The Applied History of Art and Architecture (AHAA) Educational Foundation
Dr. Katherine Bolman’s Micro-Lessons
At the foot of a cliff in the Ardèche Gorges, in south-eastern France, amateur speleologists have discovered the world’s oldest painted prehistoric cave. And as this ornate temple to cave painting1, this Palaeolithic2 sanctuary, slowly divulges
its secrets, it is furrowing the brows of many prehistorians. Indeed, it would seem that, 31,000 years ago, prehistoric man was already painting and engraving with hitherto unsuspected skill and dexterity. We decided to take a closer look.
Outside, despite the sun, a biting cold lingers at Vallon-Pont-d’Arc on this day, December 18, 1994. But down here, the damp clay generously exudes a fine fragrance and the temperature is pleasant. The silence is deadening and the darkness total and impenetrable: we are some thirty feet below ground. The adventure is about to begin for Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel-Deschamps and Christian Hillaire, all bound by the same passion: potholing through the hidden depths of their region.
While busily exploring a cave, they are intrigued by a draught of air. On closer inspection, they discover a cavity, then a vast network of galleries and rooms. From then on, their progress is punctuated by amazement and emotion. Under the stark light of their miner’s lamps a breathtaking backdrop unfolds: gigantic columns of white and orange calc-spar, alternately translucent and nacreous, splendid draperies of minerals, sparkling carpets… Scattered on the ground are the bones of bears, some of them inside hibernating shelters; the walls are scratched with claw marks… Suddenly, Eliette gasps: the image of a small mammoth has just appeared before her.
The exploration proceeds apace. The walls of the cave come alive with engravings, paintings in red ochre and black. A bestiary of an astounding originality unfolds over hundreds of yards. The party of discoverers have trouble believing their eyes. Before them, some 300 horses, rhinoceros, lions, buffalo, mammoth, singly or in splendid packs, are awakened from thousands of years of deep sleep.
The oldest cave paintings
Jean Clottes, a specialist in cave paintings, is commissioned to appraise the cave. Very quickly, he realises he is looking at Palaeolithic art. Indeed, all the clues are there, as he explains: “When you examine a painted line under the magnifying glass, you notice that what appears as a continuous, unbroken line is in fact full of tiny gaps caused by erosion.” Check. With time, the inner spaces in the sketches should fill up with micro-crystallisations, with concretions covering up the works… All these clues are confirmed.
Another irrefutable piece of evidence is that a horse, a mammoth and an owl were painted onto an outcrop of the vaulted ceiling, today some fifteen feet off the ground following the collapse of the ground. Today, it would be impossible to reach it without leaving traces and, indeed, no recent imprints are visible: the ground is undisturbed, the remains intact; in fact, thanks to the discoverers’ foresight, everything is perfectly preserved. So there’s no doubt: this is the genuine article. All that needs to be done now is to determine the age of these marvels.
Six months later, events took a sensational turn: carbon 14 dating analyses showed that one buffalo and two rhinoceros were no less than 31,000 years old. Suddenly, the cave paintings at Vallon-Pont-d’Arc found themselves promoted to the rank of “the oldest known to date” by the Ministry of Culture and our cave artist was nothing short of a genius. Indeed, the institute added that these datings “have revolutionised hitherto accepted concepts on the appearance of art and its development, and prove that homo sapiens learnt to draw at a very early stage”. General confusion ensued. Another discovery was that other human beings had arrived several thousand years after the gifted ancestor. The snuffing of torches against the cave walls and the traces of more recent hearths supported this hypothesis.
What with all the surveying, excavating, photographing and samplings, the researchers had their work cut out. The scientific work included the cave’s internal climatology, the evolution of the natural environments, not to mention the Palaeolithic fauna of the Ardèche. Archaeologists found an abundance of clues on the activities of primitive man: charcoal, sediment extraction points, sharpened flint stones, imprints, all of which were examined in the minutest detail. Already it was clear that the cavemen had not lived on this site. A study of soil samples confirmed the successive occupations of the site as well as the links between the bears and the “little geniuses”.
One particular bear skull, placed high up on a block of rock and surrounded by others on the ground, had already caught the imagination of many, with its dramatic stage setting; however, romantic notions were quickly dispelled by the scientists for whom it would be precipitous to conclude that the hunters of the Ice Ages had worshipped the bear. The only deduction they would allow was that bears had occupied the cave prior to the arrival of any cavemen. Had they cohabitated? Had the bears returned thereafter? Nobody knows.
