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“Laying Bare the Art-Making Impulse”? Two Recent Publications on Prehistoric Art

October 2006 (110.4)

Online Review Article

“Laying Bare the Art-Making Impulse”? Two Recent Publications on Prehistoric Art

Reviewed Works

New Perspectives on Prehistoric Art, edited by Günter Berghaus. Pp. viii + 269, figs. 49. Praeger, Westport, Conn. and London 2004. $94.95. ISBN 0-275-97813-3 (cloth).

Chauvet Cave: The Art of Earliest Times, edited by Jean Clottes. Pp. 225, color figs. 195, maps 13. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City 2003. $45. ISBN 0-87480-758-1 (cloth).

Chauvet Cave, hidden in the side of a gorge in the Ardèche, has yielded some of the most spectacular works of prehistoric art in the world. The publication in 2003 of the huge and luxuriously illustrated Chauvet Cave: The Art of Earliest Times (published in the U.K. by Thames & Hudson as Return to Chauvet Cave) must rank as a milestone in our understanding of human achievement. Since 2003, a number of more scholarly papers have been written on the cave and its archaeology, paleontology, and art, and appear together in one volume (BSPF 102 [2005]). They convey a vivid picture of a rich and sophisticated Upper Paleolithic parietal art site. Although several scholars have questioned the antiquity of the art, two main phases are recognizable. One phase is clearly Gravettian, and according to the study group, the other is earlier, attributable to the Aurignacian. However, critics (including myself) note the existing weaknesses of the dating evidence and suggest that the other phase is more plausibly Magdalenian. Although significant, these arguments should not detract from our appreciation of the richness of this site and the many insights it offers into Paleolithic art. Since the first publication of Chauvet Cave’s art in 1996, the number of recognized animal depictions has more than doubled (to over 420), and new taxa have been recognized among the images, bringing the total to 14 different species, among which carnivores, particularly lions, represent over 50%. Mistakes in interpretation have been corrected, and the complexity of techniques used to make the images has been elucidated, from the scraping of rock surfaces to prepare “canvases” and using certain topographic features to bring out dynamism, to complex “stump” shading. It has become clear that certain areas of the cave were preferred at the expense of other potentially serviceable surfaces, and a degree of intentional design has become apparent.

For a site that will probably never be open to the public, high-quality publication of the images in context is critical, and one cannot find fault in this beautifully illustrated (it has over 200 sizable high-quality color photographs), large-format book with useful accompanying text. Early chapters place the site in a regional topographic and archaeological context and examine the numerous prints of animals and humans in the cave’s galleries and the paleontological and archaeological traces preserved on the cave floor. The rest of the book presents a good sample of the cave’s art, including the enigmatic dots in the Brunel Chamber, finger tracings in the Candle Gallery, the spectacular scenes in the deeper parts of the cave (such as the Alcove of the Lions), the confronting rhinos and magnificent horses in the Horse Sector, and the lions apparently advancing toward a herd of bison, rhinos, and mammoth in the End Chamber. Following this exhaustive tour through the cave’s art, each taxon and artistic medium is examined in detail through examples, and a final chapter summarizes the team’s working conclusions. No review could do this book justice; it simply has to be seen.

An annual series of art lectures has been held at the University of Bristol since 1911. In 2001 Berghaus organized a series of eight lectures on prehistoric art and published them in New Perspectives on Prehistoric Art, with the addition of a brief chapter on the discovery and study of this subject and a selective (although extensive) bibliography up to 2002. The content of the introductory chapter and bibliography is limited to Paleolithic rock art, but the papers span a wider range of topics. Although varied in quality, they range from currently fashionable interpretations of Paleolithic cave art (Lewis-Williams), the use of formal and informal methods in the interpretation of Australian rock art (Chippindale) and art in human evolutionary context (Barham) to considerations of prehistoric art as indication of performance (Montelle, Nygaard), as well as aggregation at sacred spaces (Turpin), and the influence of prehistoric art on European modernism (Cardinal). Two papers repeat somewhat tired and dubious interpretations of Paleolithic art (Lewis-Williams on altered states of consciousness arising in the context of shamanism, and Powers’ apparently Darwinian model for the emergence of art through the politics of menstrually sychronized females), which have been discussed ad nauseam and need not be considered here.

