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Paleolithic Wonder: A Critical Description of Chauvet Cave
“These images are memories of long forgotten dreams, is this their heartbeat or ours? Will we ever able to understand the visions of the artists across such as abyss of time?”
Werner Herog – Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Discovered in 1994, Chauvet Cave located near Vallon-Pont-d’Arc France has provided today’s archeologists, paleontologists and art historians with new and fascinating details about the lives of the Paleolithic people in Western Europe. [Need an essay writing service? Find help here.]Through the caves many different rooms and surface walls, we are able to see many different animal paintings and signs of human life, many of these works seem to suggest that these paintings may be some of the earliest examples of art anywhere in the world. In this essay, I will show in detail how the elements, shape, designs and paintings of Chauvet cave are closely connected to the socio-cultural context of the Paleolithic people who once lived in the area. I argue that through these painting and this important discovery, we can see a rare look into the start of human artistic expression.
According to the Bradshaw foundation website, “a decorated cave whatever its importance can only be understood in its particular setting and context. It is located in a landscape whose characteristics influence the ways of life and the beliefs of Paleolithic people” (Bradshaw Foundation). I feel that the prehistoric artifacts that have been found at Chauvet Cave shows us how early humans lived, and what their world was like. We can see what was important to them in their everyday lives. But most importantly, I think though the pictures and paintings we see that the Paleolithic people were able to communicate with each other and through future generations of human beings (like us today) with the use of images and artwork. Even though we do not speak the same language or come from the same period, through the paintings we see that we are all still connected to each other and that we still share many common features that make us human.
The Actual Discovery:
One of the most interesting facts about the Chauvet Cave discovery is that it has occurred so recently. Since the discovery was so recent, researchers have been able to protect the cave from being misused or damaged because of human influences. We also see that there are many first-hand sources and notes from the discovers themselves. This can be seen in the book “Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave” which talks about and describes how the discovery was actually made by the original explores of the cave.
Since the discovery has only happened recently, I also believe that we have learned from our past mistakes with other old art and artifacts that have been damaged because of human interference. One example of this can been seen at the site of Stonehenge. In the past, a visitor could walk anywhere in Stonehenge, they could touch the stones and the area was not protected. But people started to damage the stones by writing their names on the rocks. Now the rocks cannot be touched or moved, they are protected by a fence and no one can go into the real site if they are just a visitor.
Of course this is not just being done to protect famous prehistoric sites, it is also being done to protect real pieces of old artwork such as Michelangelo’s The Last Supper. The painting is on the wall of a church and it had been damaged because there was too much humidity. The humidity is caused by people, since lots of people want to see it every year. Experts found out that humidity was damaging the painting, so new rules were made to limit the number of people allowed to enter. Today, when people want to visit the site, they have to book an appointment and dehumidify in a special area before going in to see the artwork.
In this way, I think Chauvet Cave is special because, these type of rules or policies to protect the site have always been in place since the cave was first discovered. The discovers of the cave immediately understood the significance or importance of the site and what it would mean in helping us understanding our own human history and our own past. The cave is so unique and special because it is “like a frozen flash of a moment in time” (Herzog). This was able to happen because a rock slide, which covered up the original entrance into the cave, and allowed no one to discover and come into the cave until just recently. But most importantly, because nothing has been disturbed or moved for thousands of years, the preservation “has made it possible to reconstruct the chronology of events” (Clottes, 112). This means that researchers are able to know through carbon dating and analysis, exactly how the cave and the paintings inside the cave came to be produced.
Researchers have learned from past mistakes when it comes to doing research in cave paintings. There are now new rules that protect the painting from damage. For example, in the past when people wanted to copy what they saw, they would make copies “by putting tracing paper directly on the cave wall, a method that would horrify a modern scientist” (Lawson, 204). Instead, in order to copy and map the Chauvet cave, researchers used special plastics and new technological tools to map out the cave exactly as it currently exists, every detail of the cave and the paintings were computerized and a replica cave is currently being built and is set to open in 2014 (Bradshaw Foundation).
