BP: Time for a Change

Jesse R Townsley

Editorial Department, Lithic Age Art & Design Research, URL: <http://www.lithicage.net>. 104 Paul’s Way, Ithaca, NY 14850 USA. Email: jesstowns@gmail.com.

[This article was published in: Radiocarbon, 59(1), 177-178. doi:10.1017/RDC.2017.2]

Abstract. This article proposes a solution to the problem of defining the “present” in the BP time scale as 1950. Discouraging the use of “Before Present”, as well as “Before Physics”, and promoting Radiocarbon’s official definition of “BP is understood as a symbol meaning precisely ‘conventional radiocarbon years before AD 1950’” is advised.


The BP time scale had no reference year when it first came into use in the 1950s, authors simply stated dates in terms of “Before the Present”. This resulted in dates in the time scale being published with differing reference points. A 1962 Radiocarbon editorial statement addressed this “increasingly ambiguous and confusing” situation by establishing BP’s standard reference year as AD 1950. The statement noted that 1950 was chosen as the time scale’s reference point to honor W.F. Libby, who published the first radiocarbon dates in December 1949, and because 1950 is “arithmetically more convenient than A.D. 1955 or A.D. 1962.” The editorial statement also redefined the meaning of BP as “Before Physics”.1

The use of 1950 as the reference year for the BP time scale became standard practice. Radiocarbon’s redefinition of BP as “Before Physics”, however, did not meet with majority approval. While the specific date for the advent of physics may be debatable, it can be seen that setting it at 1950 is not substantiated by the historical record. Isaac Newton lived from 1642–1727, the laws of thermodynamics were established in the 1800s, and modern physics, including experiments in radiation and Einstein’s first theories, emerged around the turn of the 19th to the 20th century. Whether unaware of the meaning change or simply unwilling to go along with placing the birth of physics at 1950, the majority of authors continued using “Before Present” as the accepted meaning for BP. For example, in “A note on reporting radiocarbon” published in 2006, Plicht and Hogg wrote, “The 14C ages thus calculated are reported in BP or ‘‘Before Present’’. Van der Plicht and Hogg further noted that “The use of the word ‘‘Present’’ in the unit ‘‘BP’’ can cause confusion because ‘‘Present’’ in this term corresponds to the standard activity and 1950 AD not the present day.”2 Scientific Style and Format currently defines the meaning of BP as “Before Present”.3

More than six decades ago, Abel expressed the view that “physicists seem to feel that time stopped somewhere around the year 1950.”4 It seems overdue that “the present” be freed from January 1, 1950.

Proposed Solution

Radiocarbon’s current style manual for contributors states, “In a radiocarbon context, BP is understood as a symbol meaning precisely ‘conventional radiocarbon years before AD 1950.’”5 This definition solves the problems inherent with the meanings “Before Present” and “Before Physics” and should become the standard meaning for BP. This would require that both the meanings “Before Present” and “Before Physics” be officially discarded and the symbol BP be stated as identifying the time scale. Standard practice already avoids defining BP when dates are reported in it. Scientific Style and Format advises, “For any geochronologic date that has been correctly expressed (e.g., 1990 BP or 1990 Ma BP), do not add a term such as ‘ago’ or ‘before the present’”.6 Therefore, ceasing to define BP as either “Before Present” or “Before Physics” would not change the way the majority of authors use and report dates in the time scale. BP is already functioning on its own, so it does not need yet another meaning with words beginning with the letters “B” and “P”.

An official definition of the term could then be something similar to the following:

BP– A time scale which places past events in terms of “conventional radiocarbon years before AD 1950’”. 1950 was chosen as the year at which to begin the BP time scale to commemorate the first publication of radiocarbon dates in December 1949. Originally BP stood for “Before Present”, now the symbol BP itself signifies the time scale.

The proposed meaning alteration basically codifies the way BP has come to be used in practice, with the main change being that authors would be freed from the practice of saying that “the present” is defined as 1950. It is time to institute Radiocarbon’s practice of defining BP as ‘conventional radiocarbon years before AD 1950’ in both scientific and popular references to the time scale, finally bringing an end to “The age where the present appeared to become stuck in 1950”.

