Return to Chauvet Cave. Excavating the Birthplace of Art: The First Full Report by Jean Clottes and 29 other authors.
Thames and Hudson, 2003, 226pp (34.7 x 27.5cm), 209 Ill., ISBN 0-500-51119-5. £45

         The cave of Chauvet in the Ardèche gorge of southern France is the most important discovery of an Upper Palaeolithic decorated sanctuary for decades. Its pristine condition, sophisticated artistic techniques and ancient date offer us the most significant potential for the re-evaluation of the origin of art since the discovery of Lascaux. Anyone who has seen images from the depths of the cave cannot but be impressed by them. It will, therefore, be welcome news to the English-speaking world that the first full report of the site’s exploration has been made available in English by Thames and Hudson. The new volume uses the superb photographs and the same large format as the earlier French edition (with the benefit of a few replacements to make certain photographs even better) with a full translation of the text. (As this is by Paul Bahn, himself one of the most prolific of prehistoric rock art commentators, there should be no fear of things being ‘lost in translation’).

         The fortuitous circumstances of the discovery of the cave were promptly published in 1995 (and that book subsequently also made available in English) but the current volume is the English edition of the first formal report of the thirty-strong research team appointed to record the site under the expert direction of Jean Clottes. The French edition was published in 2001 by Édition du Seuil and, although I previously reviewed that volume (Past 39,6-7), I have welcomed the opportunity to re-read the report and to be reminded of its importance. I trust that readers will forgive any duplication but the work of this incomparable research team is too irresistible to ignore.

         The first thing to emphasise is that this sumptuous volume is not a coffee-table glossy. From the quality of the illustrations and their publication one might be forgiven for thinking that this was the intention but the reality is that this report offers for the first time a synthesis of hard facts about the cave and its contents. Most archaeological sites do not have the benefit of being so photogenic. Furthermore, it is the skilful artistic ability of those who decorated the site and the dense use of the cave walls which might mislead an ill-informed reviewer. The report is only the first and others are promised in at least two different series (Les Cahiers… to be a more technical series to be complemented by others in the nature of the current volume). The desire of the research team to share their records and ideas with a wider readership is most commendable and, if this volume is anything to go by, then we can expect a copious supply of information and interpretation. Research in the cave commenced, with all its practical difficulties, in the Spring of 1998 yet the first report was already printed in 2001. Clearly, Jean Clottes is determined that there will not be a Chauvet inconnu.

         The second matter to stress is the diligent attitude taken by the team to the conservation of the cave. It is now known how fragile the environment within a cave can be and, if the full contents have survived in pristine condition for us to admire many thousands of years later, society has a serious responsibility to sustain the precious resource for future generations. Too many cave floors have been trampled or dug out; too many cave mouths have been opened to the blast of the outside air; and elsewhere too many visitors have introduced contamination to allow this site to be recklessly exploited. Fortunately many of today’s would-be visitors are more sympathetic to the needs of conservation but there are still many who cannot understand why they do not have the right of entry and need to be dissuaded from damaging expectations. Facsimiles at Lascaux II and Niaux have rejuvenated commercial rewards while stimulating thousands of visitors. While such a costly investment in a visitor experience may be some way away for Chauvet, the caring visitor will be most grateful for the publications from Édition du Seuil and Thames and Hudson. Meanwhile, Jean Clottes and his colleagues have not risked penetrating some areas of the cave for fear of damaging the sensitive floor but have improvised with digital cameras on poles and binoculars to discover yet more secrets of the deepest recesses where lurk palaeolithic surprises.

         In its day, each spectacular cave art discovery has been greeted with scepticism. Poor De Sautoula died before the date of Altamira was accepted, Rouffignac was thought to be a post-war hoax, and similar scepticism surrounds Chauvet. But why should this be? Thanks to AMS dating there are already more dates from Chauvet than from any other decorated site. Samples taken from paint, from hearths and from ‘torch wipes’ (where firebrands have brushed against surfaces) give consistent dates in two (possibly three) series suggesting brief human visits at 32 – 30,000 BP and 27 –26,000 BP. However, it is these very early dates (Lascaux was thought to be only half this age) which have occasioned disbelief in some quarters. To my mind there is little need to doubt the reputable Gif-sur-Yvette laboratory where most of the dates have been obtained, or to argue that by some quirk of sampling all of the dates are based on the same source of fossil charcoal. Instead, I find the dates to be confirmation of the ‘creative agents’ (as Clive Gamble would call them) within the initial ‘modern human package’, normally represented by Aurignacian industries with their novel bone implements, associated decorative elements and evidence of more advanced social abilities and imagination than their predecessors. The composition of Chauvet’s art, dominated by dangerous animals (lions, rhinos, mammoths and bears) confounds the existing analysis of later sites with their hunted animals (horse and bison). But an early, Aurignacian date for such iconography is independently given by the portable art of the Swabian Alb where the broader context of Vogelherd’s model lions and mammoths and Hohlenstein’s löwenmensch has previously been elusive.

