Painted Caverns

Remarkable events have been taking place in the world of cave art. The recent discovery of two spectacular painted caves in France have amazed archaeologists and cave art historians and spawned the publication of two beautiful books.

"The cave beneath the sea - Palaeolithic images at Cosquer" - Jean Clottes & Jean Courtin. Translated by Marilyn Garner. Published by Harry N Abrams Inc. 1996 $45

"Chauvet Cave - The discovery of the worlds oldest paintings" By Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel Deschamps & Christian Hillaire. Translated by Paul Bahn. Published by Thames and Hudson 1996 $28

These two books are perhaps tomes for the wealthy, but anybody with the slightest interest in the history of cave art will not be disappointed. They are both lavishly illustrated in full colour and in a matching format; 31*27cm. Unfortunately this is a size guaranteed not to sit comfortably next to it's neighbours on any bookshelf, but this small criticism apart, these are both fine books. If you have the spare cash or a wealthy aunt wondering what to give you for Christmas, these books will make a handsome addition to the bookshelf.

"Chauvet Cave" is by far the better of the two, being more narrative in style and superbly illustrated with a readable text in an easy style describing the story of discovery, details of the paintings and, their significance and plans for future conservation.

Whilst "The cave beneath the sea" contains some interesting chapters on the discovery and the situation of the cave, it degenerates into a detailed catalogue of the paintings and engravings to be found in the cave. Whilst this is of great academic value, it does not make for a good bedtime read. The style of the narrative is a little tortured although it is possibly the quality of the translation rather than the original text that lets it down in this respect.

Since the first major cave art discovery at Altimara in Northern Spain in 1867, controversy has raged as to by whom, for what purpose and when such paintings were executed. The fact that these images were in fact the work of prehistoric man was only accepted as a steady flow of new discoveries came to light (predominantly in Northern Spain and Southern France) through this century. Not all the questions are answered yet and much more research is needed before the work of the cave artists can be fully understood.

The discoveries at Chauvet are of enormous significance, not only because these paintings are probably the most spectacular assemblage of cave art so far discovered but also because the discoverers were, from the outset, acutely aware of the importance of the archaeological context. At the Chauvet cave the explorers were careful to protect the floor from damage during exploration and the cave has been sealed from all but the rarest of visits until a proper strategy for its recording and conservation is decided upon. Its location is still a secret from all, but a few people.

Contrast this with Lascaux (the world famous site which was discovered in France in 1940) and many other sites where less enlightened explorers allowed the excitement of discovering the paintings to deflect their minds from the scientific importance of the archae0logical context. In many sites the floor was removed to allow better access to visitors, electric lights were installed and regular visits allowed from the outset resulting in the destruction of most of the archaeological context and damage to the paintings themselves. In the absence of the archaeology that accompanies the paintings in the general cave environment, the paintings are nothing more than pictures and can tell us nothing about the people who created them.

The importance of Cosquer cave lies not only in the fat that it is a decorated cave in an area where only very minor examples have been discovers, but also because a whole range of depictions of marine animals has been found. But the most remarkable feature of all this is the fact that the entrance to this cave is 120 feet below sea level and is now only accessible by cave divers. This fact has not only helped preserve the site (or at least those that have survived above sea level) but also provides a vivid demonstration of the antiquity of the paintings which can only have been executed in the geological past before melting ice caps from the last ice age resulted in major changes in sea level world-wide.

This to me, more than anything, gives a feel for the huge antiquity of these paintings and the fact that the artists would have been familiar with a climate and landform completely unrecognisable to us now. Here is graphic demonstration of the unchanging time warp that the cave environment has maintained over perhaps 20,000 years and that our intrusion into this fragile environment can change in seconds, that which has remained unchanged for thousands of years.

Allan Ockenden