The power of wonder

There is no denying our fascination with wildlife. Shows such as Blue Planet, Planet Earth, and the more recent Our Planet, have had millions of viewers across the world. People, young and old, flock around cases full of taxidermy in museums, trying to get a glimpse of animals that can be found thousands of miles away. We all know that feeling of pure excitement seeing an animal in the wild. And people do travel the world to just see an animal: such is the power of wonder within us.

Memories may not be enough when we want to try to capture the moment. Today, of course, technology means we can take a photo instantly to record what we have seen. More often than not, a ‘selfie’ is involved: not so much as to show a sense of a scale of the animal, or even proof that you and the creature were there together, but for social reasons. A few years ago, good old fashioned film cameras would have captured the wildlife (without the craze of selfies). Going back further, sketches and paintings of wildlife would record what people saw.

We have been drawing animals around us for thousands of years. With no paper, people used raw materials to capture the life they had seen. Engravings of animals on rocks in Siberia date to around 5,000 years ago. In Africa there are engravings of local wildlife on rocks going back thousands of years to more recently. Engravings and paintings of Australian wildlife carefully etched on rock date back to 28,000 years at least. Around 10,000 years ago, people painted animals and strange symbols on the walls of a cave in Bulgaria. A huge number of caves in Spain contain ancient pictures on the walls, with the stunning pictures from Altamira standing out with their vibrant colours. There are over 300 sites in Europe with cave art preserved. Each unique. Each a rare photograph of the past.

The spectacular, vibrant red Bison from the Cave of Altamira, Spain. (Image Museo de Altamira y D. Rodríguez, Public Domain)

My favourite cave art comes from Lauscaux, a small area just outside the small town of Montignac, in the South of France.

Here, limestone rises out of the earth, forming a small hill, where pine trees created dry, dense woodland. The ground is covered in pine needles and slightly sandy soil, giving a soft and gently crunchy feeling under your feet. Apart from the occasional forester or exploring kids, 80 years ago few people visited here. Today it is very different. The site is cleared of pine trees, with grass and concrete paths giving people easy access to the cave. A cave that hold wonders from the past.

The woodlands were a regular exploration ground for four boys and their dog. On 12 September 1940, one of their little forays turned into a real adventure. Their dog, a little fox terrier with the quirky name of Robot, got trapped inside a hole and couldn’t get out. One by one, the boys climbed down to look for their faithful friend. After crawling several metres, the hole widened out into a passageway, leading to a large cavern. Inside the boys found Robot safe. They lit up the enormous walls with their light. And the children saw paintings. Paintings not seen for thousands of years. Horses. Bison. Great stags. The walls were alive with images of animals long gone from Lascaux.

They went to see one of their teachers, Mr Léon Laval, who saw the significance of the cave immediately. Extremely excited (apparently he danced with one of the boys!), he contacted an expert on Palaeolithic art in Paris, Abbé Breuil. He visited with Abbé Bouyssonnie and Dr Cheynier soon after. The three men, along with Mr Laval and the boys, visited the cave and soon declared it to be one of the most important sites of Palaeolithic art in Europe.

The awe-inspiring scene in the Great Hall of Bulls. (Image from Laming 1959, Plate 1)

The boys had discovered several caverns filled with images of animals no longer living in France. There were detailed drawings, elegant engravings, and perfect paintings. And not just static portraits of the animals. These illustrations were vibrant. They were alive. Herds of horses running. An angry looking bull with a spear in its leg. A herd of stag swimming through a river. The artists knew the animals well. They knew how they moved. How they behaved. And they captured it skilfully in their paintings.

The art was all drawn directly on to the cave walls, with the only source of light being from the warm flicker of flames. Several pieces of curved limestone with blackened centres have been found in the chambers, and lots of charcoal has been found near these stone objects: they were portable lamps. People were using cup shaped rocks to burn tinder so they could see inside the cave. This is quite extraordinary to imagine: deep inside a cave, some people brought in handheld lamps, and painted incredibly detailed animals on the cave walls. The charcoal from them has been radiocarbon dated to between 18,600 and 18,900 years ago.

Annette Laming, ex-French resistance fighter, and TrowelBlazer extraordinaire, studied the chambers of Lascaux in detail. She led the way for interpretation of Palaeolithic cave art: she didn’t just create theories on what they meant, she looked at the animals and their distribution in the chambers to help provide answers. She drew the complex cave layout, and examined each of the paintings in critical detail. This was a pretty new method back in the 1950s.

