Sunday, February 14, 2016


Chauvet Cave Art Paintings

Panel of Lions from the Chauvet cave

Have long been fascinated by  cave and rock paintings and have written two posts, one triggered by Herzog's wonderful 3-D film Ancient Art 4: Cave of Forgotten Dreams of the stunning Chauvet cave art in southern France, discovered in 1994. Several of the early cave paintings were discovered by children and I wrote another post about that, about Abbé Breuil and children's books on the subject, entitled Ancient Art 3: Childhood Discoveries. Am returning to the subject to report on fresh developments and a new exhibition.

The discovery on September 12th, 1940 of the remarkable Paleolithic paintings in the Lascaux Cave in the Dordogne Region of southwestern France. The paintings, which consist primarily of large animals that were native to the region, have been dated as being up to 20,000 years old. At its height, the cave was visited by some 1,200 visitors a day but it was soon clear that the carbon dioxide exhaled by humans were damaging the paintings. Lichens and crystals began to appear on the walls in the 1950' which led to the closure of he cave to the public in 1963. In 2001 a new air-conditioning system was installed to regulate temperature and humidity but this resulted in an infestation of white mold which spread rapidly across the cave. In 2007, a new fungus which creates grey and black blemishes has also spread in the cave. In 2008, it was closed even to scientists and preservationists and now only one individual is allowed in for 20 minutes once a week to monitor climatic conditions. A huge symposiuim in Paris in 2009 brought together experts from around the world and work continues to try and clean and preserve the Lascaux paintings,
In order to meet public demand, in the early 1970s, the owner of the site built a large concrete shell in which an artist and a sculptor reproduced some of the paintings. Work stopped due to money problems but in 1978, the local General Council bought the facsimile and hired more artists to develop the virtual cave. In 1983, the first tourist entered Lascaux 2, which was buried on the same hill as the original cave and contains reproductions of 90 of the original paintings. Since then, it has had 10 million visitors.
Lascaux 3, an international exhibition went on world tour in 2012 and was also a big hit.
But now Lascaux 4 promises to trump them all. Located near the real-life cave, it is installed in the purpose-built International Center of Parietal Art, and is the product of three years work by 25 painters, sculptors, welders and moulders who have created a remarkable and exact full-size facsimile of the entire cave. It will be open in autumn this year and will accommodate a maximum of 30 visitors at a time. Full details of this inspiring project can be found here
The nearby Chauvet cave, which was discovered by a small group of cavers in 1994, has never been open to the general public to avoid the problems at Lascaux. If anything Chauvet is more spectacular than Lascaux. For a start these Paleolithic cave paintings, which are more or less perfectly preserved,date may be as old as 34,000 to 37,000 years ago, which upset many of the existing theories on prehistoric art. According to an account here
'The fact that these cave paintings were executed so skilfully yet so deep within prehistory has forced us to abandon the prevailing view that 'early art was naive art'. Not only is the Ice Age art of the Chauvet Cave extremely old, it is also very extensive and highly varied.
'Hundreds of cave paintings of animals have been recorded, depicting at least 13 different species, including those which have rarely or never been found in other Ice age paintings. Rather than the more usual animals of the hunt that predominate in Palaeolithic cave art, such as horses, cattle and reindeer, the walls of the Chauvet Cave are covered with predatory animals - lions, panthers, bears, owls, rhinos and hyenas. As one would expect, there are no human figures, except at the very end of the lowest and farthest gallery in the Chauvet cave system, where there appears to be a female figurine - the legs and genitals of a woman - attracting the attention of the one other human figure - the lower body of a man with the upper body of a bison, now referred to as 'The Sorcerer'.
Work began on creating a $62.5 million facsimile of Chauvet in 2007, which opened to the public in April 2015. The replica cave, located three miles from the real one, is known as the Caverne du Pont d’Arc . It covers an area nearly the size of a football field and is based on 700 hours of laser scanning in the actual cave. After admiring the cavern you can continue to explore the prehistoric world in the Aurignacian Gallery.

In January 2016, a scientific paper was published claiming that a  36,000-year-old volcanic eruption is depicted in the Chauvet Cave. The full scientific paper is accessible on the PLOS ONE site

