Prehistoric Art is among the most important components of the European Heritage. It stands as an example of the diversity of the cultural memories of the European territories, but it also witnesses a common trend, a radical unity, in the emergence of symbolic behaviour.
European prehistoric art is one of the oldest attempt of Humankind to take symbolic possession of the landscape, and this is to be found, first in the world, in Europe. Moreover, research on European prehistoric art is directly related to one of the first discovery of Rock Art, at Altamira, and the recognition of the existence of different material supports for artistic manifestation in prehistoric times (rock art, mobile art, European scholars having also, through ethnographic work developed abroad, identified art on organic materials: e.g. wood, body).
Given the plural nature of prehistoric art, research has evolved in many different directions, with hyper micro-specialisation that lacks co-ordination, thus preventing easy access to information on its progress, both to the researchers and to the wider public. Although many publications are issued every year, on specific sites and regions, or on given periods, there is no project to centralise, and co-ordinate, all this information (even for scholars!).
Europeans have a vague awareness of this importance, an awareness that is conditioned, though, by the hyper-mediatic attention devoted to a very limited number of sites, and the ignorance of the absolute majority of them. This helps to understand the international polemic that took place before the preservation of the Côa valley engravings, in Portugal, or the power of attraction of sites like Grotte Chauvet, or Valcamonica. The public's awareness is, thus, a mixture of false ideas (on "major" sites) and lack of understanding of the richness and complexity of this Heritage.
It was based on these considerations that, over a year ago, a group of research centres and universities decided to launch the EuroPreArt project. The project aimed to establish a lasting data-base of European prehistoric art documentation, including images, to launch the base of an European institutional network of units devoted to this domain, and to contribute to the awareness, among European population, of the diversity and richness of European Prehistoric Art, as one of the oldest artistic expression of Humankind.
Ultimately, it should contribute to improve methodologies on techniques of inventory, storing data, interdisciplinarity, networking and accessibility/diffusion, namely using new information technologies.
Also, it aimed at co-ordinating the research efforts (through setting up a European network) and to integrate this research, from the start, with its diffusion (both to scholars and the wider public).
Such a task is, obviously, beyond the time span of the project (one year) and the size of the initial partnership. We wished to test a set of models and focused on selected clusters, examples of the diversity of sources, from rock art to mobile art, from Palaeolithic to the Bronze age, from old stored records to modern field work studies.
The main goals have been achieved. A data-base was established and tested against various types of evidences, the result being available through a CD-Rom and a web-site. The interface with the wider public was, yet, at the core of the project's concerns, in the sense of bridging the gap between scholars and public. To make Prehistoric Art available is essential, but it also implies a greater concern with its protection. Behaviour and ethical issues arise from this, and they are no news for archaeologists and prehistorians throughout the world. EuroPreArt designed as one major concern to produce a guide of good practice. This is the subject of intensive work from several teams, both at national and international levels. Again, it would not be possible to define "the" guide of good practice, not only for the short duration of the project, but mainly because this is a task to pursuit together with the international bodies, such as UISPP, IFRAO or ICOMO-CAR. We decided to compile a minimum set of guidelines and to attach some major international documents, in order to contribute for this debate. The scientific community, and in many cases the authorities, have reached a good degree of consensus, that did not yet found its translation into a common code. The readers will not find such a code in this publication, but we hope they may find some useful and systematic suggestions.
In the duration of its first year of activity, EuroPreArt created and tested a data-base, made it accessible though the web and published a CD-Rom and a book. Its methodology and first results were presented in several forae, namely in the XIVth Congress of the UISPP in Liège, September 2001. Many other research units through Europe expressed their interest in using this tool and, thus, joining the project. A first improvement on the data-base is being finished, considering the obtained results, in the context of a research degree dissertation.
We conceive this effort in the context of several other initiatives led by several scholars in Europe, and namely in the context of the debate to create a closer network of European Prehistoric Art researchers and managers.