Tag Archives: cave art

A New Picture of an Old Species

Today, our group first went to a prehistory museum, then we visited La Grotte de Rouffignac. The museum was mostly filled with prehistoric tools, bones of animals and predecessors of humans, and reconstructions of those species. Though it was extremely fascinating to see these exhibits, one point that the guide said stuck out to me. She said that even though when we think about human predecessors we envision them entirely focused on survival, this is not completely true. Later, she pointed out a pretty shell that had been found in a cave dwelling and I think that this reinforces her point. This shell may not have served a purpose to its ancient owners the way that a tool or an animal skin would have. Despite this, it was kept in this cave anyways for no other reason than that its discoverers were interested or liked the way it looked when they found it.

While we were touring La Grotte de Rouffignac, a cave near Sarlat filled with prehistoric cave paintings (The photo attached is of the cave entrance).

I was amazed with the incredible art that covered the walls. These people painted mammoths, rhinoceros, horses, and other animals on the walls and ceilings. Looking at this beautiful art, I thought about how much time they must have spent painting and carving in the cave. This showed me that our predecessors were not simply focused on finding food, water and safety; they were creative and curious beings.


Next stop prehistory!

The Piette travelers outside of the Musee National de Prehistoire in Les Eyzies

Our Piette program travelers have taken a departure from the traditional school trip to France to explore an extremely ancient part of our past. This began early in our stay in Paris when we rode the train to Saint-Germain-en-Laye, an affluent suburb northwest of the metropolis. The curator of the Musee Nacional d’Archeologie spent considerable time showing us their oldest collections–those on exhibit as well as behind the scenes. Most notable was the Piette Room discussed in my earlier post. Despite the extensive collections of stone tools, carved bone and ivory, as well as numerous examples of Magdalenian portable art dating from 10 to 12 thousand years ago or earlier the highlight for many of the students was a visit to the roof of the royal castle that houses the museum. This is not surprising, as this part of our past lacks written sources and is enigmatic and inaccessible for even those diehard students of prehistory. In some ways that trip to the castle roof is a metaphor for this inaccessibility. The tools and carvings and decorated chunks of cave walls belong to a subterranean underworld inhabited by long dead people and their even more extinct animal muses standing in stark contrast to the bright blue sky, breeze, and sweeping panorama seen from atop a castle just a few hundred years old. How can we access the human world of 10, 12 or even 15 thousand years ago when WWII and the events of D-Day just 70 years ago begin to recede from us? Are the people of the Paleolithic lost to us or can they be recovered by going to them, to the cavern landscape of the Dordogne and the Midi-Pyrenees?

After our encounter with the beaches of Normandy and the American Cemetery we traveled to Les Eyzies, arriving at the Musee National de Prehistoire at the end of an international conference on Magdalenian portable art and a new temporary exhibit on the subject. Important pieces of carved and engraved bone and mammoth ivory were assembled for the exhibit, uniting a handful of tiny artifacts from different caves for comparison. We had seen some of these artifacts a week earlier in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. For example, in one case the famous antler carving of a bison licking its side from La Madeleine rock shelter was exhibited alongside a similar carving. The carving is truly magnificent and would be at home on a Pablo Picasso canvas. Despite the excitement and energy surrounding the exhibit, however, our connection with the makers was incomplete. What happened so long ago that caused people who had never carved antler or decorated caves to do so? Was this great awakening a neurological shift, as some have suggested? And why does the abstract quality of these drawings, engravings, paintings, and carvings appeal to our modern aesthetic?

