Obviously, rock art locations heavily depend upon the presence (or absence) of caves and shelters. However, areas which one might have thought favourable on that account, such as Languedoc, Roussillon, Provence or again the valleys and causses in the south of Quercy and Aveyron have few or no painted or engraved sites. Cultural choices were a determining factor. Differential preservation is another one, as many caves and shelters may have been destroyed by all sorts of phenomena. For example, at the end of the last glaciation, the 115 meters rise of the sea flooded dozens of caves in the Mediterranean. Several could have had wall art. Only one was partly preserved (Cosquer).
The major ones are Cougnac and Pech-Merle. The Pyrenees constitute a group equivalent to that of Quercy. Its thirty-odd painted or engraved caves are mostly Magdalenian, but a few are older (Gargas, some galleries in Les Trois-Freres and Portel). They are often to be found in small groupings, like the Basque caves in the Arbailles mountains in the west of the chain, the three Volp Caves, and the six caverns in the Tarascon-sur-Ariege Basin. Several are most important (Niaux, Les Trois-Freres, Le Tuc d’Audoubert, Le Portel, Gargas).
The lower valley of the Ardeche used to be considered as a minor group - numbering about twenty caves - before the discovery of the Chauvet Cave, in itself a most exceptional site. The other caves and shelters with rock art are scattered in various places : the Cosquer Cave Provence by the Mediterranean, Pair-non-Pair in the Gironde, Le Placard, La Chaire-a-Calvin, Roc-de-Sers in the Charente, Le Roc-aux- Sorciers and its splendid sculptures in the Vienne, the two caves of Arcy-sur-Cure in Burgundy, the Mayenne Sciences cave in the Mayenne, one or two shelters in the Fontainebleau Forest and two other caves, including Gouy, in Normandy.
Clottes 1997). Three main cases can be distinguished : - the deep caves, for which an artificial light was necessary; - the shelters which were more or less lit up by natural light ; - the open air sites. The latter are essentially known in Spain and Portugal. Only one case has been discovered in France (the engraved rock at Campome in the Pyrenees-Orientales). The art in the light and the art in the dark: those two tendencies have coexisted for all the duration of the Paleolithic. The art in the dark was preferred in certain areas (the Pyrenees) and at certain periods (Middle and Late Magdalenian). The low-relief sculptures are only to be found in shelters. On the other hand, the paintings which used to exist in shelters have for the most part eroded away and only very faint traces remain, contrary to engravings which could in many cases be preserved in them.
In the shelters, there have most often been settlements next to the wall art. People lived there and went on with their daily pursuits close to the engravings, the paintings and low-relief sculptures. The case is quite different for the deep caves which usually remained uninhabited. This must mean that the art of the one and that of the other were probably not considered in the same way: in the deep caves the images were nearly never defaced, destroyed or erased, where as in the shelters the archaeological layers - i.e. the rubbish thrown away by the group - often ended up by covering up the art on the walls (Gourdan, Le Placard). The art inside the caves was respected, while the art in the shelters eventually lost its interest and protection.
Above all, Paleolithic art, from beginning to end, is an art of animals. In the past few years, some specialists have insisted upon the importance of geometric signs. It is true that those signs and indeterminate traces are numerically more important than the animals and that they constitute one of the major characteristics of the art. Under their most elementary forms, as clouds of dots and small red bars, they can be found from the Aurignacian in Chauvet to the Middle and Late Magdalenian in Niaux. They are the most mysterious images in cave art. Very few caves have none (Mayriere superieure, La Magdelaine) or, on the contrary, have nothing but geometric signs (Cantal and Frayssinet-le- Gelat in the Lot). This means that those signs are practically always associated to animals, either in the same caves and often on the same panels or directly on top of them (G.R.A.P.P. 1993).
Horses are dominant. Locally they may be outnumbered by bison (the Ariege Pyrenees;) or hinds (Cantabrian Spain), occasionally even by rhinoceroses and lions at the very beginning (Chauvet) or, much later, by mammoths at Rouffignac (Plassard 1999). None the less, they always remain numerous whatever techniques were used at any period and in any region. We might say that the theme of the horse is at the basis of Paleolithic rock art. This is all the more remarkable as that animal, even though present among the cooking debris of Paleolithic living sites, was often less plentifully killed and eaten than reindeer and bison, or again ibex in mountainous rocky areas. This means that it played a major role in the bestiary. The same could be said, even if less so, for the bison, whose images are also found in relatively high numbers from the Aurignacian to the end of the Magdalenian.
The importance of animal themes varies according to the different regions but much more in function of the periods considered. For ex-ample, the enormous number of normally rare dangerous animals in the Chauvet Cave created a surprise: rhinoceroses, lions, mammoths and bears represent 63% of the recognisable animal figures (Clottes (ed.) 2001).
