The Cave Art Paintings of the Chauvet Cave

The Cave Paintings of Chauvet by Damon de Laszlo

Damon de Laszlo
Damon de Laszlo
To visit Chauvet Cave is a unique experience in every sense of the word that its description encourages hyperbole. Pictures that were painted over 32,000 years ago in a place that no one has been into for over 11,000 years, that was rediscovered just before Christmas in 1994, since then less than a hundred people have viewed its walls. By comparison, over one thousand people have stood on the top of Everest and viewed the world!
My journey to Chauvet started with the sight of ancient rock paintings in Australia and the development of a fascinating enquiry into the origins of artistic man. A fascination shared with John Robinson and Robert Hefner III, which led to the creation of the Bradshaw Foundation some 13 years ago.
Since then many interesting and exciting archaeological sites have been explored on expeditions often led by Jean Clottes, who was the architect of this visit, our guide and mentor. Robert Hefner III and I were accompanied by Peter Robinson, the Editor and Project Controller of the Bradshaw Foundation.
We were also honoured to be accompanied by Jill Cook, the doyenne of prehistory at the British Museum, and a new member of the Bradshaw Foundation Advisory Board.
To have Jean and Jill, two of the world’s leading experts on the subject, with us for dinner on the previous day, during the expedition, and for a post expedition analysis was a privilege that is unquantifiable.
The journey itself along the Ardeche to Chauvet is in its own right an extraordinary road. The river Ardeche cuts a deep gorge in the limestone hills that creates an eerie beauty all of its own.
The river, in a sharp bend, has carved its way through the mountain, creating a huge limestone arch, a magnificent watery gateway to the plateau in front of the caves.
Today the caves are approached by walking along a fault line in the rock to an entrance hidden from view. In prehistory, before the landslide that blocked the old entrance, one can speculate this vista would also have been magnificent.
The procedure of dressing in overalls and kitting out in helmets, lights, security harnesses and specialised boots is exciting but even entering the cave through steel doors and airlocks and descending through complex levels attaching one’s security harness to safety ropes, does not warn the mind that it is about to enter an awe-inspiring cavern.
Bears in the Chauvet Cave
Chauvet Cave Bears
Click photograph for enlargement
The first chamber with its pristine covering of calcite un-dulled by organic growth, so usually found in caves today, sparkles like diamonds. Looking up one sees a clear outline of a turtle, as though it was swimming above one in the rock formation.
Walking along stainless steel gantries that protect the floor of the cave from modern intruders, one is left speechless by the beauty of the stalactites, stalagmites and translucent curtain stalactites that sparkle and glow in the helmet lights.
The second chamber is huge; the floor is dented with bear hollows, the first signs of habitation. The skulls of these huge bears, their bones and claw marks are everywhere; an eerie and bizarre sight. Some of these animals were 8ft tall; it must have been nerve racking entering a cave at the end of the winter hibernation. But again one is still totally unprepared for the first panels of drawings, the evidence of a sophisticated human presence.
Entering the third chamber and looking back one sees a charming naïve owl looking over its shoulder at you.
Chauvet Cave Art Owl Painting
The Owl
Click photograph for enlargement
On a gentle gradient, one descends on through the various extraordinary glittering chambers in what can only be described as the 'Womb of civilization'.
This final chamber appears to be the high alter of the subterranean complex, because of the subject matter, stylization, symbolism and composition. It takes perhaps an hour to digest what is going on, and it is only on departing, as we return past the owl, does the bird’s significance become apparent. A creature that sees in the dark, it peers back over its shoulder into that powerful atmosphere, as if to emphasize the importance and dramatic nature of the recent experience.
The main picture galleries of Chauvet are the first evidence we have of highly sophisticated human art; large drawings created an inconceivable 32,000+ years ago.
These people, who have left us their footprints and pictures, were living in a hostile environment! The climate was arctic and their tools were stone. Their food was probably mostly meat, cooked over open hearths, and the meat was from ibex, reindeer (possibly the first domesticated animal), wild horses and hyena-like creatures. Woolly mammoths, lions, bears and woolly rhinoceros roamed the landscape.
Chauvet Cave Art Lions Painting
Panel of the Lions
Click photograph for enlargement
In spite of the environment this Palaeolithic civilisation produced exquisite and sensitive drawings in charcoal, ochre and sometimes in relief on the cave walls. They appear to be at one with the animals, who are not threatening, much as modern man is not frightened of the traffic in Piccadilly. In places they used the natural rock surfaces to give the illusion of three dimensions to their pictures.
Animals race across the surfaces, others pair off and in some places appear to fight.
The images are clear but interpreting the whole is difficult or impossible. The scene does not form an integrated picture. Were the artists focused on depicting one animal at a time?
Most extraordinary of all, however, are the creatures that emerge from large fissures in the rock as though they were metamorphosing out of the dark recesses of the mountain. Here there seems to be a theme but again one has to be careful. Are we imposing our way of thinking on a society that lived in an incomprehensibly different world?
Taking the left fork in the cave system following the direction of a beautiful panel of horses one comes to a stop.
Chauvet Cave Skull Altar
Bear Skull Altar
Click photograph for enlargement
There in the middle of the arch of the cave is a grey stone block that appears to have fallen from the ceiling, surrounded by amber red calcified bear skulls. On top of the block, projecting forward is the skull of a large bear. I can only, with difficulty, leave the question of "Who, When and Why" alone. We have no insight into these extraordinary peoples' thinking; let’s not impose our need for answers by projecting our foibles on to them.
One can see, without going further, that the bear was an important factor in these peoples' lives.
Standing in flickering torchlight, the ambient temperature and absolute stillness deprives the senses of the normal background radiation of sounds and movement that is our constant companion in the modern world. There is also a slight shortage of oxygen which dulls the senses. You can hear the walls; and the pictures induce a sense of movement, even smell, and perhaps a little fear. One is allowed to admit such feelings among friends?
As well as the cold and less than friendly animals, one also has to wonder what it was like to meet Neanderthal man. He also had settlements in the area.
To visit the cave by firelight must have been awe-inspiring and wholly spiritual, to a point that we cannot conceive of, in our modern, affluent and relatively safe world.
For us, the descendants of these great human pioneers: we have experienced something that bestows on us privilege and an insight into life that must be cherished with humility.
Damon de Laszlo - 2005
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