True or false: The cinema was invented in the late 19th century.

It's only true if you consider the cinema to be artificial projection.   It turns out that the original idea behind the cinematic experience, the use of visual and audio means to tell a story, extends back to the Chalcolithic period, commonly called the Copper Age, according to the "Prehistoric Picture Project" being carried out by St. Pölten University of Applied Sciences, the University of Cambridge and the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar.
Copper Age cinema buffs got one thing right long before modern man; they viewed "films" in an open air cinema setting in 3D with surround sound and without those stupid glasses, according to analysis of prehistoric rock engravings which provided an audio-visual experience to people from the time of Ötzi, the prehistoric iceman, to that of Roman Emperor Augustus.  The largest European concentration of these engravings can be found in Valcamonica in Northern Italy. 

St. Pölten University of Applied Sciences is part of a Cambridge led international project that uses digital media technologies to bring to life the closest experience prehistoric people had to cinema.

Valcamonica petroglyph of a couple in duel with a "symbol" in the middle. Rock 6, Loc. Foppe, Nadro, Val Camonica, Italy. Credit: Luca Giarelli  / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The focus of the project is prehistoric rock engravings cut into the sides of the valley, on rock ground smooth by glacial action. The first question that arises, is why these particular locations were selected for the rock engravings.  This has been a mystery to archaeologists.

The thesis developed by Dr Frederick Baker, who leads the project along with the Cambridge world rock art specialist Dr Christopher Chippindale, is that the locations of the rock engravings were specially selected to offer the viewers a comprehensive visual and acoustic experience - a kind of prehistoric cinematic presentation. The researchers are now investigating this thesis using methods that are rather untypical for archaeologists: the very latest digital media technology from the areas of film and sound.


Dr Frederick Baker, who works at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge and is a guest lecturer at St. Pölten University of Applied Sciences, explains how this prehistoric cinema experience might have unfolded: "In our view, the images that the Copper Age people engraved in the rock are not random in nature and constitute active components of an audio-visual performance. The viewer's eye encountered one rock image first and was then steered from there to other locations with other such images. Moving images were not yet available; however, sequences of images were generated as if they are in animation. Moreover, the images were viewed in a deliberately selected environment, which often provided a spectacular vista of the surrounding valley landscape. In addition to the visual sense, the ear was also taken into consideration as the rock images can frequently be found in locations with special echoes. Consequently, these images are not static snapshots but images that generated narratives in the minds of their viewers   just like the cinema."

The rock-engraved "cinematic scenes" present, among other events, dueling, hunting scenes, houses and dancing people. It is interesting to note that death never appears in the images, and they rarely include women. The scenes - which represent the beginning of narrative art - were produced in the period between 2,500 and 14 BC. Thus, the rock images, which are distributed throughout Europe, extend from the very late Neolithic Age to Roman times. With 200,000 images, the highest concentration of such engravings is found in Val Camonica near the municipalities of Paspardo, Cimbergo, Nadro and Capo di Ponte in the Lombardy region of Northern Italy. New field studies, which form part of the project, are
being carried out there in September.


The research project makes use of the very latest digital media technologies. The rock art was filmed by Dr Baker with a crew from the Bauhaus University in Weimar lead by Professor Ben Sassen and Martin Saalfrank. The editing took place in Austria. The prize winning animator and project collaborator Michael Kren from the Institute for Media Production explains, St. Pölten University of Applied Sciences is making a major contribution to this investigation: "Using digital animation technology, we bring movement to the engraved images so they become a short animation film. One key question we can address is: how did the prehistoric people imagine movement in animals and human beings?"

In addition to animating the images, the researchers at St. Pölten University of Applied Sciences are also breathing new life into the acoustic accompaniment to the images which existed at the time, and are breaking new scientific ground in the process. To this effect, the project makes use of archeoacoustics - a recently-developed field of research that focuses on the acoustic characteristics of archaeological sites - as field researcher and engineer Astrid Drechsler explains, "We check out the sound system of each prehistoric cinema and examine whether locations with rock images offer a particular acoustic. In many cases we cannot do this with our ears alone. But, for example, if an echo is completely drowned out by a nearby motorway then it  can only be rediscovered with the help of complex noise filters."

In this way, the modern media technology takes us back to the world s first open air cinemas, which were in no way inferior to modern cinema, according to Dr Baker, who has made award winning films for the Cannes Film festival and the BBC, ORF and Arte.

A special feature of the Prehistoric Picture Project with the participation of St. Pölten University of Applied Sciences is the close partnership between the science and art. For example, at the beginning of the project, alphorn and trumpet players - like Christopher Well from the Bavarian folk music group the "Biermösl Blosn" - were invited to check whether an echo actually exists at the sites where the rock engravings were found. In addition, artists have also been invited to explore the prehistoric cinema and adopt it as an inspiration for artistic works. The initial results of this process can be viewed in the Klangturm St. Pölten gallery until November. An exhibition in Cambridge entitled "Pitoti" - the name given to the rock engravings in Valcamonica - will follow at the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in 2011.