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Circle Sign

Geometric ring-shaped symbol
Used in paleolithic cave art

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Prehistoric Circle Sign, Ring-shaped Geometric Symbol
A Paleolithic circle symbol. Image by Cave Signs Design. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

What is a Circle Sign?

In prehistoric art, a "circle" sign is a common geometric motif used in both cave painting and rock engravings.

It is a curvilinear ring-shaped symbol, not to be confused with its nearest relatives - half-circles and ovals. It is one of the easiest symbols to draw or engrave.

The importance of this symbol derives from the fact that it's one of only 32 abstract signs to be found in Upper Paleolithic art between 40,000 and 10,000 BC.

So says Canadian prehistorian Genevieve von Petzinger, a leading authority on non-figurative imagery during the Stone Age.

Prevalence

"Circle signs" are present in twenty-nine French paleolithic caves, or roughly 19 percent of the total.

In comparison, less common cave signs include: Reniforms (2%), Scalariforms (2%), Spirals (2%), and Zigzags (4.5%).

Which Caves Contain Circle Signs?

Prehistoric caves in France that contain "circle symbols" include:

Dating

"Circle signs" appear during all four phases of paleolithic art: Aurignacian (40,000-30,000 BC), Gravettian (30,000-20,000 BC), Solutrean (20,000-15,000 BC) and Magdalenian (15,000-10,000 BC).

According to Petzinger, the largest frequency of circle signs occurred during the Aurignacian (42.9%), after which its incidence declined during the Gravettian (14.8%) and Solutrean (15.2%) periods, before rising again during the Magdalenian period (29.9%).

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Geographical Distribution

The circle motif enjoys broad distribution during the Aurignacian, with sites in the Périgord, on the Mediterranean coast, and in the Ardèche. It is almost certainly present in Spanish caves within the region of Franco-Cantabrian art.

In the Gravettian, distribution is limited to three sites in the Lot/Périgord region, and one site near the Pyrénées.

During the Solutrean, the sign returns to the Ardèche (two sites), maintains a presence in the Périgord (two sites), and one site close to the Pyrénées.

The Magdalenian sees the sign disappear from the Ardèche/Gard region, but settle along the foothills of the Pyrénées (ten sites). In addition, it is present in five sites in the Périgord, and two sites to the north, Gouy being in the far north, and Blanchard located halfway in between.

Meaning of the Circle Sign

The circle is a universal symbol or pictograph, which has been used in countless ancient designs.

Its simple shape suggests a continuous flow in an endless loop without beginning or end - an ideal motif to represent eternity.

Hence its purpose is often to represent the divine, or the infinite being. Like no other form, the shape serves as a tangible expression of infinity.

It is surely no coincidence that Stonehenge is a stone circle, rather than a stone rectangle; nor that the rose window in Chartres Cathedral is circular in design, not triangular.

The "circle shape" is an intrinsic element in many other motifs. Some of these include the Yin and Yang symbol, the Spiral, the Labyrinth and the Mandala.

The circle is also a fundamental geometric structure, which is omnipresent in physics and chemistry.

The carbon cycle regulates life on Earth, planets circle their star, atoms revolve in a circular motion around their nucleus. We even enter the world through a circular opening.

The circle is also considered one of the strongest structures because stress is evenly distributed along the arc instead of being concentrated at one point.

All this helps to explain the potential meaning and significance - but above all, the power - of the circle sign.

Of course, no one knows why Paleolithic Man responded to the circle sign, but respond he did. Otherwise the sign wouldn't have been painted and engraved on cave walls for almost thirty thousand years.

Perhaps, one day, we'll find out why our ancestors used these strange signs, and what they meant. Then again, perhaps not.

Related Articles

For details of other rare cave signs and geometric symbols, see the following articles:

References

"The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World's Oldest Symbols." Genevieve von Petzinger. Atria; Illustrated edition (28 Mar. 2017) ISBN-10: 1476785503. ISBN-13: 978-1476785509.

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