The layout of the Lauscaux cave, showing where teh different chambers are. (From Laming 1959, page 61)

The first large chamber you enter after walking through the entrance is the Great Hall of Bulls. The name is a nod to the enormous bulls 8 foot long bulls which jump out of the wall immediately, in a kind of wild west standoff. Other animals are drawn here, including horses, bovids, deer, a bear, and an unusual animal that appears to be drawn from imagination, called ‘the unicorn’. This chamber is big, about 10 yards wide and 17 yards long: enough space to step back and appreciate this early art. What is fascinating about the Great Hall of Bulls is the number of different painting styles here. There are detailed groups of horses galloping together. Others are incomplete animals, like the heads of horses and bovids. There are paintings drawn on top of other animals, showing that the paintings were not all drawn at the same time, and very likely not all drawn by the same person. With so many animals painted here, some with red ochre colouring, there is no obvious pattern to the layout. Some have groupings, like the galloping horses, but others look like they were simply painted where there was space.

The weird ‘unicorn’ creature in the Great Hall of Bulls. (From Laming 1959, Plate 2)

Deer running on the walls in the Great Hall of Bulls. Each individual deer is about 2 feet long. (From Laming 1959, Plate 4)

Walking through the Great Hall of Bulls, you will come to the Painted Gallery, which is a much thinner chamber. Here, the paintings have more distinct groups compared to the Great Hall of Bulls. Standing out from the other animals, a couple of large bovids and horses are painted high up on the wall, close to the ceiling. These are massive paintings, reaching around 9 feet across. Arrows are drawn around many of the animals, and one of the bovids has a line coming out of its chest: a possible spear or arrow. There are a smaller number of detailed heads of animals compared to the first gallery. It ends in a narrow tunnel, empty of paintings. The details of the animals in this gallery are wonderful: reds, blacks and greyish browns bring the walls with colour. Fascinatingly, the gallery is full of unusual dots, squares, and lines: undeciphered symbols the artists were using to communicate to their groups, or to their gods?

A beauitful horse, surrounded by arrows, in the Painted Gallery. (From Laming 1959, Plate 10)

The Lateral Passage is to the right of the Great Hall of Bulls. It is not a large chamber, and was filled with clay when it was discovered in 1940, but this has been excavated to reveal evidence of more paintings. With such a thin passageway, it looks like the humans who lived here rubbed a lot of the pigments off the walls. But here the outlines of the animals have been carved into the rock, so despite not much paint having survived, the presence of the artists is still found. Around 600 figures are carved here, carefully etched into the limestone walls. Interestingly, there are much fewer symbols in this part of the cave compared to the Painted Gallery.

At the end of the Lateral Passage, to the right, you come to the Chamber of Engravings. Here there are engraved, as well as engraved and painted, animals. Engravings of ibexes, horses, deer and bovids are drawn in groups, often moving together on the cave wall. Flint tools would have been used to carefully dig into the rock, scratching it to create the outline of an animal. Many of the engravings are drawn over earlier paintings, with some of the paint still visible. With engravings on top of older paintings, it is clear that artists had been using the cave for a long time.

Look closely and you can see a stags head carefully engraved on the rock. (From Laming 1959, Plate 22)

To the left of the Lateral Passage, is the Main Gallery: a thin and long passage, with paintings and engravings on both sides. Horses, ibex, bison, and other bovids, are all present. There are lots of colours in this passageway; chestnut-red, reds, grey-browns, and tones of black. They bring the accurately drawn animals to life. The art here shows groups of animals together, along with lines and more symbols. Lots of the lines are penetrating some animals: spears or arrows that have hit an animal, perhaps.

Almost hidden, in a small, almost inaccessible, shaft, is the Chamber of Felines. Abstract symbols are seen around drawings of horses, bison and cave lions. For such an inaccessible part of the cave, it must have had some meaning for the artists. Another strange shaft had a different style of drawing: one more sinister. A bison stands with its insides spilling out, and a man with a birds head laying on the ground, with what looks like an erection. Known as the Shaft of the Dead Man, towards the very back of Lascaux, is so much different to the other chambers. It was darker. More surreal. The human figure was not painted in the same detail as the animals, it was almost a stick man. Incredibly, it is the only human figure painted in the caves.

