Le geste, l’espace et le temps by NORBERT AUJOULAT
Lascaux is arguably the most famous cave in Western Europe. Other sites have produced defining sequences of Upper Palaeolithic artefacts, while rock faces from Portugal to Russia have revealed a miriad painted, engraved or sculpted images, some discovered decades before Lascaux but others within the last year. But somehow Lascaux seems to remind us more than any other cave of the excitement caused by such ancient but tantalising evidence. It also teaches us of the onerous duty placed upon modern society to safeguard such rare treasures.
Following its discovery on 12 September 1940, the initial investigation of Lascaux provided a major fillip to French pride when it was most needed. In post-war years thousands flocked to admire the exuberant expression of palaeolithic artists but by 1955 awareness of the impact of opening the cave was becoming apparent. Bold decisions were taken – in April 1963 the cave was closed – while scientific monitoring within revealed the complexity of the sub-terranian atmosphere. Such was the economic effect of the closure on the community of Montignac that expensive risks were taken to create a partial but faithful facsimile of the original. Lascaux II, opened in 1983, has taught us much about the educational value of copies. Its creation was a financial and philosophical gamble which paid off: it has stimulated the building of others at Niaux and Altamira, while others are contemplated elsewhere to relieve the potent threat posed by the opening of caves. Such a solution has taught us that most students of the period must satisfy themselves with published accounts and electronic virtual images rather than exposing the precious original to unacceptable risk. Such is the context of Dr Aujoulat’s new book.
‘Surely’, some might suggest, ‘Lascaux is so well-known that it doesn’t need another hefty tome to tell us about it.’ However, as with any important and complex site, re-examination, closer scrutiny, the application of new ideas and scientific techniques, as well as the benefit of research elsewhere can contribute to a significant advancement of knowledge. It is true that many authors since the Abbé Breuil (1940) including Annette Laming (1959), Arlette Leroi-Gourhan and Jacques Allain (1979), have contributed to ‘definitive’ statements on Lascaux – but most of these are no longer in-print and much new information has been gathered since they were published. Dr Aujoulat’s book is therefore a timely re-examination of previous work and is the culmination of his own fifteen years of research. ‘Hefty tome’ would be an appropriate description because the dimensions of the illustrations and high quality art paper conspire to produce a large volume that requires strong wrists and is better suited to the personal library than the briefcase. This is not a criticism but a compliment to Éditions du Seuil who continue to expand their excellent Collection ‘Arts Rupestres’ under the direction of Jean Clottes.
The author is eminently qualified to present this account. In May 1980, the French Ministry of Culture decided to create a team within the Centre national de préhistoire for the research and documentation of the many decorated caves and shelters in France. Norbert Aujoulat has been the team’s Director since that date and started work on Lascaux in 1988. The outstanding contribution which the Research and Technology Mission has made to the scientific appreciation of Lascaux has already been marked when they ‘picked up’ a Webby Award 2000 at the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences celebrations in San Francisco for their innovative web site (CNRS 2000).
Conservation limitations have inevitably prolonged the work of recording at Lascaux but this has also offered time to improve the methodology and to consider alternative interpretations of the results. In studying the formation of the cave itself (karstologie) as well the behavioural characteristics of the animals which figure in the art (éthologie), the author has considered original factors which may have contributed to the structure of the artistic assemblage, and which might help us to understand it better.
The first three chapters of the book describe: the calcareous geology of the region (including the formation process of caves and shelters in the Périgord region); the general underground milieu (including the distribution of caves, occupied and decorated sites, and natural conditions affecting the survival of decoration); and the physical aspects of Lascaux itself. The latter discusses the evidence for a restricted second original entrance (at the end of the Grande Diaclase) which was in part responsible for the circulation of air and its erosive effects on the surface of the cave walls in certain locations, but in the main is a detailed description of the various sectors of the cave.
In describing the archaeological context, Chapter 4 mainly summarises earlier work on the assemblage of stone tools and portable objects. Although these have been used to relate the decoration of the cave to broader cultural evidence, the treatment of the floors of the cave was not careful by today’s standards. More-recently discovered caves such as La Garma (Cantabria) or Fontanet (Ariège) demonstrate the complex nature of undisturbed evidence on a cave floor and the need for great care in recording. Nonetheless, historically the material from Lascaux formed a vital link between the otherwise isolated fields of evidence on the walls and beneath the floor. Absolute dating of the paintings, which has been achieved using a variety of techniques at sites such as La Garma (González Sainz 2003), is not possible because the pigment does not contain charcoal. Consequently, the range of radiocarbon dates from material contained within the floor, together with the analysis of the style of the paintings on the walls, continues to offer scope for discussion. Was the cave decorated in the Solutrean (18,600 BP) or Magdalenian (15,500 BP) – or some other period which left no debris on the floor? The iconography of the art does not necessarily help this debate: for example, although Françoise Delpech has pointed out that there is little palaeontological evidence for the aurochs during the cold conditions of the Solutrean, the climate may have experienced short but abrupt amelioration (the Lascaux interstadial), sufficient to permit the temporary migration of such species. Hopefully, the continuing correlation of refined evidence from Greenland ice cores and deep pollen sequences (such as those from Les Echets and La Grande Pile (Guiot et al. 1989), may help to resolve such fundamental environmental questions.