1. Flint, R.F. and Deevey, E.S. 1962. Editorial Statement. Radiocarbon 4(1):i–ii.
2. van der Plicht, J. and Hogg, A. 2006. A note on reporting radiocarbon. Quaternary Geochronology 1(4):237–240.
3. Council of Science Editors. 2014. Scientific Style and Format. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p 196.
4. Abel, L. 1953. Radiocarbon Dates—A Suggestion. American Antiquity 19(2):158.
5. Radiocarbon. Instructions for Contributors. URL: <https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/radiocarbon/information/instructions-contributors>
6. Council of Science Editors. 2014. Scientific Style and Format. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p 197-198.

Adding a Design Perspective 

Jesse Townsley
Editor of Lithic Age Art & Design Research1

Various problems have been cited with the ways the term “art” has been used in Paleolithic art theory and rock art research. As Moro Abadia has written, “since the 1980s, some English-speaking scholars have attacked the concept of ‘art’ in ‘Palaeolithic art’. They have argued that ‘art’ is a Western concept that does not have universal validity, a label that has contributed to condense all the diversity of Pleistocene media into a single category and, additionally, a modern category associated with the Western idea of ‘aesthetic’” (Moro Abadia 2013). Chippindale has added, “What we call ‘ancient art’ may not have been art in its own cultural making. And a given ancient society’s concept most closely approximating our idea of art may not have encompassed the range of things that seem to us to be the ‘art’ of that culture” (Chippindale 2001).

A number of alternatives have been suggested, including “images” (Renfrew and Morley 2007), “imagery” (Conkey 2010), “representations” (White 2003), “pictures” (Clegg 1986), and “markings” (Bahn and Vertut 1988). The term “visual culture” has been used to try to remove the status historically given to “the fine arts” of painting, drawing, engraving, and sculpture and to include other forms of visual expression (Alpers 1983).2 The phrase “spatial arts” has similarly been used to broaden the category of “art” beyond the products of visual perception (Summers 2003). Along these lines, authors such as Dissanayake have made the case that art also encompasses dance, song, poetry, etc., “that is, all the arts” (Dissanayake 2013). Dobrez has suggested the term “re-presentation” to try to convey this sort of awareness (Dobrez 2013). Meanwhile, Chippindale has pointed out that, during the 20th century, the term art came to include “anything and everything that an artist defines as art” (Chippindale 2001). Thus, ultimately, it seems that art can be just about anything at all, and what is and isn’t art can depend on personal preference. Even things unconnected to artists can be associated with the term; for example, a search for the phrase “the art of” in the book section of amazon.com, produces, as of the writing of this article, a list of over 2 million titles. Included are The Art of War, The Art of the Deal, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

As we can see,“art” as a category does not make a sturdy box. It’s more like a very large cloud—it doesn’t contain things very well and it itself cannot be contained. All in all, there appears to be a rather large amount of chaos surrounding the term. One solution for this problem may be to replace, over time, some of art’s various meanings and sub-categories with a group of new words. Researchers would then have more options when looking at, thinking about, classifying, and describing artifacts.

Art and Design
One source to search for suitable terms for reducing the confusion surrounding the term “art” is the field of design. Art and design are linked—artists often do preliminary designs before starting a final version of a piece and designers often use art, and art principles, in their work. Art history is part of the academic training in both art and design. The differences between art and design, however, are what may be of most value to rock art researchers.

