Shadows of a Northern Past: Rock Carvings in Bohuslän and Østfold by JOHN COLES
Les Félins de la grotte Chauvet by JEAN CLOTTES and MARC AZÉMA
Les Mammouths de la grotte Chauvet by BERNARD GÉLY AND MARC AZÉMA
I review here new publications important to the study of European rock art. They are concerned with the prehistoric imagery found in two distinct locations, and are written by leading authorities in their own field but consider very different material. The first publication is a study of the characteristic Bronze Age and Early Iron Age rock carvings within a small region of Scandinavia. The other two are the first thematic studies of the Upper Palaeolithic art of the Chauvet Cave in France. In some ways, the approaches taken to these very different subjects are similar: they report the results of accurate and detailed recording and consider the stylistic variations of certain images. Detailed studies of individual panels have revealed internal sequences, and even the recognition of a single hand. In both geographic areas, the authors carefully consider the location of the images in relation to others, and their position relative to the intended viewer. However, in other ways the studies have to be different to fit their subject: the rock art of Scandinavia was created by ‘carving’, while that of the French cave was executed by painting, scraping or engraving. Whereas the physical context of the Scandinavian rock art is not immediately obvious and has been established through the modelling of sea-level change, that of the French cave is largely unaltered since its creation. Nonetheless, each of these books remains focussed on a level of interpretation that can reasonably be gained from archaeological evidence and none strays into the potential realms of metaphorical or allegorical meaning.
Shadows of a Northern Past: Rock Carvings in Bohuslän and Østfold by JOHN COLES
This handsome monograph is a study of the characteristic prehistoric rock carvings of a particular area of south-western Sweden (Bohuslän) and south-eastern Norway (Østfold). The author, John Coles, needs no introduction to the Prehistoric Society: he is its former President, Editor, Europa prize winner, and organiser of field trips to the area studied in this book. To a few, he may be better known for his work in wetland archaeology, renowned as both a meticulous excavator and as a tireless international crusader for the cause of wetland conservation. But the same personal qualities that have marked him as a peerless scholar of bogs have been applied with equal dedication and result over a period of thirty years to a very different subject and geographic region. As Bo Gräslund puts it, John Coles ‘probably has more empirical experience of Scandinavian rock carvings in general than any other living scholar’. For many years his research was a ‘solitary journey of discovery’, personally ‘sustaining and fulfilling’, but fortunately for us it has also been highly productive. Since 1990, a string of valuable publications has meant that we too benefit from his voyages of discovery. Amongst these, his double monograph of 2000 – Patterns in a rocky land: rock carvings in south-west Uppland, Sweden – was a major contribution to the subject as is the work noted here.
In Shadows of a Northern Past, John reviews former work in the region but principally presents the results of his own painstaking recording at more than 100 complex sites. All fall within a study area some 125km by 25km on the western seaboard of the main Scandinavian land mass. Apparently, rock carvings (actually created by pecking and some grinding of the surface of the glaciated granite) have been recorded in the study area since the seventeenth century, with more systematic recording occurring from the mid-nineteenth century. Existing archives and publications were, therefore, the starting point for John’s research. Whilst paying tribute to the early work, John also points out that his own diligent observation has added important detail to even the best-known of sites, and an emphasis on the need for accuracy and completeness in recording pervades the entire volume. The work progresses logically from the description and discussion of the different forms of image (boats, people, animals, discs, carts etc) to the structure of the decorated panels, and thence to the distribution of the sites in the landscape. The range of different subjects for the images is restricted: as John puts it ‘the repertoire of images was inviolate, their representation was restricted within the parameters of license...’ Each symbol was created through adherence to certain conventions but the subjects may be either naturalistic or abstract. The most striking, and the most numerous, of the images are of boats without sails but often with crews equipped with paddles, trumpets and weapons. These vessels are thought by some to be skin-covered boats, although the form of one particular series can be related with confidence to the plank-built boats discovered at Hjortspring in Denmark and dated to about 350 BC. However, the discovery of earlier plank-built boats in Britain (North Ferriby, Dover etc) demonstrates the competence and ingenuity of Bronze Age shipwrights more than a millennium earlier and hence there is little objection on chronological grounds for the Scandinavian carvings not to be of a similar construction. As with the depictions of carts and ploughs, the images provide a valuable contemporary record of certain equipment that is, with rare exception, largely absent from the archaeological record, and a statement on its importance to the community who used it. The human figures depicted are varied and imaginative. They include figures waving their hands in the air (adorants), or arched backward (acrobats), warriors wielding weapons and trumpets, ithyphallic men engaged with other figures and animals but no sexually explicit women. In some instances a single large figure dominates the panel. Other naturalistic figures include a range of animals (bulls, horses, dogs, deer etc) and occasional trees. Apparently abstract symbols include discs and cup marks. In some panels, different components overlap, so that internal sequences can be distinguished, and some may have been used or refreshed over a period of centuries or even a millennium. Detailed analyses of the different symbols have led to the recognition of similarities in certain images that are so close that a single artist probably executed them. The book considers factors that influence the structure of different panels, such as the slope of the rock, the flow of water over it, or cracks and joints in the rock. It points out that the symbols may be set out in an orderly manner or more randomly but that they were all designed to be viewed from downslope. There appears to be a hierarchy in the size of the sites, large examples perhaps being used by the people within a wide territory while smaller ones related to more local communities. Similarly, certain concentrations in the distribution of sites (for example, around Tanum) may mark particularly important areas.