The odd stick man with a bird head and an erection, in Dead Man’s Shaft. Note the woolly rhinoceros to the left. (From Laming 1959, Plate 35)

Cave sites from the Pleistocene offer lots of clues to the past environments by the fossils that we find in them. Many cave sites are full of bones left over from meals by humans. Curiously there are few fossils that have been excavated at Lascaux. Deer horn spears, along with lots of charcoal was excavated from the Shaft of the Dead Man. In the Chamber of the Felines, a reindeer foot bone, along with a few horse bones were found. Annette Laming notes that the lack of fossils, or ‘waste’ in these caves indicate that they were perhaps more special than just a communal living space.

Despite not finding many fossils, a lot of archaeological material was excavated. Around 110 tools have been found in the sediments, most of which were used to make the engravings on the walls. Other unique objects were found too, all made of bone, including a sewing needle, an awl (used to pierce leather), a spall (flakes from knapping), and a reindeer antler that had been carved.

There are a lot of theories about cave art. Perhaps they were drawn as some kind of spiritual ceremony (the strange bird-man painting hints to something otherworldly). There are lots of paintings of animals with spears in them or arrows around them: perhaps they were drawn to speak to the gods for a successful hunt. Or maybe they were painted after a successful hunt to record the scene of the great hunters. Maybe it was just an artist or group of artists who enjoyed painting the animals. All of this is speculation: we will never be able to get into the minds of artists 19,000 years ago.

A beautiful drawing of half a horse, with a smile. (From Laming 1959, Plate 40)

Horse, bison, ibex, deer, giant deer, bear, and woolly rhinoceros are all depicted on the walls. This was a different ecosystem to the one there today. An ecosystem where large beasts roamed and ferocious predators stalked. Weirdly, there were no woolly mammoths drawn on the cave walls, whereas they are seen in other caves. There are also no smaller mammals, birds, or insects. These animals documented in the caves must have had some impact on the artists for them to be transferred from their minds to the cave walls.

This is an incredible place. Around 19,000 years ago people were in these chambers. They talked. They laughed. They painted beautiful images of the wildlife around them: a record of what was once there. The paintings capture the essence of the local animals. The artist or artists knew how to transfer what they were seeing on to the dark cave walls, lit only by flames. Their wonder has been preserved for thousands of years.

Written by Jan Freedman (@janfreedman)

Further reading:

Baumann, H. The Caves of the Great Hunters: How four boys discover an ice age cave – the cradle of man’s art. Hutchinson. [Book]

d’Huy, J., Le Quellec, J. (2010). ‘Les animaux fléchés à Lascaux: nouvelle proposition d’interprétation.’ Préhistoire du Sud-Ouest. 18(2). pp. 161-170. [Full article]

Dickson, B. D. (1992). The Dawn of Belief: Religion in the Upper Palaeolithic of Southwestern Europe. UA Press. [Book]

Heyd, T, & Clegg, J, eds. (2005). Aesthetics and Rock Art. Ashgate Publishing. [Book]

Laming, A. 1959. Lascaux. Paintings and Engravings. Pelican.

Lewis-Williams, D, (2004). The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art. Thames and Hudson. [Book]

Pettitt, P, (2008), ‘Art and the Middle-to-Upper Paleolithic transition in Europe: Comments on the archaeological arguments for an early Upper Paleolithic antiquity of the Grotte Chauvet art’, Journal of Human Evolution 55 (5): 908–917. [Abstract only]

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5 Responses to The power of wonder

  1. Truly a lovely post. How is climate change effecting the cave art? Is that being studied?

    • tabbyrenelle says:

      Hi sweetie, here’s a NY times post about the fungus in the caves… and how they’ve addressed it: https://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/09/world/europe/09iht-cave.1.8653751.html
      There are probably better links, but no one really wants to talk about climate change it seems… so the actual science is harder to find “online.” You gotta sift thru a lot of complicit stuff before you find the facts…
      It’s all politics.
      But I agree with you. This is a lovely post!!!!!
      I love Twilight Beasts too! 🙂
      P.S. I’m sure France is studying it all since flash photography became a problem for them long ago and they had to limit tours… but your right.. more needs to be SAID.

      We might be the next cave men. How will we be leaving our mark and remains to be studied?

  2. This is a great post, thanks for writing this. Have you been there?

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