Fig 3.  Example of a spray-shape sign from Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave compared to the oldest known depictions of volcanic eruptions.
This figure shows: A) Map of the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave; B) General view of the rock painting of a Megaloceros, a prehistoric deer (Photo: D. Genty); C) Details of the spray-shaped signs depicting a volcanic eruption (Photos: V. Feruglio-D. Baffier); D) Petroglyphs depicting the Porak volcano eruption  found in the Syunik region of Armenia and dating from the 5th millennium BC; E)  A mural painting from Çatalhöyük in Turkey) which was considered the oldest depiction of a volcanic eruption, dating from the 8th/7th millennium BC 
In an article by Daryl Worthington 'Cave Art Shows France Ravaged By Prehistoric Volcano' he reports that the research team, led by Sebastien Nomade,,geoscientist at the University of Paris-Saclay in Gif-Sur-Yvette, have documented the occurrence of spectacular volcanic activity just 35km north west of the cave, between 19,000 and 43,000 years ago. 
'Despite being one of the most spectacular geological events visible on the surface of the earth, volcanic eruptions are rarely found in Paleolithic art. Until now, the oldest testimony of a volcano was believed to be the 9,000 year old Çatalhöyük mural in Central Turkey. The next oldest depiction is roughly 2,000 years younger, and found in Armenia: a group of six petroglyphs in the Syunik upland portraying the eruption of the Porak volcano seven millenia ago.These depictions predate by five millenia the observations and records of the 79 CE Vesuvius eruption made by Pliny the Younger.
'To put that into context, around 340 Paleolithic sites containing parietal art have been unearthed around Europe, predominantly in northern Spain and southern France. These sites date back to between 36,000 and 40,000 years ago, a period which coincided with the arrival of the first Homo sapiens to the continent. Iconography from the Upper Paleolithic however, largely features images of animals, or in some cases humans. No images of the natural environment, scenery or geological phenomena have ever been discovered.'
* Parietal art is the archaeological term for artwork done on cave walls or large blocks of stone.


World's oldest art found in Indonesian cave

Delighted to discover this story by David Cyranoski (published in Nature /8th Oct 2014). See full article and video here:

Back in the 1950s, hand prints and paintings of animals which had been discovered on the walls of a limestone cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi were estimated to be about 10,000 years old. It was believed at the time that anything older would have deteriorated.

Modern researches revisited the caves  and dated 12 stencils of human hands and two images of large animals. The paint itself couldn't be dated but the top layers of calcium carbonate  ('cave popcorn') covering the paintings could, using a uranium-thorium dating system which gave them a minimum age for each sample.

The results were surprising. The oldest hand stencil was at least 39,000 years old - 2,000 years older than its European equivalent. One of the animal images, of a babirusa or 'pig-deer' (which still survive but have endangered status) was estimated to be 35,400 years old — around the same age as the earliest large animal pictures in European caves but painted in a different style, more like brush strokes than finger paint.

These findings, writes Cyranoski, 'undermine a Eurocentric view of the origins of human creativity and could prompt a ‘gold rush’ to find even older art on the route of human migration from Africa to the east.' It raises the question as to whether those migrants already had the capacity to make art or whether it arose independently in Indonesia.

“It allows us to move away from the view that Europe was special,” says Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, who led the team. “There was some idea that early Europeans were more aware of themselves and their surroundings. Now we can say that’s not true.”  

'The analysis hints at “just what a wealth of undiscovered information there is in Asia”, says Alistair Pike, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton, UK, who in 2013 identified what had been considered the world’s oldest cave art, in Europe.

He was the lead author of a paper entitled 'U-Series Dating of Paleolithic Art in 11 Caves in Spain' which was first published in Science in 2012. The abstract reads:
'Paleolithic cave art is an exceptional archive of early human symbolic behavior, but because obtaining reliable dates has been difficult, its chronology is still poorly understood after more than a century of study.
'We present uranium-series disequilibrium dates of calcite deposits overlying or underlying art found in 11 caves, including the (UNESCO) World Heritage sites of Altamira, El Castillo, and Tito Bustillo, Spain. 
'The results demonstrate that the tradition of decorating caves extends back at least to the Early Aurignacian period, with minimum ages of 40.8 thousand years for a red disk, 37.3 thousand years for a hand stencil, and 35.6 thousand years for a claviform-like symbol.
'These minimum ages reveal either that cave art was a part of the cultural repertoire of the first anatomically modern humans in Europe or that perhaps Neandertals also engaged in painting caves.'



Rock carving known as "Meercatze" (named by archaeologist Leo Frobenius) in Wadi Methkandoush, Mesak Settafet region of Libya. 
Photo: Luca Galuzzi [ ]

Another interesting discovery comes from The Art Newspaper which announces that Berlin's Martin-Gropius-Bau is staging an exhibition entitled 'Art of Prehistoric Times: Rock Paintings from the Frobenius Collection' [open to 16th May).

Leo Frobenius was a German ethnologist who pioneered the process of recording far-flung rock art sites with realistic colour copies. The Institute in Frankfurt set up in his memory contains 8,600 works on paper and canvas of which 130 will be in the exhibition. The work of doing artistic renderings in situ was mainly done by academy-trained painters, who went on expeditions between 1913 and 1939 round Europe and to Africa, Indonesia and Australia. Once colour photography came in, the artistic lost their scientific value but retained what Frobenius' curator calls "the aura of the originals."