However, this is not a unique phenomenon, isolated in time and space. In the Dordogne, at the same epoch, Aurignacians made use of the same themes in their shelters and their caves in much higher proportions than can be found in later art. This would mean that an important thematic change took place in the art of the south of France at the beginning of the Gravettian or at the end of the Aurignacian, when their choices changed from the most fearsome animals to the more hunted ones (Clottes 1996). Human representations can be found, but in far fewer numbers in comparison with the painted and engraved animals. About a hundred have been published, not counting hand stencils and hand prints or isolated female sexual organs. This numerical inferiority, constant at all times during the Upper Paleolithic, is in sharp contrast to what one can see in most forms of rock art all over the world. In addition to their relative scarcity, human representations evidence two main characteristics: they are nearly always incomplete or even reduced to an isolated segment of their body; they are not naturalistic, contrary to the animals.
Far more numerous are body segments, such as hand stencils and hand prints, heads, female and male genital organs, or again some rather indistinct outlines - which may or may not be human - often called 'ghosts'. Those themes were more or less favoured according to the various cultures (G.R.A.P.P. 1993). Hand stencils and prints can exclusively be found in the earliest periods of the art, probably in the Aurignacian (Chauvet), most certainly in the Gravettian (Cosquer, Pech-Merle, Gargas), roughly between 32,000 and 22,000 BP in uncalibrated radiocarbon years. On the other hand, the female sexes, frequent at the very beginning (Chauvet, Cosquer, several shelters in Dordogne), can also be found in the Solutrean and above all in the Magdalenian (Font-Bargeix, Bedeilhac). That sexual theme is thus a constant of the Upper Paleolithic, with more or less frequent occurrences according to the times and places.
Animals are often drawn without any care for scale, in profile. They can be whole or just represented by their heads or forequarters, which is enough to identify them. Their images are often precise, personalised and identifiable in all their details (sexes, ages, attitudes), whether they be Magdalenian bison in the Ariege or Aurignacian lions and rhinos in the Chauvet Cave, 18,000 years earlier. Scenes are rare and certain themes are absent, like herds and mating scenes. Paintings and engravings are thus neither faithful copies of the surrounding environment nor stereotypes.
As to humans, whatever the culture and diverse as they may be, they always seem to be uncouth and unsophisticated, mere caricatures. This is also a constant feature that stresses the unity of Paleolithic art.
The artistic abilities of the painters and engravers cannot be questioned. They deliberately chose to represent vague humans, with few details or deformed features.
A particular theme is that of composite creatures, at times called sorcerers. Those beings evidence both human and animal characteristics. This theme is all the more interesting as it departs from normality. It is present as early as the Aurignacian in Chauvet. It can be found in Gabillou and Lascaux 10,000 years later or more and it is still present in the Middle Magdalenian of Les Trois-Freres, nearly 20,000 years after its beginnings.
sculptures. The most important ones are Le Cap Blanc in the Dordogne and the Roc-aux-Sorciers in the Vienne (lakovieva & Pinion 1997, Airvaux 2001). That technique is the one that required most work. Some images evidence a 5 cm relief or more. It is present in all the main groups except that of the south-east.
Clay modellings are all dated to the Middle or Late Magdalenian and they are all found within a restricted area, in four caves of the Ariege Pyrenees : Labouiche, Bedeilhac, Montespan and Le Tuc d’Audoubert. Those in the latter two caves are famous, Montespan because of a clay bear which is a real statue, nearly lifesize, and Le Tuc d’Audoubert because of two extraordinary bison following each other in a premating scene. A particularly naturalistic female figure was modelled on the ground in Bedeilhac. It is difficult to understand why other works made with such a simple technique have not been found in other groups and at other periods.
Cosquer (Clottes & Courtin 1996). Most frequently they belong to the earliest periods of the art. The engravings on the ground are more frequent in the Pyrenees than anywhere else. For them as for the paintings in the open preservation problems are vital: it is so easy not to notice them and to destroy them by trampling. This must have happened innumerable times.
The engravings on the walls are less famous than the paintings because they are less spectacular, but they probably are more numerous. They were mostly made with a flint and the effects achieved are very diverse. Sometimes, the artists contented themselves with sketching the outlines of animals by means of simple lines which can be deep and wide or thin and superficial according to the hardness of the surface. The finest ones can only be seen now under a slanting light, but modern experimentation has shown that they must have been far more visible at the time they were made, when they stood out white against the darker colour of the wall; since then they have become patinated and their colour is the same as that of their environment. This remark may explain the very numerous superimpositions of motifs that can be found in caves like Les Trois-Freres, Lascaux or Les Combarelles. In other cases, the artists used scraping, which shows white on the wall and enables all sorts of possibilities by playing with the darker hues of the wall and the lighter ones of engravings (Les Trois-Freres, Labastide) (G.R.A.P.P. 1993).
