Cotsen Institute's Visiting Scholar Marina Gallinaro

Marina Gallinaro is a Marie-Curie Researcher (a program of the European Union) who will be working with Professors Richard Lesure and Willeke Wendrich at the CIOA for the next two years. Her fascinating project on the interpretation of rock art in the Sahara Desert is titled “Ancient Saharan Art – Decoding Art through Theoretically-Sounded Archives”. Following are excerpts from a recent interview.

What attracted you to the study of rock art?

            “Rock art is one of the most fascinating and widespread cultural manifestations of humankind: it offers a unique and significant visual archive into the social and symbolic worlds of past human societies,” according to Gallinaro.

            “I started in university in Rome doing classical philology…but I always had a very high interest in African countries.” After attending a course lesson by Donald Johanson, the paleoanthropologist who discovered “Lucy”, Gallinaro says, “I understood that this was my place.” She then focused her interest in the Saharan area because the University of Rome had two different archaeological missions in the field, and she had a chance to work on both of them. In particular she was interested in the interplay between humans and environment and on the strategies that humans adopted to cope with climatic changes. Up to the end of her PhD, she never worked on rock art, but after she finished her doctorate, she had a chance to start her archaeological collaboration with the Italian archaeological mission in the Sahara, directed by Prof. Savino di Lernia, in the area of two massifs known for their rock art. That is when she started to include rock art studies in her research questions. Her research addresses the emergence of herding in Africa through the analysis of the archaeological landscape and the connections between geomorphological features and different sets of archaeological data, including symbolic (rock art) and ceremonial evidence.

What is the focus of your current studies?

            “Unfortunately, (because of political turmoil) I cannot go back to the Saharan area do field work or analysis, so I decided to try to put together all the archived material on Central Sahara rock art. …I am starting with the archive of the Italian archaeological mission, who have worked there since the 1950’s and have collected a lot of data that are still in part unpublished. Hopefully I’ll also include data collected by other researchers who have agreed to share their archives.”

            “The first step will be to publish an open access atlas with the rock art sites known in the Central Sahara, specifically for the Southwestern side of Libya, properly customized for scientific research, CRM, dissemination and communication.”  She is working with Deidre Whitmore, Manager of the Cotsen’s Digital Archaeology Lab, to set up this atlas. The second step, she added, involved working with Prof. Lesure to focus on the parts of these archives that includes some pastoral rock paintings or engravings, trying to understand if we can find a sort of key to interpret this evidence…”

        “Rock art studies have always been at the side of archaeological and anthropological research” because of the big issue that we cannot date rock art, she explained. She added that recent developments in the use of digital technology to study rock art and the use of isotopic and physicochemical studies are opening new challenging perspectives of research. “This project proposes a multidisciplinary and systematic approach combining archaeology, anthropology, visual studies, and digital humanities,” she added.

How did you decide that the Cotsen was the place to pursue your research?

            “Since I was a student, I followed the Cotsen site and the post doc calls that the Cotsen posted…but I had never been in the U.S. before.” Gallinaro was also familiar with the Egyptian work of CIOA Director Wendrich.  When Gallinaro was working on a postdoc in Sardinia on the human representations in rock art and in figurines in the Mediterranean and African areas, she invited Prof. Lesure to a seminar she had organized. She knew his work on prehistoric figurines in Mexico. They eventually met, and a couple of years ago she discussed her plans to apply for the Marie Curie fellowship, which would allow her to study in a foreign country. Lesure agreed to be one of her supervisors if she received the grant.

So what is your first impression of the United States, as seen from your base here in Los Angeles?

            “I never thought I would be coming to the U.S. I don’t know why”. Here in L.A., Gallinaro explains, “I was so excited to be by the sea coast because I am from an island (Sardinia), so I am happy.” This excitement has, of course, been dampened by the many recent days of rain, so she has not yet had a chance to visit L.A., except for Santa Monica. “People here are really great because they are kind and open. It is not easy because my family is in Italy, “ but she pointed out that her Italian supervisor (Savino di Lernia) is also in L.A. at this time on a scholarship at the Getty. His presence and the welcoming attitude of faculty and staff at UCLA have made the transition easier for her.