Unravelling the Gordian Knot: Origins

For thousands of years, humans have painted images in caves. Some painted sites were later revisited by people who added new paintings on top of the older so that it can be very difficult to discern the sequence of painting. While archaeologists have developed many theories to interpret rock art, and pieces of the paintings that have fallen off may be recovered to analyse in a laboratory, it has been very difficult to analyse the paintings on the rock surface.

However, recent advances have produced small transportable devices which now allow for detailed on site analyses that do not harm the paintings. These non-destructive portable technologies can scan the cave, rock-surface, and paintings in 3-Dimensions; can use X-ray and laser technology to determine the chemical elements used to make the pigment that makes the painting; and can use portable digital photography to reveal hidden layers normally barely perceptible to the human eye.

Unravelling the Gordian Knot Project will apply these non-destructive methods to the spectacular and colourful paintings at the site called Pleito, found in California, USA.  Within the site, a panel known to researchers as the ‘Gordian Knot’ is the most elaborate panel found there, making it one of the most complex prehistoric panels found anywhere in the world. The name of this project is derived from this panel, and so Pleito and its complex sequences of overpainting is an ideal case to disentangle the history of painting events.

This kind of overpainting, known as superimposition, presents the greatest challenge to rock-art researchers in their attempts to understand painted art found across the world.  Even though such complex paintings are challenging, ling the sequence offers the best chance of knowing the development of paintings through time.

For Native Californians, Pleito is of such deep importance that it is imperative that work does not damage the art made by their ancestors still there on the ceiling.  As one young Native Tejon Indian once said of the art at Pleito, ‘the ancestors painted there so that we could know them’.  We aim to present and preserve the paintings so that contemporary and future Native generations can also know them.

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