Astonishingly and interestingly, they attracted an enthusiastic popular audience. In the '20s and '30s, there were about 40 exhibitions of rock art in Europe and some 30 in the US, including, most prestigously, a three-floor show at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York of 150 facsimiles personally chosen by Alfred H. Barr, the Museum's first Director, when he visited Europe. 

There is a chronological list of MOMA's exhibitions on their website, which has photos of the original two-page typewritten press release for the show, which ran  from April 28th to May 30th 1937. It reads in part:  
'On the fourth floor of the Museum modern paintings will be shown
which bear a certain similarity to the pictures painted and engraved

by prehistoric man. Among the modern paintings to be shown are works
by Miro, Arp, Klee, Masson, Lebedev, and Larionov. 
'Also on the fourth floor will be shown reproductions of pictographs painted in polychrome and red monochrome many years ago on California rocks by American Indians. These reproductions made in color by workers on the Federal Art Project are shown, as arc the modern paintings, for the purpose
of comparison with European and African rock pictures.'
"That an institution devoted to the most recent in art should
concern itself with the most ancient may seem something of a
paradox," stated Mr. Barr in commenting on the exhibition,
"but the art of the 50th century has already come under the
influence of the great tradition of prehistoric mural art
which began around the 300th century B.C. 
'The formal elegance of the Altamira bison; the grandeur of outline in the Norwegian rock engravings of bear, elk, and whale; the cornucopian
fecundity of Rhodesian animal landscapes; the kinetic fury of
the East Spanish huntsmen; the spontaneous ease with which the
South African draftsmen mastered the difficult silhouettes of
moving creatures: these are achievements which living artists
and many others who are interested in living art have admired.
 A 1933 watercolour of an Egyptian painting from BC 4400-3500
"Such technical and esthetic qualities are enviable but no
more so than the unquestioned sense of social usefulness which
these prehistoric pictures suggest. Until recently our own
mural art was usually an architect's after-thought, a mere
decorative postscript. The mural art of the Spanish caves and
African cliffs was, on the contrary, an integral and essential
function of life, for these painted animals were almost certainly
magic symbols used to insure the successful hunting of
the real animals. Today walls are painted so that the artist
may eat, but in prehistoric times walls wore painted so that
the community might eat. 
"We can, as modern men, no longer believe in the magic efficacy of these rock paintings; but there is about them a deeper and more general magic quite beyond their beauty as works of art or their value as anthropological documents. Even in facsimile they evoke an atmosphere of antediluvian first things, a strenuous Eden where Adam drew the animals before he named them. It is even possible that among them are man's earliest pictures. In any case, this is the way he drew and painted, apparently following continuous traditions for thousands of years in parts of the earth as remote from each other as the North Cape of Norway and the Cape of Good Hope. " 
'Twelve expeditions headed by Professor Frobenius have been made to the centers of prehistoric art on the Scandinavian coast, to the caves of France and Northern Spain, the Comonica Valley in the Italian Alps, and in Africa to the Libyan Desert, the Sahara-Atlas, the Fezzan, Southern Rhodesia and the Bushman caves and rock shelters of South Africa. Photographs showing the actual rocks on which the prehistoric pictures were found and the surrounding terrain will be hung on the Museum's walls with the facsimiles themselves. The facsimiles reproduce exactly the colors and forms left by prehistoric men some ten or twenty thousand years ago. 

'Most of the facsimiles to be shown in the exhibition are the size of the original rock pictures. Several of them are enormous, the largest 22 feet wide and 14 feet 9 inches high. One facsimile, too high for the Museum's ceiling, extends out on the floor; another hangs two stories down the Museum's stairway'.

'When the exhibition closes in New York May 30 it will go on on extensive tour throughout the country. '
rock art petroglyph niger africa
Dabous Giraffe Rock Art Petroglyph: One of the finest examples of ancient rock art in the world - two life-size giraffe carved in stone

Right at the end of this long investigation, I found this remarkable site - without doubt the single most important resource on the web for rock art all over the world, full of fantastic images, information and videos - an abundance of riches which will take some to time to explore in detail.

The Bradshaw Foundation provides an online learning resource. Its main areas of focus are archaeology, anthropology and genetic research, and its primary objective is to discover, document and preserve ancient rock art around the world, and promote the study of early mankind’s artistic achievements. The Foundation funds preservation projects around the world, scientific research and research publication. The Foundation carries out its work in collaboration with UNESCO, the Royal Geographic Society, the National Geographic Society, the Rock Art Research Institute in South Africa and the Trust for African Rock Art to ensure that the programs achieve maximum impact. It is a privately funded, non-profit organisation based in Geneva.

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