In the original location, every precaution has been taken to keep the site as it was found, walkways have been used to make sure that visitors do not damage the cave floor or make footprints in the cave. No tourists are able to go into the cave at all, and the entrance into the cave is also tightly controlled by a metal door that needs two different keys. “The state guide has one key, and the scientists have the other” (Curtis, 208), this makes sure that only a small group of scientists is allowed to enter. Whoever is lucky enough to go inside must also wear “sterile boots” (Herzog), and they must never leave the metal platforms that have been built. Because of this, research is slow since they need to do it without damaging the fragile environment in the cave.
Descriptions of The Cave:
It is clear that the artists of Chauvet Cave had to paint and create their artwork to conform to the dimensions of the cave. Being a bear cave, many researchers think that the cave was rarely used by people. The cave was never meant for human habitation and does not contain one human bone, but many bear and other animal bones. Researchers believe that the cave was used by humans in the summers when the bears were out of hibernation, and when they did not use the caves (Lawson 120). Since this cave was only recently discovered, research on the cave is still currently being conducted and new discoveries will still continue to be made, people currently believe that the cave was used to paint different natural and local animals as well as conduct ceremonies.
To discuss every single different artifact and element of the cave would take many more pages than this essay would allow. It would also not be as complete or comprehensive since the excavation of the site is still on-going. So instead, I will focus on a certain section of the cave and describe it in detail. I will look at the “Panel of Horses” or the “Horse Sector” (Clottes, 106) of the cave. I will talk about this sector in detail and speculate on why these animals were the subject of the paintings, I will also compare this section to the red dots paintings and other more human signs that can also be found in the cave.
Since the discovery, many of the areas in the cave have been named. From the Skull Chamber, to the End Chamber, to the Horse Sector, we see that each of the sectors is different and very unique. While it is called the “Panel of Horses” by both the discovers and the researchers, we see that there are more than just horses painted in the panel. From “big black rhinoceros with an exaggerated long horn that curves strongly backwards” (Clottes, 110), as well as the deer, bison, and reindeer with antlers, many different animals other than horses can be seen in this large painting and section of the cave.
Again, since the discovery was so recent, we can read about how and what the discovers were feeling when they saw the Panel of Horses for the first time: “We moved on; a torch lit up the end of the chamber, and there was a moment of ecstasy. An extraordinary black frieze appeared: with magnificent horses, aurochs with beautiful S- shaped horns, an astonishing little stylized bison; and a bear” (Chauvet, Deschamps & Hillaire, 48). We see that “in the excitement of discovery, [they] tried to take everything in with one look. Over more than 10 meters (30 feet), animals drawn in charcoal form a harmonious composition that uses the wall’s volumes, its crevices, its angles, producing illusions of relief and perspective” (Chauvet, Deschamps & Hillaire, 48).
From the horse panel, researchers have found that “twenty animals are grounded on the paintings surface of about 4 square meters” (Clottes, 111). What makes this part of the cave unique is not only the number of animals drawn in such a small area, but also the fact that the cave surface is different here than in many other parts of the cave. This is because the walls here was very “malleable” (Clottes, 112) and its color can be changed just by scraping the walls.
While Paleolithic art does not contain a lot of narrative depictions, researchers believe that we have it in the horse panel. It is argue by Jean Clottes that “the movement of the heads, the harmonious curve of the necks, inevitably led one’s gaze towards it” (Clottes, 116). Researchers have come to the conclusion that all of the horses were made by the same person, but each are different in their own ways. The researchers believe it was a single person and not a group of people who created this piece because of the “coherent composition and the sequence of the different stages” (Clottes, 118) that went into creating the piece.
They conclude that the horse panel is, “above all, a masterly composition, a work of art produced by not only inspiration but also experience. After close observation of the wall, [they] have been able to understand the artist’s tentative efforts and reworking to achieve a more harmonious composition. It is impossible not to see in this the fruit of an artistic approach in the most contemporary sense of the term” (Clottes, 116).
