This past week on Facebook we had a theme of rock art that was examined through the more specific case study of the painted Lascaux Caves in Southern France. Since we had such a good response, we thought we would type up a quick blog post to share with our blog readers, and to include more discussion on the content we shared.
On September 12, 1940 the entrance to Lascaux Cave was discovered by 18-year-old Marcel Ravidat. He later returned to the scene with three friends, and entered the cave via a long shaft. The teenagers discovered that the cave walls were covered with depictions of animals. The cave complex was later opened to the public in 1948, and has been a tourist destination ever since, drawing travelers from all corners of the globe. The art work has been estimated to be 17,300 years old. They are ancient, yet still beautiful and striking. The artist or artists had no idea that their paintings, or what some have called graffiti, would become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you are interested in reading more about the concept of graffiti in a historical and archaeological context, please check out my blog post I jointly wrote with this article on my personal blog.
The geology of the area around the caves is very fascinating. Outdoorsy and athletic people often travel in this area just to hike the steep rock faces and paddle down the beautiful streams. In its sedimentary composition, the Vézère drainage basin covers one fourth of the département of the Dordogne, the northernmost region of the Black Périgord. Before joining the Dordogne River near Limeuil, the Vézère flows in a south-westerly direction. At its centre point, the river’s course is flanked by high limestone cliffs. Upstream near Montignac and in the vicinity of Lascaux, the contours of the land soften; the valley floor widens, and the banks of the river lose their steepness.
Let us now look towards the rest of the geological context of the caves, and the art itself. The paint used to create the rock art at the caves in Lascaux, France was actually geologically derived. Most of the major images have been painted onto the walls using red, yellow, and black colors from a complex multiplicity of mineral pigments including iron compounds such as iron oxide (aka ochre), hematite, and goethite, as well as manganese-containing pigments. These pigments were used long before and after the Paleolithic period, and not just for cave art. Ochre has been found in numerous burial contexts, as well as for ornamental purposes such as painted beads or skin. Charcoal may also have been used, as it would have been conveniently located in any nearby fire pit being used to light the dark caves. Grinding these rocks up and adding water or animal fat to form a paste would have been the process, and an effective process at that. Until paint was produced on an industrial level, artists often mixed these kinds of raw ingredients together to create their desired shades. I always think of the film The Girl with the Pearl Earring about the Dutch painter Vermeer, and the scenes where they so painstakingly mix together ground Malachite, oil, cow urine, and other crazy things to make that perfect shade.
The rock art itself in Lascaux can be proved through the local fossil record. Over 900 can be identified as animals, and 605 of these have been precisely identified. Out of these images, there are 364 paintings of equines as well as 90 paintings of stags. It is remarkable that these paintings were so accurate and anatomically correct! Also represented are cattle and bison, felines, a bird, a bear, a rhinoceros, and a human. There are no images of reindeer, even though that was the principal source of food for the artists, as it was the most populated animal in the area, and their bones were found in and around the cave area. The most famous section of the cave is The Great Hall of the Bulls where bulls, equines, aurochs, and stags are depicted.
The possible meanings of the rock art at Lascaux are endless. In recent years, new research done by the University of Munich suggests that start charts were incorporated into the design of the cave paintings at Lascaux, and that the Taurus constellation can be seen. Other interpretations claim that the images were spiritual and ritualistic for the culture at the time of their creation, possibly being created in preparation or in hope of a bountiful and successful hunt. It has also been suggested that the images are of successful hunts, memorializing the members of the group and their conquests over the great animals of the area. In reality, there is no way that archaeologists will ever be able to make a definitive outline of what these paintings meant. Personally, I prefer a more sensory approach and feel that the simpler answer is usually closer to the truth. The paintings are aesthetically pleasing, and whoever created them may have had another purpose in mind, but nonetheless, they also wanted them to be pleasing to the eye. The smooth and rocky interior of the cave, a very secluded and private space, made the perfect canvas for art.
One of the reasons I studied archaeology for my undergrad (aside from the thrill of discovery), was because I wanted to know more about these people. Little did I know, that this is the one aspect that we really do not get to know much about! We can form theories, and postulate, but we cannot make and limiting or definitive decisions about their persons or cultures. At Lascaux, we do have a small window into the people through their paint hand imprints on the cave walls. I love the connection we have here with the hands, as it
makes it so personal and intimate. This is a project we still do today with our children, so that we can look back later at how small their hands were. It makes me wonder if the people of these caves kept track of which hand imprint belonged to who, and maybe used it as some kind of record of their peoples. This is also similar to when you have a piece of ancient or even modern hand made pottery, and how it bears the fingerprints and hand creases of the artist. No two finger prints are alike, but that print lives on in the hardened clay.
We ultimately do not know much about the people of Lascaux, but we know that they had a hard life Hands of course were the best tools available for these people, and would of course be the first body part to be injured. The paint imprints made from their hands on the cave walls show evidence of mutilation and deep scars that likely resulted from copious injuries and frostbite.
Today, access to the caves has become more restricted as of late. Moisture, light, and people are destructive to sensitive cave environments, Paleolithic art or not. Despite struggles with black mold and fungus (which ultimately damages the delicate art), visitors still flock here from around the world to marvel at the rock art. The famous bull hall was replicated and made into an exhibition next door in an attempt to cut down on the foot traffic through the cave. Archaeologists and Geologists will continue to improve preservation methods, and do their best to ensure that this wonder will continue to last for generations to come.
Thanks for reading!