The wooly rhinoceros cast at the Musee National de Prehistoire

Our next step back into the Upper Paleolithic took us even closer to the Cro Magnon realm: the caves. Our first cave visit was Grotte de Rouffignac. Visitors board a small train for an hour long tour–the train helps protect the decorated walls and helps limit the duration of each visit. Evidence of cave bears–both innumerable scratches on the walls and “nests” used for hibernation are evidence that the cave was used well before the engravings and manganese drawings of mammoths, rhinoceros, ibex, horse, and bison were added some 10 to 12 thousand years ago. What is most striking is the intentionality in evidence. Drawings of animals were often made with one confident and sweeping line, defining rump, back and head. But beyond this, the placement shows that the makers had conceived of their design and then executed it, grouping species or placing drawings in a frieze below a layer of projecting chert nodules. But the bears and ancient artists were not the last visitors to Rouffignac; much of the cave ceiling has been defaced by those who crawled in the cave from as early as the 16th century, largely unaware of the depictions. A visit the following day for a very animated tour of the main exhibits in the Musee National de Prehistoire added context to the Rouffignac Cave–one exhibit is a cast of a wooly rhinoceros preserved by salt and crude oil deposits in Poland, displayed with a skull and the cave art outline. It’s still hard to imagine the intrepid souls who crawled into these caves armed with their manganese crayons and flickering oil lamps, working their way deep into caverns to lie on their backs to execute a fabulous bestiary of the last ice age. Images that were perhaps never meant to be shared, were it not for our modern drive to hollow out these spaces and illuminate the images with electric lamps.

The beautifully carved and engraved stone lamp from Lascaux

A visit to the Grotte Font-de-Gaume brought our group face to face with polychrome cave paintings not unlike those at the famous and now closed Lascaux cave. Too many visitors are bad for caves. Our guide told me that in the 1960s they had over 1,000 visitors a day. Now visitation is capped at 80 per day in an attempt to control the cool microclimate within the cave. At Font-de-Gaume some 15 thousand years ago cave artists mixed multi-colored paint to illustrate mammoths, horses, reindeer and other ice age animals. In one scene–and there are most certainly scenes here–a reindeer bends gently forward and licks the antlers of another reindeer, perhaps a mating ritual. Here the depictions of these creatures draws on the natural shapes of the cave walls and draperies. In at least one case a natural declivity in the cave became the eye of a bison. But leaving the cave our guide beckons us to bend down to examine one last remarkable decoration: the silhouette of a human hand made with black paint. But this is not a signature, the hand print may predate the artwork by some 10 thousand years. Another enigma!

The so-called troglodyte dwellings of the Neolithic pock mark the limestone and chalk cliffs of the Dordogne and give some hint to the significant relationship between the people of this area and the rock. Even during the Neolithic some 5 or 6 thousand years ago caves and rock shelters were used for dwellings. People of the region are still proud of their relationship to the rocks and caverns

Les grottes

These past two days have been nothing short of amazing.

At this point in our trip, we’re embarking on the archaeological and prehistorical portion of our itinerary. While we have been staying in the medieval town of Sarlat and enjoying the rich history and culture there, we have been commuting each day to les Eyzies in order to study prehistory.

After Normandy, we spent a short amount of time in Blois, in the Loire Valley, exploring castles and chateaux and noting the transition from the medieval to the renaissance styles in France. Two mornings ago, we boarded our big red bus and drove about six hours into the countryside.

We arrived in les Eyzies-de-Tayac at 14h to attend the opening of an exhibition of Magdalenian art at the Musée National de Préhistoire. Standing in the reception area, my eight trip mates and I received some perplexed looks from the specialists attending the opening (the youngest of whom was at least 20 years older than us). The museum curators and staff were ecstatic to know that the such young people were interested in a field usually attractive to older people. We were ecstatic too, particularly when they started passing out fresh macaroons.

The exhibition was introduced in short speeches by the director of the museum and a government official. Complete with video simulations and glass cases detailing the different pieces of Magdalenian art the museum had collected, the new exhibition was a hit. Small glass cases contained fragments of bone and stone decorated with carvings of animals and delicate designs. We wandered from case to case, examining the precious specimens along with some of the leading archaeologists in the world. Because the world of archeology is so small, we also got to catch up with some specialists we had met at the Musée d’Archaeology National, which we visited on the second day of our trip.

The next day, we spent the morning and early afternoon exploring Sarlat. In the late afternoon, we drove into the countryside past les Eyzies to reach le Grotte de Rouffignac.