A major component of the volume is the illustration of details largely taken from John’s own recording of the carvings. The 128 large pages of text (c. 280 x 350 mm) are illuminated by 160 photographs or drawings, the latter mainly extracts from overall site plans. The more comprehensive plans of the selected decorated rock surfaces form a further section of the book, and are all reproduced at a common scale. Whereas the drawings present the technical record, the excellent photographs are complementary, and convey well the nature of the sites, their settings and current state. A block of 16 colour plates further conveys the content and presentation of some sites. Although the modern over-painting of carvings is decried by many (for reasons of conservation and the obscuring of relationships), it is probably necessary for the purposes of teaching and engaging public support for the greater cause of site identification and protection. (Nor is it beyond the bounds of possibility that the carvings were originally painted during the periodic re-telling of the messages that they were created to convey). As with other rock art sites universally, the threats from human and environmental agencies place a degree of urgency on the establishment of a comprehensive, but accurate record of the resource. The book fully acknowledges that the sites included form a sample of the full potential population of decorated rock faces. Indeed, it is estimated that there are some 5000 sites in the two areas within the study area alone, and some 17,000 decorated sites throughout Scandinavia and the numbers continue to rise as more discoveries are made. However, the sample is more than sufficient to gauge the subject matter and its variety, as well as the challenges posed for recording, analysis and interpretation. The descriptions reflect an intimate knowledge of the subject gained only from the investment of effort during many hours/days/months face to face with the subject matter. Only in such a way can the subtlety of place, orientation and outlook, or the play of light across a variable surface be obtained.
Context is a crucial aspect of any archaeological discovery, and the difficulty of relating the rock carvings of Scandinavia to other cultural evidence is no exception. Despite the long tradition of recording the carvings, archaeological research into other forms of archaeological evidence which might help to place them within a broader cultural context is less advanced. This book will therefore provide important guidance for any future research agenda. Whereas the carvings can be dated stylistically (to between 1700 BC and 300 BC) by reference to archaeological artefacts elsewhere, the cultural context will only be understood in the future through the investigation of nearby settlement and burial sites. Similarly, the contemporaneous environment will be better understood when the type of studies that John has directed in the Somerset Levels have been conducted in this study area. Nonetheless, it has long been recognised that the distribution of rock carving sites relates to former coastlines, the majority of the images being situated between 15m and 20m above sea level. However, the complex relationship between changing sea level (eustacy) and the emergence of the land (isostacy) makes accurate prediction of the contemporaneous coastline problematic. These problems notwithstanding, another significant contribution of this book is a consideration of the physical context of the rock carving sites. This is achieved through a series of studies in which more than 800 sites have been mapped at a variety of different scales and related to the changing configuration of the coastline. Analysis of the distributions is then used to describe the potential evolution of the landscape, noting which parts of the local topography may have formed open water or mud flats, or may have been suitable for arable or pasture. Hopefully, this predictive modelling will be tested in the future by carefully planned inter-disciplinary fieldwork.