The volume is fairly weak and lacks a coherent message, as one might expect from a publication that arose from a series of lectures designed for the public. For a volume on art, and given its price, it is surprising that it includes so few illustrations and that the overall production quality is average. Papers that stand out (which perhaps should have been published elsewhere) include Turpin’s examination of the rock art of northern Mexico and the southwestern United States, Barham’s stimulating model for the evolution of symbolism and art, and Nygaard’s exploration of Scandinavian rock art sites as ritual “theatres.” Turpin notes that northern Mexican and southwestern U.S. rock art (ritual) sites of the last 5,000 years share characteristics in that they were placed at the juncture of ecotones, where the rock faces form part of a dramatic topography (usually a steep V-sectioned valley) and reveal evidence of aggregations in a pattern of cyclical nucleation—a form of seasonal aggregation. The ritual art is characterized by repetition of form, suggesting that the iconography was rule-bound.

Barham takes a “long chronology” view for the emergence of symbolism in Africa—something that remains to be demonstrated—but his arguments are some of the most convincing cases for this hypothesis. He suggests that body symbolism involving pigments emerged as early as 400,000 years ago in Homo heidelbergensis populations and, therefore, there was no “big bang” with Homo sapiens. Pigment use, he suggests, was continuous since that time (an untested hypothesis given the absolute paucity of archaeological sites over this time in general, let alone those that preserve pigment crayons). Somewhat wide of the mark is his statement that “Neanderthals did not use these behaviours [symbol use, pigments to signal identity] as systematically and effectively as our ancestors” (107), which reflects the double standards of Africanists studying the origins of modern human behavior. The importance of Barham’s paper is his development of a plausible model for the emergence of art, which is firmly rooted in color vision and the importance of reds and yellows, the ubiquity of art and symbolism to enforce the social boundedness of the small groups into which humans organized themselves, and the repetition of themes.

Barham addresses the fundamental paradox of why rock art appears not to emerge until after 35,000 B.P. given the possible ubiquity of earlier pigment use, and suggests that fundamental changes in human demographics could underlie the innovation. Barham makes good use of Douglas’ work on how societies are structured, particularly in terms of the social contexts in which restricted codes (art) emerge. Douglas uses a structuralist grid/group system that coordinates the cohesion of social groups and the constraints upon individuals within them. Barham’s innovation is to link art to ritual and thereby to social structure, rendering Douglas’ scheme usable in his model. In societies with a clear hierarchy (high grid) and strong cohesion (high group), imagery will be highly formalized with little deviation. By contrast, loose groups with individual freedom possess unrestricted imagery that will vary between individuals. Thus, according to Barham, human groups were low grid/low group until ca. 40,000 B.P., and the emergence of rock art after this time reflects a shift to high grid/high group organization. Barham’s model is attractive in that it is logical, objective, and testable, and is admirably modest, unlike many interpretations of early art. It should be given serious consideration, although I hope he will find a better vehicle for its circulation.

Some currently fashionable and untestable themes, notably shamanism, are apparent in several papers, although Turpin notes that “it is not necessary to invoke shamanistic or visionary sources to establish the origin of the [Mexican/U.S.] iconography” (61), even though the art was created in the context of shamanic religious systems. This should be a clear warning to prehistorians using this interpretative hypothesis, and its use is one of the great weaknesses of some prehistoric art studies. To paraphrase Plato, if enough people stare at a cave wall, they will see similar shadows, and from their self-supporting conversations a dogma is born that purports to be reality. With prehistoric art, no prehistorian will ever be taken from the face of the cave and shown the light of day; thus the illusion persists. While there are some works of interest in this volume, it largely promulgates this illusion. It is one of those volumes destined to disappear on the bookshelves, swallowed up by the shadows of mighty volumes such as Chauvet Cave. Juxtapositions of intelligent model building and speculative guesswork will continue to dog studies of prehistoric art. The stakes are high, and as Cardinal concludes, “what remains fraught about investigating the dialogue of the modern and the primordial is nothing less than the terrifying prospect of laying bare the very secret of the art making impulse itself” (193).

Paul Pettitt
Department of Archaeology
Northgate House
West Street
University of Sheffield
Sheffield S1 4ET
United Kingdom

“Laying Bare the Art-Making Impulse”? Two Recent Publications on Prehistoric Art

By Paul Pettitt

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 110, No. 4 (October 2006)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1104.Pettitt

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