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Ancient Places and Ancient Lives

21 Dec

“What survives from the real Middle Ages is a range of, in practice, quite arbitrary objects based on luck and the durability of their materials.  Ivories of great age, generally showing scenes from the Bible, have endured because they have always been valued but also because they could not decay and could not be reused.  Very little decorative gold survives because centuries of embarrassing royal emergencies or changes in taste have taken advantage of its plasticity to remodel it or put it back into ingots or coins.  Clothing, even precious clothing, has rotted, tapestries have faded, paint has worn away.  Much of the texture and visual meaning of the Middle Ages is therefore lost- quite aside from the irreparable problem of our mental and spiritual equipment being so drastically altered by the intervening centuries that we can hardly engage with what we are looking at.”

From ‘Germania: A personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern’ by Simon Winder (2010: 45).

To slake my thirst for reading I have recently borrowed this delightful book on Germany from my brother.  The book is an often funny but always passionate and informative guide to the central European country, and although my aim was to read it before journeying to Magdeburg last year I never quite got around to it.  The quote instantly reminded me of what I had seen myself in Amiens in the summer, of the cathedral lit as it once was with its vibrant, even gaudy colours transplanted onto the bare and ashen stonework, and of the true sights and sounds that are now largely lost to the ages.  Archaeology is in the business of salvaging and conserving finds and sites from the past, and an integral part of this is the study of human remains as this blog has tried to highlight.  Whilst we can investigate many different aspects of past cultures, not just from the relics and the ruins that remain, but of the actual people who had once lived, it is still important that we realise we can only form an impression of what they had once seen and lived through themselves.  I often catch myself whilst handling a person from the past, imagining who they had loved, what they had seen and what they had done in their lifetimes.  Although the answers to some of our questions as researchers may now be lost, archaeology and its related disciplines can still help to shed a little light.  That light is improving as archaeology widens its scope via science breakthroughs and multidisciplinary projects.

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Lascaux Cave Art & Immersive Website

19 Dec

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.

Aurochs depicted at the Lascaux cave complex, from the Upper Palaeolithic, in France.

An stunningly realised example of aurochs depicted at the Lascaux cave complex, from the Upper Palaeolithic, in France (Source).

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.