Half the volume is given over to detailed description and analysis of the art. As nearly 2000 individual figures have been recorded, Lascaux remains one of the most richly decorated sites known but also one of the most complex. This section of the book is therefore extremely valuable. Despite the superficial impression that images are ubiquitous throughout the cave, analysis shows, for example, that more than half occur in the Abside, on only 6% of the total decorated area, closely followed by the large number within the Passage. The most commonly represented animals are horse (60%) and deer (15%). Aurochs and bison are found in some of the most striking compositions but numerically represent only a small proportion (4.6% and 4.3% respectively). The animals and signs are not uniformly distributed and a considerable part of the book is given over to the description of each sector, noting the contribution made by the natural relief to composition.
It goes without saying that the single most striking characteristic of Lascaux is its lavish decoration and no amount of description can really convey everything. Appreciation will inevitably be a very personal view and may reflect the themes which interest the author, such as ‘art’s birth’ (Bataille 1955). Dr Aujoulat’s appreciation pays considerable attention to the themes of design, composition and technique, and reveals his detailed knowledge of every inflexion of the cave. The shape and condition of surfaces led to the use of different techniques and influenced the compositions with their marked horizontal trend. Amongst other aspects, the method of application of paint is considered in the light of experimental work, so spraying using different techniques can be recognised as distinct from dabbing with a pad. He explains the characteristic traces left by different techniques, brushes, crayons, stencils etc. The combination of painting, design and engraving seems to have been deliberately chosen according to the form of the support and the required theme. Polychrome painting was not just dependent upon juxtaposition of colours but chromatic values of the paint. The characteristics of the structure of the paintings is demonstrated through a study of the horses, while the bovids are used to demonstrate the conventions for perspective, whether twisted, semi-twisted, normal or profile. The text covers the use of relief to offer volume and shape, accessibility and height, the sequence of construction and so forth.
It is suggested from a study of the coats of the animals depicted that a sequence of horse-aurochs-deer reflected a biological cycle of spring-summer-autumn. Dr Aujoulat concludes that the complementary nature of these themes (‘an ode to life’) provides unity in the compositions. Glory considered that there were six major phases of work at Lascaux but this is called into question by the analysis of the friezes. The book includes excellent diagrams to show the sequence of development of some sectors: for example, the four major phases of the Rotonde des taureaux. Because of the cohesion of the compositions Dr Aujoulat concludes that the principal decoration was produced in a limited time, perhaps a single generation.
The composition of bison, man and rhino in Le Puits is possibly the most debated scene from the entire site, and therefore warrants some comment. Dr Aujoulat’s work (with others) on the pigments confirms that those used in the depiction of the rhino are sufficiently different from the others to suggest that the group was not executed on a single occasion. He does not repeat Glory’s that engravings also occurred within this almost inaccessible panel.
Description alone could never be wholly adequate to convey the visual impact of this cave and consequently successive authors have attempted to use various means to illustrate it. In 1940 Fernand Windels commenced the first campaign of photography but printing techniques limited the quality of reproduction (Windels 1948). Later, improvements in printing techniques provided the opportunity for better results (Ruspoli 1987) but this volume makes full use of both Dr Aujoulat’s skill in photography and improved printing. It contains nearly 200 figures, the majority being the author’s very high quality images. That said, photography has its limitations especially when it comes to the recording of engravings when the use of tracings better conveys the subject. Understandably, therefore, the volume does not seek to act as a substitute for certain other publications but the approach means that coverage of the cave is not uniform: for example, for the Rotunde des Taureaux and Diverticule axial no line or spot escapes scrutiny, but for the Abside only representative images are presented. As the author states, there is some justification for this because a separate volume would be required to provide comprehensive cover for the profusion of motifs (mainly engravings) in the Passage and Abside. Those interested in the engravings will doubtless refer back to the recording of Abbé Glory between 1953 and 1962 presented by Denis Vialou (in Leroi-Gourhan et al. 1979). The descriptions of Le Nef and Le Trefonds follow those of Leroi-Gourhan (op. cit.).
The series in which this volume appears is clearly designed to offer wide appeal. It is not surprising therefore that the text should not appear cluttered in a technical way. Constant correlation with other publications would detract - although it might help the dedicated student. For example, it does not take long to work out that Fig. 109 is Glory’s Panneau II, the central stag being motif No.74, in the tracing reproduced in 1979 as Pl.VIII.
In summary, this is a major new work which complements earlier publications. It contains detailed description of each section of the cave and draws together the results of many diverse studies. Bearing in mind the constraints placed on access to the original cave itself, the superb illustrations and descriptions, with precise measured dimensions, presented in the book can only assist anyone with an interest in Upper Palaeolithic art, whether expert or novice, in a better appreciation of this important site. Lascaux continues to be of outstanding universal value and now ‘access’ is enhanced by Dr Aujoulat’s superb book. It is simply the best book available on Lascaux.
Review Submitted: November 2004
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this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews
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