XXV Valcamonica Symposium

Capo di Ponte, September 20-26, 2013

Art as the Source of History
Session 5: Immagini e memoria / Sezione di Psicoanalisi

Presence or Possession
revealed by Handprints


dubal @ archaeometry.org

The long history of handprints (female & male) testifies for the attempt to control the
environment, far more than possession, obsession of modern patriarchal societies.
The easiness of the stencil techniques promoted negative handprints as the most common

metonymical "auto-rappresentazione" (as coined by Mathilde Vigneri) in "sheltered Rock Art".

On the other hand, in "outdoor Rock Art" the amount of work involved in engraving handprints
disqualified this type of metonymy to the benefit of "whole body anthropomorphic icons".


Negative handprints is a most frequent figure in Rock Art.  
Surprisingly, only
a handful of them are tagging other kind of Rock Art.
 Tagging is (according to Wikipedia):
a  way of signing ones name anonymously  
using cheap spray-paint & cheap stencils.
Hand-stencils are obviously cheap. 
 The stencilled hand in the cave of Airvaux (France)

reminds us that hand tagging is a very old practice .
Such a handprint touches us by its intimacy:
It is a
physical representations of the tagger...male or female!
Dean R. SNOW
suggests to apply Manning's ratio:
D2/D4 to the study of negative handprints.
Accordingly, the tagger of Airvaux might well be a left-handed female...
What might blur gender statistics of handprints
is the fact that some taggers - right or left-handed -
might have duplicated n-times their handprints.... 

 While in most sites only one colour has been used,
@ La Cueva de las Manos (Argentina),
sprays have been manufactured
  from a whole variety of pigments: black, orange, yellow, bright green...  

or white...with an interesting case of sexdigitism!

The color of the background is visually very important.
White spray
on red background...
looks very different...than on grey background or
than red spray on grey background.
In some sites, fingers are unexpectedly short. 

@ Gargas...should one incriminate the frost
for the missing fingertips?

But then...why also in Sahara, @Tassili n Ajjers ? 
André Leroi Gourhan analyzed the frequencies of
finger combinaisons, i.e., three patterns @Gargas
occuring 12, 13 & 4 times respectively.
He suggested the use of a digital code... analog to

the bushmen hunters (Kalahari)
game code,
here:  monkey,      warthog    &    giraffe.          

Hand stencils...what else ?
While hand stencils have been intensively
used in Rock Art,
and before looking into compositions with handprints,
it is instructive
to review the extend of the use of
other flat lamellar objects as stencils.

photo: Leo DUBAL

@BradyCk/Laura (NE Australia),
there is a stencilled left footprint,
as well as @ Carnavon Gorge

@ Mudgee (NSW Australia), a pair of
 photo: unknown
baby's footprints, high up on a panel, has been reported.
 J.L.Le Quellec, see fig 552 of le-quellec_du-sahara-au-nil.pdf

photo Le Quellec
found @Wadi Sora (Sahara), right footprints
of young and adult in relation with handprints.

In contrast to the rarity of human footprint tags, 

 footprint engravings are common, i.e. in Galicia.

@ La Cueva de las Manos, nandu footprints are
mixed with human handprints
Nandu are large bipeds unable to fly...

a common handicap so to speak !
In Australia, there are no nandus but emus.

Some are represented, i.e.: @Brady Ck Art Gallery.
Emu footprints appear frequently as engravings.

i.e.: @ sites of the Laura area.
Stencilled emu footprint are seldom:

@ Mudgee
@ Carnarvon site, Don HITCHCOCK took great pictures
see: http://donsmaps.com/carnarvon.html 
of stencilled kanguroo footprints, 

as well as stencilled weapons:
   one Lil-Lil club recto-verso,   one
flat bladed wooden war club,    
            eight 1-shot boomerangs  /   3 axes & 2 V-shaped boomerangs  
and other stencilled artefacts:
Che-Ky-Ra pendants with string /       large coolamon   

@ Wadi Sora, J.L. Le QUELLEC found similar stencils of 
photo LeQuellec photo Le Quellec
                coolamon in association with handprints               

But Australian Rock Art offers the widest range of stencils !
 R.G.GUNN reports (see: 2012_stencil_masks_RAR_29-2.pdf) ,

 @ Jawoyn RockArt Gallery, a stencilled leaf !

Further kind of stencils might also have been used for RockArt,
i.e.: Virtual stencils, such as the profile of the shadow
of a carved figurine (out of wood, clay or ivory?)
under a single narrow spotlight
(a torch indoor, and the sun outdoor).

miror-inverted profile of the venus of Cussac
overlapps pretty well the one of Pech-Merle.
In my opinion, the use
of a virtual stencil
(shadow of a figurine recto-verso
cannot be rule out prior to an appropriate testing.
 Bertrand DAVID was the first to demonstrated with a piece charcoal,
 how easy it is to draw with a virtual stencil the
profile of a horse.
see his u-tube clip:

by pair
 @ Pech Merle, a pair of hands are riding a horse
Is it a 
kind of coded message ?