Tucked into the hillside, Rouffignac is not notable at first sight. A small opening in the side of a mountain, the entrance to Rouffignac could be easily missed. Stepping inside, the first thing I noticed was the change in temperature. While the outside air had been a balmy 85 degrees, even the first cavern of the cave system felt a good 15 degrees cooler.

A small desk was set up in the first cavern, where a kind lady lent us sweaters and handed us our tickets. Fifteen minutes later, after we had a chance to peruse the available gift shop plunder and read some background information on the caves, an older French gentleman led us into the second cavern of the Grotte, where the temperature dropped again. He closed an iron door behind us, and we were plunged briefly into darkness before the dim lights were illuminated. Walking into the back of this cavern, we boarded a tiny train that would motor us a kilometer into the rock.

My first impression of this train and the cave was that it looked like a scene from one of the Harry Potter movies, in which Harry and his faithful cohorts board a train in Gringott’s Bank to access Bellatrix Lestrange’s vault. For the Harry Potter fans reading this, you may agree with me in that this scene is one of the most epic in the movie: our favorite trio zip through cavernous caves with mind-blowing rock formations and dripping stalactites. Traveling through the Grotte was a comparable experience.

Our guide narrated to us the story of the formation of the passageway by an underground river as we rolled through cavern after cavern. The majority of the walls were covered in scratch marks from an extinct species of cave bear whose circular nests were still intact in the caves.

As we travelled deeper, we began to see traces of human life – finger markings on the ceiling, some faint outlines of wooly mammoths. Soon it seemed every cavern held some drawing – wooly mammoths, wooly rhinoceros, bisons, and horses were depicted in incredible detail. In the farthest cavern, the entire ceiling was covered in drawings, which the people of the Neolithic era would have painted lying on their backs (several years ago, the owners of the cave extended the floor of that cavern to allow for the preservation and viewing of such works).

What was remarkable about these paintings, asserted our guide, was that they were never made to really be seen. The artists themselves would likely never have been able to behold their drawings in full, lying on their backs so close to the ceiling. Art for the sake of art.


This image is one from today – just outside the Font de Gaume cave. While we were not allowed to take photographs in the cave today (or yesterday, for that matter), nobody said anything about photographing the entrance. Doesn’t it look so mysterious?

What baffles me about these caves is that they have not changed for thousands of years: the structures we see today and the experience of walking through the caves is largely similar to the experience someone would have had many thousands of years ago.

Too reach the cave, we climbed about a half kilometer up the steep mountain. The ancient peoples would have had to do the same, yet without the aid of maintained paths and bannisters installed by the keepers of the cave. This photo I took just when we reached the top, staring into the black cave with rock outcroppings hanging overhead.

The image you see here shows the entrance to the cave as the prehistoric men and women would have seen it when they occupied this cave 15,000 years ago.

This cave we traversed exclusively on foot. The passageway was extremely narrow, requiring me to slide sideways and crouch at certain points. The paintings and carvings in this cave were remarkably well preserved. Today, the cave is sealed to the public and climate controlled (we were not allowed to stay in the caves for more than an hour, lest the substances we introduced to the cave deteriorate the images as they did in Lascaux).

Our guide showed us paintings and carvings of reindeer, wooly mammoths, horses, and a feline. Many of these depictions combined painting and carving, with the eyes and eye sockets often carved into the colorful painted animals. Our guide would often turn off the lights in the cave and shine only his flashlight on the work of interest, giving us a sense for the experience a prehistoric person would have had with a simple lamp of animal fat.

The paintings were on several different levels in the cave, and our guide maintained that the people may have used wooden beams to lift them to higher rock faces.

Just before we left the cave, our guide asked us all to crouch down on the stone floor and look up into a small overhanging rock face. There, outlined in black paint, was the clear outline of a hand. Some prehistoric person had placed their hand on that rock and sprayed paint over it to create a negative. Knowing that someone had placed their hand in that exact place was somehow very touching.