There can be little doubt that there was an essential relationship between the people who created the carvings and the sea. In purely practical terms, transportation around the many creeks and embayments was probably easier by boat than across the land. The gradual regression may well have been of concern, and may even have been a motivation behind the art, but this study is not an exercise in hypothetical interpretation of an unknown prevailing philosophy. John acknowledges a ‘profound and symbolic basis for the images’ but in the absence of adequate evidence avoids speculation on their meaning. Although he tells a fictitious tale, recounting the journey of a lone traveller, long ago to a far off land of intrigue and inspiration, such heroic deeds may well have been the basis of myth and legend, and the tale and its telling so important that its characters were perpetuated through the carvings. Modern isotopic studies of artefacts and bones now offer proof that people and things frequently experienced long journeys in prehistoric times.
I do not have a profound knowledge of Scandinavian rock engravings, and therefore cannot give an opinion on the full value of this book. However, to my mind its is a model approach to a challenging archaeological subject. The approach through conscientious appraisal of archival material, review of published accounts, accuracy and completeness of field record, and contextual reconstruction could be applied just as profitably to many other locations with ancient art (such as the Libyan or Mojave deserts). The only thing that some might wish for is an index. Nonetheless, above all else, the outcome of this personal research is disseminated in a carefully crafted and well-illustrated format. I found the book inspirational and enjoyable and I have no doubt that it will make a unique and important aspect of Scandinavian prehistory available to many, especially all those of us who would normally struggle with the translation of the myriad papers synthesised by John’s hard work.
Les Félins de la grotte Chauvet by JEAN CLOTTES and MARC AZÉMA
Les Mammouths de la grotte Chauvet by BERNARD GÉLY AND MARC AZÉMA
The discovery of the spectacularly decorated cave of Chauvet in the Ardèche gorge of central France has been widely publicised. Since its discovery in 1994, two major publications have described the circumstances of its discovery, the physical character of the cave and a preliminary inventory of its contents. - These volumes have been reviewed previously in Past 39 (Clottes et al. 2001) and the Society’s book review web site for June 2003 (Clottes et al. 2003) - . A suite of 60 radiocarbon dates based on paint, on torch marks and on material from the floor confirms the date range for the use of the cave between 33,000 BC and 23,000 BC, making it the earliest painted cave yet known. To date more than 400 images of late pleistocene animals and symbols have been recorded but as work progresses this number continues to rise. From the outset, the intention of the investigating team was to make available as quickly as possible the results of research, and to publish alongside the larger and more general woks a series of more thematic studies. The first two of these have just been published as the opening volumes of the series Les Cahiers de la grotte Chauvet. Like the large introductory volumes, they have been published by Seuil, but these thematic studies adopt a much smaller format (250 x 180 mm). That said, they maintain the same high standard of production as the larger works, so that the quality of reproduction of photographs, for example, is as good as ever.
So far, images of 14 different species of animal, as well as more abstract signs, have been identified within the cave, executed with red, black, brown or yellow paint, as well as by engraving, finger tracing or scraping. Most unusually, the bestiary is dominated not by herbivores, such as horse and bison, but by dangerous species, notably lion, mammoth and rhinoceros. It is perhaps fitting that the first two volumes of Les Cahiers are based on the two dominant species, lion and mammoth. Similarly, it is fitting that the first study is co-authored by Jean Clottes who was charged with the initial responsibility of establishing the team to record the cave. Although he has now retired, he continues an active role with the team, and neither his energy nor his enthusiasm is diminished. For these volumes, he is joined by Marc Azéma, a researcher with the CNRS and the Émile-Cartailhac Centre, whose doctorate was based on the representation of movement in parietal art, and by Bernard Gély, a prehistorian with the Ministry of Culture and Communication’s Rhône-Alpes regional archaeological service.