Paintings are generally red or black. The reds are iron oxides, such as hematite. The blacks, either charcoal or manganese dioxide. Sometimes they did real drawings with a chunk of rock or of charcoal held like a pencil. Elsewhere veritable paintings were made. The pigment was then crushed and mixed with a binder to ensure the fluidity of the paint which was then either applied with a finger or with a brush made with animal hair, or blown through the mouth (stencilling).
Modern analyses even revealed that in the Magdalenian of the Pyrenees some paintings (Niaux, Fontanet) had been made according to real recipes by adding an extender, i.e. a powder obtained from the crushing of various stones (biotite, potassium feldspath, talcum). The aims were to save on the pigment, to make the paint stick better to the wall and to avoid its crackling when drying (Clottes, Menu, Walter 1990). Some images evince different techniques for the same subject : bicolour, joint use of engraving & painting.
As early as the Aurignacian, more than 30,000 years ago, the most sophisticated techniques of representation had been discovered and were in use, as can be seen in the Chauvet Cave. Those artists made use of stump drawing in order to shade the inside of the bodies and provide relief. They also used the main two colours (red and black), fine and deep engraving, finger tracing and stencilling.
Cosquer, Chauvet, Cougnac, Pech-Merle, Niaux, Le Portel. When the caves have only got engravings (Les Combarelles, Cussac) or red paintings, or black paintings made with manganese dioxide (Lascaux, Rouffignac), it remains impossible to get a direct date because of the lack of organic material. Chronological attributions are then made with time-honoured methods, generally by taking advantage of the archaeological context whenever possible or from stylistic comparison with other better dated sites. For example, when the Cussac cave was discovered in the Dordogne in October 2000, Norbert Aujoulat and Christian Archambeau attributed its engravings to the Gravettian because of the similarities with Pech-Merle and Gargas (Aujoulat et al. 2001). When, in August 2001, a 25,120 BP ± 120 date was obtained from a human bone in the same cave, it corroborated the initial estimate of those specialists (op. cit.).
|Chronology of Paleolithic Cave Art in France|
|Parietal Site||Image||Age BP||Culture|
|Le Portel||||11.600 ± 150 BP||Magdalenian|
|Trois-Freres||||13.000 ± BP|
|Rouffignac||||13.000 ± BP|
|Niaux||||14.000 ± 11.500 BP|
|Le Cap Blanc||||15.000 ± 14.000 BP|
|Altamira||||17.000 ± 13.000 BP|
|Cosquer (Phase 2)||||19.000 ± BP||Solutrean|
|Lascaux||||20.000 ± BP|
|Le Placard||||21.000 ± 20.000 BP|
|Cougnac||||25.000 ± 14.000 BP||Gravettian|
|Pech-Merle||||25.000 ± 16.000 BP|
|Gargas||||27.000 ± BP|
|Cosquer||||27.000 ± BP|
|Chauvet||||32.000 ± 30.000 BP||Aurignacian|
Chauvet Cave (between 30,000 and 32,000 BP) and the most recent one that in Le Portel (11.600 ± 150 BP).
Such an immense duration implies several consequences. First, the acknowledgement that in order for such a tradition to persist under such a formalised form for such a long time, it must have meant that a strong compelling form of teaching existed. The fundamental unity of Paleolithic art, obvious as it is in its images and in the activities around it, could not but for that have persisted for so many millenia. It is also a fact that the apparent great number of painted or engraved caves and shelters is not much when compared to the duration of Paleolithic art. This means that there must have been an art in the open which has not been preserved in France, and also that the images, in hundreds of shelters and caves may have been destroyed or buried and concealed for a number of reasons.
Until a rather recent date, the evolution of art was believed to have been gradual, from coarse beginnings in the Aurignacian to the apogee of Lascaux. The recent discoveries of Cosquer, Chauvet and Cussac have shown that that paradigm was wrong, since from as early as the Aurignacian and the Gravettian very sophisticated techniques had already been invented. This means that forms of art evidencing different degrees of mastery must have coexisted in different places and times and also that many artistic discoveries were made and lost and made again thousands of years later. The evolution of Paleolithic art was not in a straight line, but rather as a seesaw.
Humans left various sorts of traces, whether deliberately or involuntarily. When the ground was soft (sand, wet clay), their naked footprints remained printed in it. (Niaux, Le Reseau Clastres, Le Tuc d’Audoubert, Montespan, Lalbastide, Fontanet, Pech-Merle, L’Aldlene, Chauvet). This enables us to see that children, at times very young ones, accompanied adults when they went underground, and also that the visitors of those deep caves were not very numerous because footprints and more generally human traces and remains, are few.
