Thinking through images: narrative, rhythm, embodiment and landscape in the Nordic Bronze Age

Review by George Nash.

Throughout prehistoric Europe, there are significant areas where rock art was commissioned, executed, consumed, and abandoned. One of these is southern Scandinavia. Here, during the later prehistoric period, ancient artists provided a sometimes- cryptic insight into their world through the medium of figurative and abstract images engraved on to open-air rock outcroppings. These pictorial narratives, carved on glacially smoothed rock panels or sometimes on the capstones of megalithic chambered tombs, are mainly concentrated in the region of Bohuslän in south-western Sweden. Their subject matter comprises mainly long boats (with stylised crews), deer, concentric circles, cup-marks, horses and horse-drawn vehicles, shoeprints, and warriors (with accompanying weaponry). These figures, which are largely generic in both style and proportion, occur on many panels and are arranged in numerous ways so as to possibly create visual narratives, and it is conceivable that these panels were associated with formulaic storytelling and the oral history of the time.

Thinking Through Images takes the reader on a journey through a small area of Bohuslän, which contains a high volume of later prehistoric rock art: the Brastads-Becka Complex. In this book, Tilley’s personal journey, extending over a period of 35 years, incorporates a novel theoretical approach to interpretation, focusing on the rock-art panel as a visual narrative that is structured around the concept of (musical) rhythm. Here, he proposes, engraved figures are arranged in ways that harmonise with the topography of the panel, the rock outcropping, and the landscape. This rhythmic approach and the relationship between tamed and wild spaces has been used by Tilley in previous publications on similar themes.

The body of the book is organised into three sections, referred to as ‘Arias’, ‘Cabaletta’, and ‘Finale’. The ‘Arias’ section provides the reader with a theoretical approach to assist in making some sense of the artistic endeavour on each panel. Tilley also provides a discussion of the characters and motifs that occupy the panels. Within the ‘Cabaletta’ section, he deconstructs in detail the panel narratives, identifying rhythmic sequences and patterns in how the characters and motifs are arranged. In the ‘Finale’, he provides a case study from the Brastads-Becka Complex.

With a preface by seasoned rock-art specialist Joakim Goldhahn, as well as a thought-provoking ‘Prelude’ and ‘Postude’, this book is a masterclass in deconstructing rock art and the landscape in which it stands. The book does, though – despite its superb panel drawings by seasoned researchers – have limited, sometimes irrelevant photographic imagery. Nevertheless, it will appeal to students who are embarking on a postgraduate career in this field of research.

Thinking Through Images: narrative, rhythm, embodiment and landscape in the Nordic Bronze Age, Christopher Tilley Oxbow Book, £38, ISBN 9781789257014.