A similar approach is adopted in both volumes. The studies are largely descriptive, the authors considering the techniques of execution, the depiction of movement and anatomical details, as well as the position on the walls and use of the volume of the rock. Every example is described, and its dimensions and associations quoted. Helpfully, these details are summarised in tables, which allow easy comparison of the essential details, while overall plans of the cave enable the location of each image to be identified. The tables also provided essential concordances between the numbering sequences used in each volume with the overall inventory used elsewhere. As preservation of the fragile clay floor within the cave is a prime concern, certain parts remain inaccessible and consequently the total number of images quoted for any species may yet rise. For a similar reason, several of the images have only been recorded from a distance. All of the images of each species are illustrated in both photographs and line drawings. In the volume on mammoths, those images which are difficult to see, such as faint engravings, are depicted as coloured line drawings ‘draped’ over grey-scale photographic images. This combination enables the reader, not only to appreciate the individual images but also to visualise the ‘canvas’ on which they are portrayed. Equally useful in assessing the variability of the images are diagrams in which all of the examples in the volume are placed side by side, some reversed so that they all face the same direction.
The first volume concerns the lions, not only one of the most numerous of the species depicted in the cave but also one of the most visually striking. Two extinct species are represented: one image is of a leopard (Panthera pardus fossilis) but all the others are considered to be cave lions (Panthera leo spelaea). In all, 75 examples are noted, representing more than half the total of representations of this animal in all Upper Palaeolithic parietal art. Although the images are distributed from the entrance of the cave to its back, the majority are concentrated in spectacular friezes in the deepest part (salle du Fond), where in one of the panels alone 15 lions are depicted hunting a herd of bison. The early date of this scene, its composition and artistic majesty not only make it the world’s earliest artistic masterpiece but have necessitated a fundamental review of the inception of art in Western Europe. In Chauvet, the images of lions are frequently partial and only 11 examples are more-or-less complete. However, in their depiction there is a most unusual emphasis on the details and expression of the face. Based on the body proportions, and on the behaviour of modern African lions, at least 13 of the images are regarded as males. No image depicts a mane and, hence, it seems reasonable to accept that this is an attribute of modern species and not of cave lions. The ethological studies also suggest that the complex friezes, whilst appearing naturalistic, are in fact seldom that – each was fabricated to tell a certain story not to record an actual event.
The second volume is the outcome of a campaign, started in October 1999, to record the mammoths abundantly depicted in the cave. The count of images currently stands at 76 examples, making mammoths the most numerous of the species represented in the cave. As with the lions, their distribution is far from even and half the images are concentrated in one area deep within the cave (the Salle du Fond). As with the volume on lions, anatomical details of the species are considered (but understandably without reference to modern analogues) and the relationship of the images with other mammoths and those of other species. For example, images of horses are not common in Chauvet but appear to share a privileged relationship with mammoths. Many of the mammoth images are highly stylised, the representation being reduced to a single line following the domed head and back. Natural proportions are frequently distorted so that the fore quarters are exaggerated. It is considered that the depiction of body hair, or the lack of it, cannot be used to suggest seasonality. Careful examination of the complex panels reveals the sequences of work, considerable delay between different generations often being apparent. Mammoths appear to be the central figure in many of the composite panels and frequently they were the first images to be created. Stylistically, those created later are more dynamic and expressive. The mammoths are often showed in pairs but also in larger groups of up to seven, presumably a reflection of their natural behaviour.
In each volume, the images in the Chauvet cave are compared with other known examples of the relevant species in France and beyond, both in parietal and mobiliary art. These reviews demonstrate that both lions and mammoths are represented throughout the Upper Paleolithic, chronologically from the Aurignacian to the Magdalenian, and geographically from Central Spain to Russia. However, their frequencies are very different: even including questionable examples, less than 50 images of lions are known in cave sites beyond Chauvet compared with more than 400 mammoths. Some 46 caves are known to have representations of mammoths and, whereas the later site at Rouffignac has by far the greatest number of representations (160), Chauvet has the greatest number amongst the early-dated caves, with more than twice as many as Arcy-sur-Cure or Pech Merle. Because the animal is so frequently represented in the Rhône valley, it is suggested that this may have been a migratory route.
Aspects such as ‘meaning’, the use of animal products as an economic or symbolic resource, or the archaeology of their hunters are clearly beyond the scope of these volumes and they remain clearly focussed on description and analysis to good effect. The two opening Cahiers have clearly set a high standard, which hopefully will be maintained, for later additions to the series. Each stands as an important thematic study in its own right but as the series grows it will enable all those with an interest in Upper Palaeolithic archaeology to form an in-depth knowledge of this spectacular site and its crucial place in the development of Western Europe art.
Andrew J Lawson
Review Submitted: December 2005
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