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Rock Art Study in Italy

Join Field Research in "The Footsteps of Man"

You know of the amazing Paleolithic paintings and engravings in the Lascaux caves of Central France, discovered in the ’40s and closed in the ’60s due to damage caused by tourists. But you've probably never heard of the Camonica Valley rock art in northern Italy. Since 1909, archeologists have found and catalogued some 300,000 petroglyphs, or rock engravings, incised on the mountains by the Camunis, an ancient people whose origins are still mysterious. Unlike Lascaux, the rock incisions in the valley are there for everyone to see and touch, though they are protected by UNESCO. Local archeologists reckon they have just begun to scratch the surface of the wealth of material in the Valcamonica.

The valley's rock art dates back 8,000 years, covering the Paleolithic, the Neolithic, the Bronze and Iron Ages, the Roman Period, the Middle Ages, right down to the Renaissance. It's a breathtaking array of history and art, though oddly little known outside the world of European archeology.

Dr. Angelo Fossati, a personable, 30- something archeologist and author of many publications on the subject, has spent years studying the figures. Convinced his valley's treasures deserve more recognition, every summer he organizes combined work and study courses in Paspardo, Valcamonica, just north of Brescia and Lake Iseo, and south of the Alps.

In their quest to put Valcamonica on the map Dr. Fossati and his staff conduct ongoing research at “The Footsteps of Man" rock art center, a part of the International Federation of Rock Art Organizations.

For the past 10 years archeology, art, and history students and enthusiasts from Italy, England, Ireland, the U.S., Germany, and Brazil have taken part in Dr. Fossati's field research. Most are between the ages of 18 to 25, and they sign up for 1-, 2- or 3-week stints. They locate, survey, excavate, clean, photograph, trace, draw, and catalogue the engravings.

Elyssa Figari, a 2006 participant from California, describes the experience like this: "While I sometimes had to hike 45 minutes up a hill to the site, crouch barefooted for at least six hours with jagged rocks digging into my body, and juggle a mirror while attempting to block the sun with my body, each day brought me new discoveries, enjoyment, and learning experiences. Watching the images unfold on the plastic sheet as I slowly recreated them with a felt pen by feeling for the peck marks, experiencing the exhilaration of being able to distinguish the form of a warrior that was superimposed over a praying figure, and having the knowledge that I was standing on the very spot that a prehistoric artist stood on thousands of years ago was unlike anything else I had ever experienced."

The Valcamonica never lacked prehistoric artists. By the time the Romans under Caesar Augustus invaded the valley in 16 B.C. the mountains were already covered in figures from the Neolithic, Copper, Bronze, and Iron ages. The subjects range from sun or fire gods, flying bee-like divinities, animals and weapons, to cosmic maps, showing the world as the center, a celestial area above, and an underworld below. The Camuni artists also carved human figures fighting battles, riding horses for sport, driving wagons with spoke wheels, building pile dwellings, and praying to ever-changing deities. All this before the birth of Christ.

The Romans considered the Camuni a warlike people, though spiritual, and perhaps inhabitants of a magical valley. The Roman occupation with its tribunals, forums, thermal baths, theaters and villas, populated by magistrates, priests, soldiers, and artisans, did not have great influence on the Camuni rock art style, which changed very little. After the fall of the Roman Empire, when Christian missionaries arrived in the 600s with their new icons, the Camuni artists incorporatedthem into their repertory, but they also continued carving their traditional subjects.

One group of exceedingly mysterious carved figures is "the astronauts," figures of warriors with their heads encased in transparent helmets, with what look like rays of light or antennas radiating from them. The figures hold instruments seen nowhere else in the valley. Many alien invasion buffs visit them yearly.

The day starts early in Paspardo. Participants trek the mountains around the center, survey to find new engraved rocks, analyze the damage to rock surfaces, trace, draw, and photograph the rock art, and learn conservation techniques. Back at the center, activities include reducing the photos and tracings to scale-size and cataloguing the engravings.

Evenings are spent with the other participants, enjoying real Italian cooking, which Dr. Fossati promises is "abbondante e speciale." Figari could not get enough of the "pizzoccheri," a local specialty of noodles with copious amounts of cheese, potatoes, and vegetables. She says, "I was really glad I worked so hard during the day because I could enjoy the food that much more!"

Every evening after dinner, Dr. Fossati and his staff give lectures and presentations on such subjects as: “What is Rock Art?,” “Rock Art in the Alps,” “Introduction to the Documentation of Rock Art," and "The History of the Iron Age in Northern Italy." The official languages are English and Italian. Then you're off to bed in the center's dormitory, where you'll share a room and bath with four or five other participants.

Your days will be full, but, after all, you are in Italy, and summer festivals and “mercatini” abound in the area. Figari describes an evening out: "One night there happened to be a local festival in one of the adjacent towns. At least coming from the perspective of an American, this was one of the best things ever. I was able to be fully immersed in a specific element of Italian culture, without having to share it with other tourists. I tasted exquisite local cheese, wine, and bread, not to mention delicious gelato. We came upon a square where a local band was playing folk music and everyone, young and old, men and women, was dancing. I didn't even take any pictures that night because all my senses were fully engaged."

Transportation to and from the Valcamonica is up to you, but the course itself is a real bargain, according to Elin Bollhorst from Norway. "Even though I paid for the stay and for an air ticket, it was one of the less expensive holidays I have had, since everything is included in the fee, and there is hardly anything to buy in Paspardo."

Though you'll not have much time for excursions during the course, before or after your sojourn in the Valcamonica, you might want to check out Brescia, the Roman city Brixia, with its art and history museums, or Lake Garda with its world class wind surfing schools and discoteques, or Lake Iseo with its quaint villages and picturesque islands. They are all within an hour’s bus or train ride. Participants recommend Dr. Fossati's Rock Art Work and Study course forvarious reasons: Francesca Morello, a 2006 participant from near Turin, says: "because the Valcamonica is a beautiful place, with it's majestic mountains, its woods and little ancient villages, and its panoramic sites" and because "you can discover or deepen your passion for archaeology and meet special people [while] studying it."

Figari says, "The Valcamonica's rock art epitomizes the hope and progress, problems and difficulties, and uncertainties and mysteries that face the study and research of rock art today. Who wouldn't want to be a part of this?"

For More Info

The course with Dr. Angelo Fossati, Catholic University of Brescia accepts 25 participants per week. Traveler's health insurance is required. Contact:

Related Topics
Study in Italy
Student Participant Report

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