If the Lascaux cave (see map) has been nicknamed the “Périgord’s Sixtine Chapel”, what name could possibly do justice to the Chauvet cave? True, it does not feature any real polychromy and its representations are by no means as vast; but it does rival Lascaux in the sheer number, diversity, originality, beauty and state of conservation of its works of art. Its symbols are more widespread than in the region’s other caves. There are, for example, many instances of large red dots painted singly or in groups, forming geometric figures and animal shapes.
Yellow horses, red panther
Rhinoceros, hitherto unknown in the Ardèche, are by far the dominant animal. Next come the lions, mammoths and horses (two of which are yellow, the only instance of this colouring), bison, bears, reindeer, aurochs, ibex, stags and, at the tail end, a red panther and an engraved owl, unknown in the Palaeolithic age. No human images have been found, apart from various limbs, a composite being, half-man, half-bison, positive and negative stencilled images of hands (obtained by blowing paint onto the hand placed up against the wall). Red and black are separated into two main areas; the proportions and position of the bodies have all the precision of naturalist art and, with the exception of certain rare indeterminate animals, scores of anatomical details make it possible to guess the species and even the gender of most of them.
The workmanship of the ensemble is excellent throughout, with drawings executed with firm lines, sometimes filled in with flat tints, skilled reliefs and a sense of depth. And, surprise, surprise, our ancestors were past masters in the art of making use of the volumes of the cave walls and its stumps to achieve a sense of perspective. In one instance, four horses’ heads have been superimposed and offset using black to give a disturbingly real sensation of relief and duo-tone art. Similarly, certain walls have been prepared by scraping so that the sketches stand out all the better.
Bursting with vitality and strength, these age-old animals engage in combat and chase one another, or form packs that are linked by the same attitude. The abundance of action scenes is also very surprising: stalking lions, reindeer on the move…, the unity of composition and technique, in particular in black paintings, and the large proportion of animals not on the hunting list, and therefore not on the menu, of Palaeolithic man. Many mysteries still need to be unravelled. Like the rhinoceros portrayed inside the cave, prehistorians will undoubtedly clash, and the followers of André Leroi-Gourhan, the famous specialist in Palaeolithic art whose theories have dominated unchallenged for the last thirty years, will have to review their theses: the datings obtained in the Chauvet cave contradict the theory of a slow yet steady artistic maturing. Indeed, in Europe, Leroi-Gourhan made a distinction between ages and styles, from the most primitive, the Aurignacian (35,000 to 28,000 years before our time) to the apotheosis of the Magdalenian, the age of Lascaux (13,000 years). But there is nothing primitive about Chauvet. These are not daubings but, rather, the “canvases” of a master, worthy of the best galleries. While some were still in their infancy with their images, others were already learned artists.
And yet the idea still lingers that these painted caves were natural sanctuaries, cathedrals where religious beliefs were expressed. Why, some 310 centuries ago, did cavemen feel the need to paint? Why do they still paint today? Wassily Kandinsky, the Russian-born artist whose works sometimes evoke cave paintings, believed that a work of art was the combination of three forms of spiritual expression: the artist as an individual, the “child of his age” but also the “handservant to art”. Is this, then, how we shall come to understand the universality and exceptional modernity of these strange Ardèche frescoes?
- 1. Artwork executed on the rock walls of caves.
* 2. The Palaeolithic Age, characterised by the appearance of cut stone, lasted from 3,000,000 to 10,000 B.C.
Bibliography: La Grotte Chauvet, Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel-Deschamps, Christian Hillaire, published by the Seuil, “Arts rupestres” collection under the editorial guidance of Jean Clottes, Paris, 1995.
France has 24 caves open to the public, which are admired by more than one million visitors each year; no fewer than 400,000 of those visitors go to see the replica of the Lascaux cave.
Lascaux: Discovered in 1940 in the Dordogne, this cave features one of the most prestigious collections of prehistoric art in Europe and is the best preserved. Its paintings date back 13,000 years, like those at the Altamira cave in north-west Spain, discovered in 1879.
Cosquer: This underwater cave discovered in 1991, near Marseilles, contains a superb bestiary painted some 27,000 years ago…
© Ministry of Foreign Affairs / Label France, magazine