One of the great archaeological heritages of Lombardy is its immense assemblage of prehistoric rock art, mainly located in Valcamonica, which was also the first Italian site to be included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List, and with smaller rock art areas scattered along the Alps. This heritage, as well as being a key asset for education and culture, is an outstanding source of information about the origins of Europe, making Lombardy the guardian of documentation that enables us to trace back the roots of the European civilization up to 10,000 years ago.
The rock art in Valcamonica is like a sort of pictorial notebook that scholars can study, catalogue, and use to date engravings. Researchers soon realized that many of the engraved surfaces had been worked in different phases, which made it possible to piece together Valcamonica’s past, from the Mesolithic era 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 the surrounding populations (mostly Raeti, Etruscans, and Celts) before being assimilated by the Roman Empire—a great story of cultural revolutions and technological achievements!
People have inhabited the area now called Europe for at least 35,000 years, settling in the Alps at the end of the last glacial period (about 11,700 years ago). A changed environment, now able to sustain wildlife such as elk, deer, goats, and other mammals, attracted groups of Mesolithic hunters — their presence is attested in Valcamonica by the findings of seasonal camps near mountain watersheds. Some of these camps were made near the bottom of the valley, as shown by the rock shelters in Foppe di Nadro Nadro and Cividate. These same people probably engraved the large contour figures of herbivores found in the area of Luine (Darfo Boario Terme, Valcamonica).
Communities with a new Neolithic culture started settling in the valley around the 5th millennium BCE. Remarkable breakthroughs gradually changed the daily life of semi-nomadic hunters, turning it into a sedentary lifestyle, tied to agricultural cycles. Finds from a small Neolithic settlement discovered in Breno—fine pottery, remains of huts, graves, burnt seeds, bones, and tools—shed light on the daily life of the time. The rock art of this period reveals an elusive schematic art, where several strokes delineate figures, mostly anthropomorphic orants (schematic human figures in prayer, typically depicted with their arms bent, their forearms and hands stretching upwards). A certain emphasis on female figures suggests a possible cult of a “Great Goddess”. Even the rock art seems to underline the importance of the advent of agriculture. Some researchers note the presence of schematic topographic representations, called “mappiformi“ (“map-shaped figures”) during the Neolithic period and also during the Copper Age.
A new economic, social, and ideological influence spread over much of the European continent during the Copper Age (about 3,300-2,200 BCE). Innovative and important technology clearly affected the mindset of those populations, also influencing their social organization. Agricultural productivity increased, thanks to the introduction of the ard or scratch plough and the use of cattle as draft animals; moreover, wheeled transport enabled greater mobility. Crafted metal objects as tokens of prestige and status hint at the emergence of social classes, as new professions connected with mining and metal processing arose. Trade in copper and other metal objects propelled widespread contacts, as seen by the occurrence throughout the continent of statue-stele or statue menhirs (human effigies sculpted in stone, often featuring weapons and clothing items).
People of the Bronze Age established a more complex social system, based around enduring settlements (palafittes, fortified settlements, hillforts), wide-ranging trade, and the extremely important role played by metal. The few archaeological remains known from Valcamonica for this period bear witness to the development of metallurgy, crafts, and trade, also mirrored in the rock art of the time: the artists’ obsessive interest with figures of weapons – only rivalled by circular shapes – possibly expresses the growing importance of these objects.
A dispersal of motifs portraying boats and solar chariots pulled by waterfowl or horses can be seen throughout the Early Iron Age in all of Europe, around a time in which many key social changes were happening in the Mediterranean basin and in the rest of the continent (at the turn of the 12th and 11th centuries BCE), partly due to general movements and resettlements of communities. The beginning of the Iron Age saw a steep rise in the amount of rock art being made in Valcamonica: over 80% of the imagery is attributable to this period, lasting from the 10th/9th century to the 1st century BCE. The range of subjects increased considerably, with intense activity both at preexisting and new rock art sites. The prevailing topic is undoubtedly the warrior, on foot or horseback, juxtaposed with figures of huts, footprints, animals (mostly dogs, deer, and horses) and depictions of symbols – including meanders, labyrinths, circles, paddles, Camunian roses, five-pointed stars, as well as a host of other cryptic marks scattered across the engraved surfaces.
Romanization and Christian Age
The Romanization of the Alpine valleys started at the end of the 2nd century BCE, gradually and relentlessly continuing until the definitive official “conquest” in 16 CE by the legions of Emperor Augustus, an event commemorated on the Tropaeum Alpium of La Turbie (France). During Roman times the Camunian people, now called Camunni, continued engraving their traditional repertoire (warriors, footprints, huts) in the same sites as before. 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 in Cividate Camuno (with its forum, amphitheatre, and theatre), the small temple of Minerva in the nearby site of Spinera (Breno), and a necropolis in Borno.
A vigorous revival of the engraving tradition will take placelater, around the 14th century CE, in the area of Campanine di Cimbergo, where hundreds of historic symbols were engraved near older prehistoric vestiges. The figures are clearly Mediaeval and present also Christian motifs: crosses, large keys, anthropomorphs, nodes of Solomon, pentagrams, crossbows, pikes, daggers, monstrous figures, soldiers, knights, towers, and castles.