The R.D. SNOW identified the right handprint as strongly female.

@La Cueva de las Manos, a pair of handprints crosses its thumbs, 

while a duet, 
symmetrically duplicated left & right hands,
false pairs of hands.
@ Carnarvon Gorge

there is even a triplet...  

 In Cape York (Australia) & in Kalimatan
one faces a brain-raking enigma.

 DNA analysis suggests this geographical area
to have hosted  Homo Denisovanis,
the recently discovered parallell humankind. 

The crossed hands @ Wallaroo Gallery suggest the
wrists were tied-up, while the downwards thumbs
may hints toward a sacrificial ritual ?
@ Gua Masri, L.-H. FAGE photographed
two similar cross-handprints compositions

and also in Sulawesi Is., again in Homo Denisovanis area,
Kinez RIZA photographed those cross-handprints.
They have been recently radiodated and turned out to be
as old as the handprints of La Cueva del Castillo.

@ Carnarvon Gorge, D. HITCHCOCK photographed 
cross-handprints compositions

  Should one guess here that the elbows were tied-up ?
In the first composition, three cross-hands are horizontal;
in the second, two vertical. The one on the left side suggests
a weird anthropomorphic figure...

Graffiti tagging handprints


 @ La Cueva de las Manos, camelid figures
have been tagged over handprints.

 @BradyCk, a feminine figure is tagging a handprint.
The breast of the aboriginal female is depicted according
to its « typical contour » as coined by Jan Deregowski. 
An eel is also tagging an handprint, and, 

@Red Bluff, the penis
of an ithyphallic hallucinogenic creature
is also tagging a hand.

In Kalimatan, scarifications,
a feature not transferable by stencilling,
have been tagged over the handprints!

 At the bottom of this most interesting composition:
he tuber of a yam-tree.
The handprints act as the leaves of this tree of life !

Handprints tagging ...

 @ la Cueva de las Manos hands tagging hands
are creating a crowd... in which

 to disentangle the sequence
   of overlapping handprints
is a real brain-teaser: 
Here, a white spray has first been used, then a red spray...

@ Ouadi Sora, J.L. Le QUELLEC discovered
this exceptional composition of 

photo LeQuellec #552 p.203

a pair of baby hands tagging a pair of adults hands.

Now let us turn to handprints tagging animals:.
@ Tassili n' Ajjers, the tag on the camelid
might means

  the control over, or maybe the possession ?

@BradyCk, the handprints overlaying
the crocodile suggest

conjuring the fear away
of this dangereous reptile,
or is it initiatic ritual?

Yes, there exist handprints tagging human figures !

In a panel @ SandyCK/Laura, the central human figure (male ?)
has been hand-tagged...
the handprint
appears better with enhanced contrast.
In the same site there is an astonishing composition 

Photo: Matt
 TREZISE/ 2012.11.07 
of handprints tagging the breast of a female
(the D2/D4 ratio favors a male hand)

...and the groins of the aboriginal couple.

 (enhanced contrast)
This composition may hint to an initiatic ritual,
linked to the magic of controlling sexual parts of the partners.


1. être ou avoir dilemna
Rock Art negative hand printing does not provide
obvious clues for expressions such as
in French, mettre la main sur...
in English “To lay one’s hands on”.
    The very limited occurrence of concomitant handprint tags
in Rock Art composition suggests that handprints were not often
(if at all) used as a marker for appropriation or possession.
    In other words, the compulsion to possess ever more 
might be an innovation of modern patriarchal societies.

2. Auto-rappresentazione   

270 centuries of stenciling hands might be considered as
a major esthetical mirror experience of humankind.

At the Symposium 2011, Matilde VIGNERI related handprints
with "l'emergere dell' auto-rappresentazione".    

At IFRAO 1996, Jan Deregowski pointed out that the contours
flat lamellar objects such as human hands when held flat
are most pronounced
I would even dare to add that

for indoor RockArt;
this lamellar property of stencilled hands
made them the most popular auto-representation of man,
avoiding the difficulty of drawing the whole body.....

for outdoor RockArt,
although handprints do exist,

i.e.: @ Croix de Creyseilles (only 12 km from my house),
engraving is a tedious work
To carve whole body icons
sounds far more rewarding

view of a panel & tactigraphy of a detail
such as the ones on gneiss outcrops in Ardèche.