Among the most mysterious remains are the objects deposited in the cracks of the walls and in particular the bone fragments stuck forcibly into them (see also below). After being noticed in the Ariegie Volp Caves. (Enlene, Les Trois- Freres, Le Tuc d’Audoubert) (Begouen & Clottes 1981), those deposits have been found in numerous other French Paleolithic art caves (Bedeillhaic, Le Portel, Troubat, Erberua, Gargas, etc.). They belong to periods sometimes far apart, which is not the least interesting fact about them because this means that the same gestures were repeated again and again for many thousands of years. Thus, in Gargas, a bone fragment lifted from one of the fissures next to some hand stencils was dated to 26,800 BP, while in other caves they are Magdalenian i.e. more recent by 13,000 to 14,000 years.
The Gravettian burials very recently discovered in the Cussac cave (Aujoulat et al. 2001) pose a huge problem. It is the first time that human skeletons have been found inside a deep cave with Paleolithic art. Until they have been excavated and studied properly it will be impossible to know whether those people died there by accident (which is most unlikely), whether they were related to those who did the engravings, whether they enjoyed a special status, etc. Their presence just stresses the magic/religious character of art in the deep caves.
Ever since the beginning of the 20th century, several attempts have been made to find the meaning(s) of Paleolithic rock art. Art for art’s sake, totemism, the Abbe Breuil’s hunting magic and Leroi-Gourhan’s and Laming-Emperaires’s structuralist theories were proposed and then abandoned one after the other (Delporte 1990, Lorblanchet 1995). Since then, most specialists have made up their minds that it would be hopeless to look for the meanings behind the art. They prefer to spend their time and efforts recording it, describing it and dating it, to endeavour to answer the questions 'what?', 'how?' and 'when?', thus carefully avoiding the fundamental question 'why?'. In the course of the past few years, though, a new attempt, spurred by David Lewis-Williams, was made in order to discover an interpretative framework. Shamanism was proposed (Clottes & Lewis-Williams 1998). Considering the fact that shamanism is so widespread among hunter-gatherers and that Upper Paleolithic people were admittedly hunter-gatherers, looking to shamanism as a likely religion for them should have been the first logical step whenever the question of meaning arose.
Upper Paleolithic people were Homo sapiens sapiens like us and therefore had a nervous system identical to ours. Consequently, some of them must have known altered states of consciousness in their various forms including hallucinations. This was part of a reality which they had to manage in their own way and according to their own concepts. This is explored in more detail by Dr. Ilse Vickers in her section The Descent into the Cave in the Cave Art Psychology Archive.
Wall images are perfectly compatible with the perceptions people could have during their visions, whether one considers their themes, their techniques and their details. The animals, individualised by means of precise details, seem to float on the walls ; they are disconnected from reality, without any ground line, often without respect of the laws of gravity, in the absence of any framework or surroundings. Elementary geometric signs are always present and recall those seen in the various stages of trance. As to composite creatures and monsters (i.e. animals with corporal attributes pertaining to various species), we know that they belong to the world of shamanic visions. This does not mean that they would have made their paintings and engravings under a state of trance. The visions could be drawn (much) later.
Cracks and hollows, as well as the ends oropenings of galleries, must have played a slightly different yet comparable part. They were not the animals themselves but the places whence they came. Those natural features provided a sort of opening into the depths of the rock where the spirits were believed to dwell. This would explain why we find so many examples of animals drawn in function of those natural features (Le Roseau Clastres, Le Travers de Janoye, Chauvet, Le Grand Plafond at Rouffignac).
In addition to the drawings of animals and signs, the intention to get in touch with the powerful spirits in the subterranean world may also be glimpsed through three other categories of testimonies. First, the bone fragments and other remains (teeth, flints) stuck or deposited in the fissures of the walls. Finger tracings and indeterminate lines might stem from the same logic. In their case, the aim was not to recreate a reality as with the animal images but to trail one’s fingers and to leave their traces on the wall, wherever this was possible, in order to establish a direct contact with the powers underlying the wall. This might be done by non-initiates who participated in the ritual in their own way and with their own means. Finally, hand stencils enabled them to go further still. When somebody put his or her hand on to the wall and paint was blown all over it, the hand would blend with the wall and take its new colour, be it red or black. Under the power of the sacred paint, the hand would metaphorically vanish into the wall. It would thus, concretely, link its owner to the world of the spirits. This might enable the 'lay people', maybe the sick, to benefit directly from the forces of the world beyond. Seen in that light, the presence of hands belonging to very young children, such as those in Gargas, stops being extraordinary (Clottes & Lewis-Williams 1998, 2001).
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