Design Council, a UK non-profit organization which works with government, universities, and private businesses, has stated that design can be viewed as “an activity that translates an idea into a blueprint for something useful, whether it’s a car, a building, a graphic, a service or a process” (Design Council 2009). This suggests one of the ways a design perspective could be beneficial to Lithic Age art research in general. The term “art” still carries vestiges of the nineteenth-century view that contrasted ‘art’ with ‘function’ and ‘art’ with ‘primitive society’ (Palacio-Pérez 2013). Because the design world is largely involved in creating things that are useful, the field doesn’t have the sort of ethnocentric prejudice that the term “art” has carried against “function” and against cultures having different approaches to visual/spatial arts than Western Europe. It is very possible that many of the artifacts from Paleolithic cultures were actually created to be functional in some way. Additionally, design is generally involved in aspects of day-to-day life, with social life often being a factor. A project is not generally started because a certain person had something on their mind or they simply felt like doing it. Rather, a specific set of goals for how a project will affect people’s lives usually precedes work on a design project. As many Lithic Age artifacts may have served specific functions, some of them social functions, a design perspective may be more appropriate for the study of these artifacts than that of art.

Using Terms from Design in Rock Art Research
To show how terms from design can be used in rock art research, let us first look at a certain aspect of Lithic Age geometric signs. First, a description by Bahn: “[Breuil] saw that some panels at Niaux covered in dots and lines were located just where the main passage divided, and felt that the marks might therefore be topographic guides. There do seem to be occasional links between ‘signs’ and important places in a cave: at Lascaux, for example, some lines of dots are located at points of topographic transition, and similarly in other sites signs are positioned where passages turn, become narrow or branch off” (Bahn 1988). Aczel has reported similar panels in the cave of Rouffignac being referred to as “indicative panels” (Aczel 2009). In classifying ancient petroglyphs in the US Southwest, Martineau has stated, “After recording information upon such an out-of-the-way rock, the author would place on a conspicuous rock, symbols directing passers-by to the hidden panel. Panels giving such directions are therefore termed locators” (Martineau 1973).

In the world of graphic design, symbols and signs that aid navigation are often included under the heading of “signage”. Rock art researchers have, in fact, suggested that some of the geometric signs may have functioned as caravan traffic signs or territorial delimitations (Bahn and Vertut 1988). Systems of “signage” which give people directions in navigating are sometimes referred to in graphic design as being involved in “wayfinding”. So, already we have a list of terms from the world of Design to suggest for use in Lithic Age art research: “wayfinding”, “signage”, “graphic”, “design”, and “graphic design”.

“Design” and “graphic” have had some previous use in rock art research. Leroi-Gourhan has referred to “the meaning of the designs” (Leroi-Gourhan 1982) and Conkey has written about “geometric or animal designs”. Conkey has also used “design” as an adjective in such phrases as “design elements and principles” and “design structural approach” (Conkey 1981). Leroi-Gourhan and Conkey appear to have been thinking in terms of the meaning for “design” of “the arrangement of elements or details in a product or work of art” (2006). Dowson, meanwhile, has referred to “non-Western art, design and architectural traditions” (Dowson 2007) which, in separating art from design, is essentially the meaning for “design” that I am advocating.

The adjective “graphic” has also already seen use in Lithic Age art research, such as in “graphic depictions” (Dowson 2007), “graphic vocabularies”(McDonald and Veth 2012), “Paleolithic graphic expression” (Palacio-Pérez 2013), “iconic graphic depiction” (Bednarik 2013); “graphic communication” (von Petzinger 2015); “los materiales gráficos” (graphic materials) (Montañés 2015).

The term “graphic” has some complications. Oxford Dictionaries/US definition 1 for “graphic” includes “Of or relating to visual art”. Oxford then defines “visual art” as “Creative art whose products are to be appreciated by sight, such as painting, sculpture, and film-making (as contrasted with literature and music)”. (Oxford 2016). Meanwhile Merriam-Webster defines “graphic” as “of or relating to the pictorial arts; also : pictorial”. At “pictorial”, definition 1, in Merriam-Webster there is “of or relating to a painter, a painting, or the painting or drawing of pictures” (Merriam-Webster 2016). So, these definitions show that the term “graphic” means somewhat different things to different people. By itself, the term “graphic” can apply to painting and drawing, and may or may not apply to sculpture and filmmaking depending upon which dictionary, and definition, one wishes to consult. Further, for the related term “graphic arts” in Oxford definition 1 is “The visual arts based on the use of line and tone rather than three-dimensional work or the use of color” (Oxford 2016). However, in Merriam-Webster we find definition 1 for “graphic arts” being “the fine and applied arts of representation, decoration, and writing or printing on flat surfaces together with the techniques and crafts associated with them” (Merriam-Webster 2016). So the phrase “graphic arts” applies to visual arts based on the use of line and tone, with the use of color being possibly included or not, again depending upon which dictionary one consults. The printing-related meanings of the term “graphic” for the most part would not apply to the study of Lithic Age works, except perhaps for the case of hand prints, some of which may have been printed multiple times from a single application of paint, thus technically qualifying them for the category of printing.