         The volume describes the formation of the cave and its present appearance, as well as its archaeological and palaeo-environmental context. The content of the cave and its faunal remains, partly disturbed by internal flows of water and ancient human interference, are detailed. (The cave floor is littered with animal bones, paw prints, hibernation pits, a few artefacts and hearths but it was not a ‘habitation site’). The full extent of the cave cannot be described because, like many other caves (Fontanet in the Ariège valley, Tito Bustillo in Asturias etc), it was blocked by a rock fall which buried any archaeological activity at the original entrance. Whether some scientific technique, such as ground penetrating radar, might establish the volume of this blocking remains to be seen.

         The art of the cave is mind-blowing and at the time of discovery many newspapers featured photographs of the unique friezes of maneless lions, banded rhinos and spotted bears. If it is safe to use qualitative judgements, Chauvet surpasses some other renowned masterpieces selected by the Abbé Breuil as veritable ‘giants’. Although it is meaningless to select certain images because it is the structured use of space within the entire cave which is so important, the Horse Sector and the End Chamber contain outstanding friezes, with complex compositions of a diverse bestiary executed with consummate skill using a variety of techniques. This volume describes each of the cave’s 35 panels and many of the individual images, the known number of which has doubled since the first reckoning.

         The range of techniques used by the artists is very wide: the scraping of surfaces; engraving with fingers or tools; red, yellow, brown, purple and black paint; charcoal crayon; shading (‘stumping’) and the use of natural relief to give volume and shape. True scale was not important, such that animals smaller than others in real life are sometimes depicted larger. Unlike many later caves where panels seem to contain individual animals in rather static poses, here the friezes comprise real compositions with emphasised perspective and movement. Similarities and dissimilarities of style have been perceived so that it is possible to suggest slight differences in age or in the hand of the artist: many of the cave bears are thought to have been drawn by the same artist whereas the convention for depicting the ears of rhinos, for example, is shared. Such is the state of preservation that a number of phases in the composition of a single panel can be suggested – eight, for example, on the Panel of Horses. The eradication of the earliest engraved works, both on this and on other panels, may suggest an early phase of decoration prior to the production of charcoal (for which there is ample evidence within the cave) – but this would obviously imply an even earlier date! While it seems improbable that all the cave’s art was accomplished in a single visit, the authors suggest that it was executed by only a few people over a short space of time. The cave was subsequently re-visited by cave bears but seldom, it would appear, by artists.

         The function of the volume is clearly to present a large amount of information and consequently analysis at this stage is limited. Nonetheless, some important basic observations are offered: the use of red paint is largely restricted to the ‘front’ half of the cave; the central part (the Chamber of the Bear Hollows) is almost devoid of art; the most striking panels are in the deepest part of the cave (the Horse Sector is 190m from the entrance) which contains one third of all the images; certain images (such as hand prints and bears) tend to occur in the ‘front’ portion while others (rhinos, aurochsen, bison and reindeer) tend to occur at the back; some areas were deliberately blank. Perhaps because of caution over the chronological implications, the authors refrain from citing endless parallels: there will be ample debate in the future and the priority of publishing essential information has been recognised. Despite this strategy, the reader is so stimulated by the results that questions flow immediately especially concerning other sites that have not benefited from direct radiocarbon dating yet contain strikingly similar elements, albeit in different contexts. (What age are the rhinoceroses at Rouffignac? Is the woman/bison theme of Peche Merle allied to the decorated ceiling pendant at Chauvet? Is there any link between the well-executed megaloceros of Chauvet and Cougnac? And so on).

         Doubtless, future research will offer yet more information - the analysis of paint at Niaux was a revelation; laser scanning may provide fine detail; temperature measurement from stalagmites (speleothems) may refine environmental interpretation; and so on – but I have no doubt that the research team are as impatient as any to apply the full panoply of science on this remarkable discovery. In the meantime, it is the challenge to the established interpretation of Upper Palaeolithic cave art from an intact site which is so exciting. The notion that a sophisticated ‘style’ of art only developed in the later Upper Palaeolithic has previously been questioned but is now obviously no longer tenable. But why should the images of hunters have been replaced by the hunted? Why was the use of space utilised as it was? If bears could re-use the cave why did artists not? What do the individual compositions mean? Beyond the site there are broader questions, not least that if the art of Chauvet is so refined, where was it first practised? Such questions will only be answered with the continuing conscientious study of sites such as Chauvet and the broad points of view expressed in the volume from ethologists, from an art historian and an anthropologist are most welcome.

         Any publication has to make selective use of potential information. However, I might make three minor requests for the future. The first is to offer an indication of scale in each caption. The clarity of photography makes it difficult to gauge the actual size of some of the images. From time to time the text points out the exceptional (a lion 2.8m long or the variation in size of mammoths between 25cm and 2.35m) but it would help to make comparisons if each image was uniquely referenced and there was a consistent level of detail on its actual size. The second is to indicate precisely the origin of radiocarbon samples. Finally, an answer to why the spotted feline is a ‘panther’ and not a leopard? Such requests are churlish in the scale of things and I have every faith that such information, and much more, will be available in due course.

         This volume is stunning. I wish to offer my congratulations to Jean Clottes and his team for its authoritative and timely appearance. Similarly, I wish to congratulate Thames and Hudson for continuing their tradition of publishing high class archaeological volumes, especially at this affordable price. Finally, I would encourage anyone remotely interested in early art to rush out and buy a copy and then to clear enough space on your bookshelves to take the promised follow-up volumes.

Andrew J Lawson
Wessex Archaeology        

Review Submitted: June 2003

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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