The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was founded in London (UK) on November 16, 1945, with the aim of fostering peace between states through cooperation in science and culture; hence came the challenge to safeguard sites that wetre deemed exceptional because of their cultural or natural value. In 1972, the Venice Convention established the World Heritage List, which has been continuously updated ever since. Currently, Unesco recognises 1154 sites and Italy tops this list of wonders with the highest number of recognised sites. The first among the Italian sites, added to the List in 1979, was the “Rock Drawings of Valcamonica” (site n. 94), not only for its special historical and archaeological importance, but also for the quality of the related research, which has opened up new horizons for the understanding of human cultures.
When this choice was made, many may have wondered why this honour went to seemingly indecipherable rock engravings left by small groups of prehistoric inhabitants of a remote Alpine valley, especially given the fact that such a recognition would be granted only later to more famous places and works of art, such as Venice and its lagoon (added in 1987), Leonardo’s Last Supper in Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan (1980), Rome’s historical centre and the Roman Forii (1980), and so on. The commission, made of representatives from more than sixty countries, considered that the “Rock Drawings in Valcamonica” were not only the expression of brief moments of glory or national identity, but actually a testimony to the history of Europe, part of a still largely unpublished story. Valcamonica, with its thousands of rock engravings – that have been dated and ordered by period and subject matter – gives back to Europe 10,000 years of its past, 8,000 of which (before the advent of Rome) had been largely forgotten by contemporary literature.
What a narrative! A marvellous comic book story, etched on the rocks throughout thousands of years by its makers: artists who were also compilers, scribes, and storytellers. Since these rock surfaces remained in situ, covered throughout centuries by meters of dirt, and were then brought to light again in the 1900s, it is even possible to make out where people sat as they engraved them.
Quite rightly, the rock engravings of Valcamonica are considered a cultural heritage of humanity: for now, no other single source gives us a similar amount of data to study the origins of Europe. Stories can be pieced together by decoding and analysing clues that the ancient inhabitants of Valcamonica – fittingly nicknamed the “Civilization of the Stones” – left marked on the rocks of this area for a several thousand years–a wealth of symbols that was brought back to light only in the 2oth century.
In our imagery, “Prehistory” often evokes mental pictures of cave dwellers armed with clubs. Nothing could be further from the truth: in fact, Prehistory spans thousands of years of technological, social and environmental changes. 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). This long period of time, characterised by revolutionary discoveries (agriculture, metallurgy, trade, etc.), refined technological developments, and unforgettable achievements of great artists, deserves to be thoroughly studied and understood.
Imagining the ancient inhabitats of Valcamonica as a primitive people stuck in the Stone Age is an actual mistake, a trivialization that many textbooks often make. As mentioned, the first signs of human settlement in the valley can be traced back to the 12th millennium BCE; however, about 80% of the rock engravings were made much later, during the Iron Age (1st millennium BCE), when the Camunni already had a well-organized social and political structure, a mature cultural and artistic heritage, and closely knitted trading nets with the surrounding populations (Etruscans, Raetim and Celts) – all of this well before finally entering into contact with Rome and its culture.
The rock imagery allows us to reconstruct a civilization by analysing the figures left behind by its people, enabling us to put the phenomenon of Valcamonica in a broader time frame and to give depth and perspective to 10,000 years (!) of history.