The concept of graphic design could be of particular benefit to rock art research in a way alluded to in the following definition: “Graphic design, also known as communication design, is the art and practice of planning and projecting ideas and experiences with visual and textual content. It canbe for any purpose, whether commercial, educational, cultural, or political ” (AIGA). Being that graphic design involves both visual and linguistic communication, its perspective unites what are often two separate worlds. One of the ways this could benefit rock art research is in the study of the geometric signs, which von Petzinger and others suggest may involve, in some cases, elements of language without the signs constituting a fully-functional linguistic system (von Petzinger 2015). There are numerous examples of Lithic Age markings with geometric signs placed near or on figurative art. Such panels could entail a combination of visual thinking with at least some aspects of linguistic thinking, and therefore a graphic design perspective could help in their study.

With this background in mind, for the purposes of Lithic Age art research, I intend to use the term “graphic”, either by itself or in the phrase “graphic arts”, to include painting, drawing, and engraving of both figurative and non-figurative works, but not sculpture. A final detail in this regard is that the word “graphic” can also be used as a noun meaning “a picture, map, or graph used for illustration” (Merriam-Webster). I will also at times use “graphic” as a noun when referring to both figurative and non-figurative two-dimensional, or “mostly” two-dimensional, Lithic Age artifacts of a visual nature. (The qualification “mostly two-dimensional” is included to account for the grey area caused by the preHistoric3 use of bumps, crevices, etc. on surfaces in drawings, paintings, and engravings.)4

As for “wayfinding”, it is a form of “environmental graphics” and refers to “the branding and signage applied throughout and on buildings. While each sign or symbol in a public or private building is a work of design, they’re all part of a larger system within the building” (AIGA). Considering that buildings as we know them did not exist during much of the Paleolithic age and that caves at times served some of the functions of buildings, it seems reasonable that rock art research could include markings in caves as possible examples of wayfinding. Additionally, considering the similarities between indoor and outdoor navigation signage (and that wayfinding is considered a form “environmental graphics”), rock art researchers may also wish to expand the meaning of “wayfinding” to include outdoor markings such as those discussed previously by Martineau.

Ideal Types and Continua
An advantage of the system of replacing certain uses of the word “art”, along with some of the terms now included in “art” as a category, with a set of new terms is that this system could be of use both to researchers wishing to continue using the word “art” as well as those choosing to avoid it. Speaking from the pro-use side, Chippindale has written: “For all its difficulties and false associations, our word “art” does convey some essentials applicable to prehistoric rock art. Included among these essentials are the idea of pictures of subjects, often of physical objects; the notion of skill and accomplishment in their making; the concept of images, things that stand for other things; and the hint that these images may to an extent be separate from the mundane objects of everyday physical existence” (Chippindale 2001).

A way of revising the term “art” without discarding it entirely would be to place it at one end of a continuum, with “design” at the other end. We don’t have a way of knowing for sure what meanings the markings and some of the objects had for the Lithic Age people who created them, so placing hard lines between categories in this case is often not possible. “Art” could be thought of in terms of things that produce a mostly psychological experience and “design” could be considered as producing things that tend to fulfill some physical, and possibly socially-related, function. This continuum would not carry the assumption that art is of higher value than the creation of things that are physically functional; art and design are both valuable, but in different ways. Artifacts could then be placed somewhere on the continuum, not necessarily having to be deemed strictly either art or design.

