Whilst reading the wonderful archaeological themed advent calendar series over at the ‘Musings of an Unemployed Archaeologist‘ blog site, I came across the Lascaux entry, featured in the most recent blog update (18th December 2012). The website of the famous Palaeolithic cave site (estimated to be around 17,300 years old), which is located in the Dordogne area in France, features an extraordinary immersive visit to the cave system itself, allowing the internet accessible audience to visit and see each famous painting up close and in detail. It is a thoroughly entrancing sight, and it is a delight to explore the various cave routes. I heartily recommend the interested lay person and professional alike to visit this website, to capture a feeling of how this magnificent cave once looked like (the original cave site, discovered in France in 1940, is currently off-limits due to extensive damage from the horde of visitors, although an exact replica site is available to visit nearby).
This blog entry by ‘Musings…’ comes hot on the heels of news of the comparison of animals and their representations in art through the ages. A study in the journal PLoS by Horvath et al. (2012) found that compared to modern artwork, Upper Palaeolithic artists were more realistic in their representations of animals, in the fact of their depictions of quadrupeds walking and proportion sizes, than many modern artists are. It is a thoroughly interesting article, and one well worth a read. The Lascaux cave system depicts nearly 2000 figures which have been categorised into animals (including aurochs, a bird, a rhinoceros, stags, felines, and equines, who predominate), human figures and abstract signs. Perhaps most noticeably is that there is no depiction of landscape scenes or of vegetation throughout the cave complex. It has been stated by some (Bahn & Lewis-Williams amongst others) that when viewed with tallow, or fat, candles, as they would have originally have been the images themselves would shimmer in the candle light due to the uneven surface that they were painted on. The implication being that the images of the animals would flicker almost as if they were alive; it is certainly an interesting theory and experiments have helped to provide evidence that this effect does occur.
Upper Palaeolithic cave art, both portable and stable, is a fascinating and deeply emotive subject, full of differing theories from various sources, anthropologists and authorities. It continues to be a source of fascination with a wide variety of people throughout the world, including the German director Werner Herzog who released the 3D film ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams‘ about the Lascaux complex which involved interviews with scientists, footage of the cave itself, and voice overs from the great man himself. Ultimately the cave art itself has become a testament to the placing of man and beast together, and it continues to echo down the ages as a source of inspiration and artistic expression of humanity and early man.