Passions of ancient heart

Return to Chauvet Cave - Prehistoric Art

January 9, 2004

Steven Mithen is moved by hunter-gatherer images and symbols

The freshness of the remains gives the impression that, when we intruded into the cave, we interrupted the Aurignacians in their tasks and caused them to flee abruptly." So write Dominique Baffier and Valerie Feruglio about the Megaloceros gallery in Chauvet cave. Their vivid statement is applicable to practically any of the cave's galleries and chambers as described in Return to Chauvet Cave , a marvellous book written by the team of 30 specialists assembled by Jean Clottes. This team won the tender to study the cave from the French ministry of culture in May 1996, after a jury voted unanimously for their project in a secret ballot.

While Return to Chauvet Cave is a multi-authored, detailed study of a single cave, Prehistoric Art: The Symbolic Journey of Humankind by Randall White aspires to a single-authored global coverage of prehistoric art. Both books are so lavishly illustrated and beautifully designed that they are works of art in themselves. This is ironic because one of White's key arguments is that 20th-century conceptions of art have no meaning in any hunter-gatherer society known to anthropology and archaeology. "In order to understand the objects and images that we shall be looking at," he pleads, "we need to put aside our own culture's preconceptions about image-making." This is not easy when those preconceptions are continually reinforced by the way in which the objects and images are presented within his book.

White does not help his case with his several references to 20th-century art. He cites Picasso's often-quoted remark after a visit to the Lascaux caves that "we have discovered nothing new in art in 17,000 years", and he compares some images of ice-age art to the works of Van Gogh, Cézanne, Matisse and Seurat.

The dilemma White faces is that his book is targeted at several audiences with quite different demands. His is undoubtedly a coffee-table book, ideal for browsing by non-specialists, and for this reason it requires an excess of glossy pictures. It also aspires to be, and in many regards succeeds as, an academic text. It tackles many of the key problems regarding the interpretation of prehistoric art, often with great authority, depth and insight.

The passages regarding the "Venus" figurines and the late Pleistocene art of eastern Europe are particularly good and gave me a great deal of new information. But to succeed fully as an academic book Prehistoric Art would need to have a more extensive set of endnotes and bibliography; nevertheless it is a substantial improvement on its key competitor, Return to the Ice Age by Paul Bahn.

White tells us that the idea for the book was an "in depth, single-authored global survey of prehistoric art", and the book's title suggests this remained the intention. Although the author confines himself to the art of hunter-gatherers, European prehistory is covered only up to the end of the ice age, and thus this volume continues the neglect of European Mesolithic art.

The coverage of the rest of the world is rather idiosyncratic: that on the Near East strangely drifts into the art of farming communities, while in Australia there is an emphasis on the Holocene rock art rather than that of the Pleistocene - the precise reverse of the European coverage. This enables the author to cherry-pick the most striking images and case studies - fine for an introductory book but less satisfactory for an "in-depth" survey.

Prehistoric Art will certainly delight and fascinate any reader, and its chapters on Palaeolithic art in Europe make it the best introduction to this art available - a very significant achievement. But perhaps inevitably the book does not quite live up to its title: a complete survey of prehistoric art as "the symbolic journey of humankind". Indeed, I never grasped quite what the "symbolic journey" was, as one of White's messages is that the earliest art of the Palaeolithic was as sophisticated as that of 20th-century Aboriginal art.

This sophistication is quite evident from Return to Chauvet Cave , which describes the earliest-known representational art in the world. But again the book's title, or rather part of its subtitle, "The Birthplace of Art", is misleading. And how can a report be both the "first", implying more to come, but also "full"? In fact, the book is a major update of Chauvet Cave: The Discovery of the World's Oldest Paintings (1996), which demonstrates how the cave is even more remarkable than initially believed.

The opportunity and challenge of studying a previously untouched painted cave are described in an introductory chapter by Clottes, which also outlines the key methods employed. This is followed by a summary of the cave's geology and setting. Then comes a suite of radiocarbon dates (the largest number from any single cave) that demonstrate many paintings were made between 32,000 and 30,000 years ago, and a chapter describing the contextual information for the art: the human and animal footprints in the cave; bones that were deliberately inserted into the floor; flint implements that were either lost or intentionally discarded; smears of charcoal where flaming torches once brushed against cave walls; and bear skulls.

The core of the volume is a systematic and meticulous description of each gallery and chamber within the cave, followed by a study of the techniques used to create the images and then summaries of the different classes of image: the dots and hands, the signs, the human depictions, the indeterminate animals, and then each of the nine types of animal represented, from the rhinoceroses through the felines and ibex to the musk oxen. There is a remarkable wealth of information within these chapters, and page after page of astounding photographs, with a fabulous four-page fold-out illustrating an expanse of paintings within one of the chambers. I was shell-shocked simply turning the pages. Quite what it is like to visit the cave itself I cannot imagine.

Near the close of the book, a chapter titled "Other points of view" contains two short essays about Chauvet by non-specialists on Palaeolithic art. While it is laudable for Clottes and colleagues to state that they do not wish to "monopolise" the study of the cave, these two essays are woefully out of place. Up to this point, the text is a masterpiece of description and measured interpretation; but then we are suddenly back in the guesswork world of bear cults and how the "bowels of the earth symbolise fecundity". It is unfortunate that these essays were not kept with the other "personal statements" we are told will come later, presumably in a follow-up volume.

Readers should skip these essays and move directly to Clottes' conclusion, a succinct summary of what has been learnt since the 1996 publication. The cave is now known to possess twice as many paintings as originally thought, including 345 identified animals. It provides a unique suite of contextual information and a range of imagery that is even more dominated by the "non-hunted dangerous" animals than was once thought: 81 per cent of the images are of felines, mammoths, rhinoceroses, bears. There were at least two phases of human visits to the cave, the second between ,000 and 26,000 years ago, although no paintings have been dated to this period.

While the paintings in the entrance chambers are dominated by red figures and panels of hands and dots, those of the interior chambers are predominately black and of animals such as aurochs, bison and reindeer.

Some chambers and expanses of walls were deliberately left unpainted.

Finally, there is such unity in style to the art that it is likely the paintings were all created by a small number of people in a short period of time.

Like the art itself, Clottes' writing needs to be closely inspected and enjoyed. At first sight, it is a simple, dispassionate statement of fact about the discoveries, rather as the paintings themselves initially appear to be simple depictions of ice-age fauna. But his words are actually the product of deep passion; his love for the paintings feels as intense as that of the ice-age artists for their animals.

Rather than indulging in unwarranted interpretations of the art or succumbing to purple prose, Clottes chooses to express his passion through meticulous scientific study and description. His work, and that of his colleagues, must surpass even the highest expectations of that wise jury who voted for their project in 1996. It is the most fitting tribute to those who painted in Chauvet Cave so many millennia ago.

Steven Mithen is professor of early prehistory, University of Reading.

Return to Chauvet Cave: Excavating the Birthplace of Art: The First Full Report

Editor - Jean Clottes
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Pages - 225
Price - £45.00
ISBN - 0 500 51119 5

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