A system of coarse-grain classification of artifacts might involve a framework of the following four terms: “art”, “design”, “craft”, and “industry”. Again, these terms would not carry the prejudice they have at certain times in the past. Design, craft, and industry are not lesser activities than art, they just serve somewhat different purposes. Those people who value physically functional over non-utilitarian psychological activities might actually argue that design, craft, and industry are more valuable than art. The edges of these four categories would still involve a certain amount of indistinctness, but the lack of specificity from the overuse of the term “art” could be clarified, along with aiding in the question of how to categorize non-art visual artifacts. Some of depictions of animals and humans, for example, could remain in the category of “art”. Some of the non-figurative marks, such as the possible “wayfinding” signs, could be placed in the category of “design” (perhaps specifically “graphic design”.) Much of the pottery, clothing, etc. could be referred to as craft—and in fact some of these have been classified as such at various times in the past. Some of the toolmaking, especially lithic points for example, have already been referred to as being part of an “industry”.

One way of looking at this four-category system of coarse-grain classification might be as a continuum with four ends rather than two. There are cases where some of the four categories could be combined when studying certain artifacts. For example, the first person who carved a spearthrower with the shape of a deer with two birds sitting on its excrement could be considered as having created art or design, depending partially upon one’s sense of aesthetics, while the spearthrower itself could be included in the category of an “industrial” tool. Those Paleolithic craftsmen/toolmakers who then copied that particular design could be considered as having done craft and industry. Decorations on tools, etc. could be viewed as a combination of design and craft, and, if sufficiently innovative or well-done, could also be considered as art. The actual fabrication of the lithic points could be referred to as an industry, while certain aspects of their design could be thought of in terms of “industrial design”.

4 way continuum outlines 2

Note that some markings which appear to us to be decoration or abstract signs may have actually been stylized figurative representations in the cultures in which the artifacts were created. Markings appearing to be merely decorative could have actually added significance and perhaps been integral to an artifact’s function.5 White has posted the warning “It cannot be overemphasized that the twentieth-century European and American conception of art has no meaning in any non-Western hunting-and-gathering society known to anthropology. In order to understand the objects and images that we shall be looking at, we need to put aside our own culture’s preconceptions about image-making” (White 2003). Wariness of observer bias and presentism, along with mindfulness of what is simply not known, are indeed crucial to the study of Lithic Age artifacts.

The categories and terms I have suggested adding to the rock art research lexicon are therefore not intended to be used as definitive readings of artifacts. Instead, they are meant to aid in the process of describing possible interpretations of artifacts. Hopefully some of these suggested interpretations, along with their subsequent discussion, will lead to a better understanding of Lithic Age artifacts, as well as the people of the cultures who created them. I plan to elaborate on many of these points in future articles.

February 11, 2016

Jesse Townsley has a BS in Graphic Design and worked for over three decades in the industry, including 18 years at the Tibetan Buddhist publisher Snow Lion. Townsley is currently an artist, as well as the editor of Lithic Age Art & Design Research. He lives in Ithaca, NY.

I would like to thank Genevieve von Petzinger for all the help and advice she’s given me over the last couple of years. I would also like to thank David Mudd for his insightful comments and suggestions. Huge thanks to Rick Biesantz for his astute editorial work on this article. Finally, I would very much like to thank Jeanne Subialka; Chrissy Butler; Karen Biesantz; Valerie, Carole, Dorcas, and Jesse M. Townsley for going on this journey with me and for their encouragement and support.

1. As I was unable to find a term that included both the Paleolithic and Neolithic ages, plus transition periods between the two, I decided to use “Lithic Age” to serve this function.
2. In using the term “visual culture”, Alpers was interested in countering the lofty status given to the Italian fine arts above those of other nationalities, as well as including other forms of visual art in the purview of art history.
3. “Pre-History” is a term suggested by Robert Bednarik to fix various issues related to “prehistoric”. See http://www.ifrao.com/ifrao-glossary.
4. Relief engravings may also lie in this grey area of dimensionality.
5. David Mudd, e-mail message to author, January 31, 2016.

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