of cattle as draft animals. Wheeled transport enabled greater mobility. Crafted metal objects as tokens of prestige and status hint the emergence of social classes as new professions connected with mining and metal processing arose. Trade in copper and other metal objects propelled widespread contact, as seen by the occurrence throughout the continent of statue stele or statue menhirs, human effigies sculpted in stone featuring weapons and items of clothing.

Bronze Age

People of the Bronze Age established a more complex social system based around enduring settlements (palafitte, fortified settlements, hillforts), wide-ranging trade, and the role played by metal. The few archaeological remains known from Valcamonica for this period bear witness to the development of metallurgy, crafts and trade, which the rock-art mirrors: artists’ obsessive interest with figures of weapons, only rivalled by circular shapes, possibly expressed the growing importance of these objects.

Iron Age

A dispersal of motifs portraying boats and solar chariots pulled by waterfowl or horses can be seen throughout the early Iron Age in Europe. Associated with this were key social changes in the Mediterranean basin and Europe at the turn of the twelfth and eleventh centuries before Christ that were partly due to general movement and resettlement of communities. The events caused the collapse of so-called palatial civilizations (Mycenaean, Hittite) and marked the founding of new communities that flourished over the next millennium until historic times. The beginning of the Iron Age saw a steep rise in the amount of rock-art being made in Valcamonica: over 80 percent the imagery is attributable to this period lasting from the tenth or ninth century to the first century before Christ. The range of subjects increases considerably, with intense activity at both pre-existing and new rock art sites. The prevailing topic is undoubtedly the warrior, on foot or horseback, juxtaposed with figures of huts, footprints, animals (dogs, deer and horses) and depictions including meanders, labyrinths, circles, palette, rose camune, five-pointed stars as well as a host of other cryptic marks scattered across engraved surfaces.

Romanization and Christian Age

The Romanization of Alpine valleys started from the end of the second century before Christ and gradually and relentlessly continued until the definitive official “conquest” in 16 before Christ by legions of Augustus, an event commemorated on Tropaeum Alpium of La Turbie (France). During Roman times, the Camunni continue engraving a traditional repertoire (warriors, footprints, huts) in the same places used previously. Some rare Latin inscriptions engraved on rock surfaces tie in with newly introduced classic expressions of imperial Rome seen elsewhere in the valley, such as the Roman town at Cividate Camuno with forum, amphitheatre and theatre, a temple of Minerva nearby, and a necropolis at Borno,
A vigorous revival of the engraving tradition takes place around the fourteenth century in the area of Campanine di Cimbergo, where hundreds symbols openly adjoin older prehistoric vestiges. The figures are clearly mediaeval and Christian: crosses, large keys, anthropomorphs, nodes of Solomon, pentagrams, crossbows, pikes, daggers, monstrous figures, soldiers, knights, towers and castles.