This type of painting, is of course very different in style then to say the red dot paintings. According to researchers the dots were made with humans hand and come in different sizes. “Each dot was created by placing the ochre-covered palm of a hand on the wall. Nearly 509 individual examples of this type of sign have been counted in the cave. (Lawson, 312). As we can see in photographs, many of the dots are combined together to form an image of an animal such as a bison.
Importance of the Animal Figures:
For the designs in the cave, we see that the drawings mainly focuses not on human features but rather large animals which human beings would have seen during this period of time. In fact one of the most interesting features of the Chauvet caves is how many large paintings of dangerous and large animals there actually are. We see in Andrew Lawson’s new book Painted Caves: Paleolithic Rock Art in Western Europe that “by 2005, seventy different images had been counted, nearly two-thirds of them in the end chamber, and fifteen in a single panel” (Lawson, 310).
One of the most obvious but important features is that there are many more pictures of different animals than there are of the human symbols or of human features like handprints. I think this is because during the period, humans would have regarded these larger animals with respect and regarded some of them as far more powerful creatures then they themselves were.
I believe they painted these large animals as a way of honoring them and as a way of placing them in very high regard. They would have respected these large predatory animals, especially given that people during the Paleolithic period were primarily a hunter-gather society. These animals would have been not only as a source of food, but also a source of clothing (through different animal furs).
Europe, and this area 30000 years ago would have been filled with all different kinds of large animals such as the wholly mammoths, lions, bears, bison, horses, and reindeer as well as smaller animals like antelopes or foxes. Animals like the wholly mammoth would have been seen by humans because the area back then would have been much colder. They would have perhaps been hunted, so it is I think no surprise to see that paintings of them appear in the cave.
Since the original discovery in 1994, we now know much more about the cave and about the artwork in the cave. We can also see the process and the discovery taking place through the different books that have been written about Chauvet Cave. In the first work about the caves “Dawn of Cave Art” (1996) which was written by the three discoverers, it is clear to see that the pictures which were taken were very simple, and that there was very little analysis about what the images truly meant. Therefore the first book felt much more like a story or narrative about how the three made their discovery.
But for new books and articles such as “Return to Chauvet Cave” (2001), there is much more detailed information about the cave and paintings. Since there is more data and the site has been explored for a while, the books on the cave are now very detailed and explains clearly why, how and when the drawings were made. One of these examples can been seen with the Horse Panel. Researchers now know which animals were painted first, and why there are colour changes on the walls and scratches on the surface (from a bear claw).
While many fascinating discoveries about how early human’s art have been made or discovered, there are also a lot of questions that still remain unsolved. Perhaps further studies will help to answer some of the questions that remain, such as just why the red dots were used, or the true purpose of the cave itself. [Need an essay writing service? Find help here.]
We can also see that there are still a lot of arguments and confusion about who really owns the cave. “Since Chauvet was discovered, it’s ownership has been the subject of many enervating lawsuits involving various owners of the land, the nation of France, and the discovers, particularly Jean-Marie Chauvet. Although the cave is named for him, he has found more frustration and disappointment than joy in the aftermath of his discovery” (Curtis, 208). But I think that what cannot be questioned is just how important sites like this are. Through the art of Chauvet Cave, we not only see what has come before us, but also what this art says about ourselves and our own society.
Chauvet, Jean-Marie., Deschamps, Eliette Brunel., and Hillaire, Christian. 1996. Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave The Oldest Known Paintings in the World. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
Chauvet Cave Bradshaw Foundation. http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/chauvet/
Clottes, Jean.2001 Return to Chauvet Cave Excavating the Birthplace of Art: The First Full Report. London: Thames & Hudson.
Curtis, Gregory. 2006 The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists. New York: Anchor Books.
Herzog, Werner, dir. 2010 Cave of Forgotten Dreams. 90 Min. History Films
Lawson, Andrew. 2012 Painted Caves: Paleolithic Rock Art in Western Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.