A Journey Through the Ice Age Caves of the Dordogne
By Christine Desdemaines-Hugon
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS Copyright © 2010 Christine Desdemaines-Hugon
All rights reserved.
Freshly Plowed Fields in the Vézère Valley
The first time I held a Mousterian flint sidescraper, I was overcome by a wave of sympathy and admiration for its Neanderthal creator, some 75,000 years old. The perfectly shaped tool fit naturally in the palm of my hand, the curved, finely flaked working edge neither too sharp nor too blunt, ready to do its job, possibly scraping hides.
This was about 25 years ago. I was with the curator of the Musée National de Préhistoire in his garden overlooking the Vézère River, where he had spread out hundreds of Mousterian stone tools for me to sort. This was his way of introducing me to the complexity of flint technology. As I labored, separate piles of similar types of tools gradually emerged: those with scraping edges, notched or denticulated (with wide serrations), those that were pointed, sharp as a blade, thick or thin, large or small; those that were simple flakes with no chipped retouches; those, on the contrary, that were finely shaped on certain edges; and, finally, bifaces, fully flaked on both sides.
I learned that you judge a tool not by what it looks like but by what it can do. At first glance, most of these didn't look like much, but they were good tools (as we know from experimental replicas that have demonstrated their efficiency), which is probably why they didn't change much during the more than 250,000 years of the Middle Paleolithic.
Not long after, searching over our recently plowed fields, my eldest daughter, Kareen, who was about 10 years old at the time, ran excitedly toward me, proudly holding a superb Levallois point, certain that she had found some exceptional treasure—and she had. The texture of the cream-colored flint, usually hard and shiny, had become chalklike and fragile inside with time, and I could see where a tiny notch had been made by the plow (Fig. 1). Levallois technology, at least 250,000 years old, is a brilliant way of making the best and most economical use of flint, by planning and predetermining a series of tools layer after layer, in contrast to improvised or opportunistic production.
My three daughters and I regularly enjoyed hunting for tools over the freshly overturned earth washed by the first heavy rains. Heads low, we methodically scanned the surface backward and forward, boots heavy with mud, picking up flint artifacts of all kinds, not only Mousterian but also Neolithic.
I imagine Neanderthal hunter-gatherers living where I live now, camping out in the open more than 75,000 years ago. Under a nearby vaulted cliff shelter called the Roc de Marsal, they buried a young child, who left the best-preserved Neanderthal child skeleton found so far in Europe, now exhibited at the Musée National de Préhistoire in Les Eyzies (Dordogne). At least 70,000 years later, only a few thousand years ago, agricultural Neolithic communities settled in the same place, both cultures leaving behind surprisingly similar stone artifacts. Of course, the Neolithic period is known for its superb polished stone tools, but basic, more common techniques remained virtually unchanged.
Elaborately made artifacts are rarely found intact in the fields here around my home. But I have one such find, discovered one evening as I was hiding behind tall grasses, hoping to see some deer. Instinctively, my hand felt blindly around the base of the tall stems and came up with an equilateral triangular Mousterian biface. It is elegantly flaked on both sides, flat and slender, its edges each measuring 9.5 centimeters, its elaborately worked surfaces and balanced proportions making it look more like a work of art than a tool or weapon. Unfortunately, the plow that had surfaced it had also broken off a small portion of one angle, and the altered chalklike inner section contrasted with the shiny cream-colored worked surface (Fig. 2). For years, I had searched for such a piece without success, and there it lay, meant to be found.
Only recently did I learn that this biface was made out of flint from Bergerac, more than 40 kilometers away, and that the Levallois point found by my daughter in the same field is of the characteristically veined flint from the vicinity of Bélves, 15 kilometers distant. It's strange that the only two remarkable pieces that have surfaced in my fields are both made out of nonindigenous material and were found in parts of the field that are far from those abundantly filled with more ordinary artifacts.
Years later, my anthropology studies at the University of Bordeaux opened the doors to prestigious collections that I had always dreamed of seeing. In the quiet of dusty museum rooms, studying the carved designs of hundreds of Magdalenian bone and antler tools and weapons gave me similar thrills: bringing them into the light once more, out of protective drawers and boxes, measuring, examining, and drawing every detail, discovering small hidden figures underneath the more obvious ones, pausing to admire the delicate designs, never forgetting that these were actually held and appreciated by a man or woman some 14,000 years earlier, imagining the hand that made the tool, decorated it, used it.
It's an eerie feeling, eavesdropping on these Paleolithic people, witnessing immediate practical preoccupations and needs and the intelligence with which solutions were found, finding out how tools were made, guessing how they were used, and sensing the irrepressible pride and pleasure the artisans must have taken in embellishing these objects, as we would today.
* * *
I was prepared for the art. I had been a student first at Saint Martin's School of Art in London, where I had spent my childhood and adolescent years, then at the Ecole National Supérieur des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, studying design and interior architecture. Turner, Monet, Matisse, Kandinsky, and Giacometti were my masters, followed later by Rothko, Cy Twombly, Aurélie Nemours, James Turrell, Dan Flavin, and Bill Viola, among others. My eye was tuned to contemporary and experimental art forms, and still is, stimulated daily by my husband's sensitive minimal work on color, light, and transparency: his oil paintings, pastels, collages, and glass reflections, his landscape installations, over water, among trees.
Traveling slowly, on foot, has further opened my mind, and eyes, to the diversity of human cultural expression and eventually to the understanding that distances, whether temporal or spatial, can be insignificant when it comes to art. Every destination, no matter how far away it is or how ancient or different the associated culture is from ours, offers art forms surprisingly close to those with which I am familiar: in Egypt, the frescoes on the craftsmen's tombs of foliage, birds, and butterflies painted with remarkably modern, bold, spontaneous brushstrokes; in Greece, the pure lines of the Akrotiri frescoes; in India, paintings covering the walls of an off-the-beaten-track Rajasthan palace, displaying greens and blues that have the same luminosity as those of a Matisse painting; the perfect simplicity of Cycladic feminine statuettes, reminiscent of Brancusi's sculpture; the African masks which inspired Picasso; expressive Central American Olmec carvings and Cambodian Buddhas; the polished stone phallic lingas of southern Indian temples; in Mali, the simplicity of two carved and polished breasts emerging from the rough wood of a Dogon "toguna" tree-trunk support; again in Mali, Dogon cone-shaped fetish mounds caked with sacrificial milk and blood mixed with shells, and, far away in India, mounds in the same shape covered with years, centuries even, of conglomerated powdered colors; Australian aboriginal abstract paintings; amazing abstract paintings created by Mbuti and Mangbetu Pygmy populations, exclusively designed by women, of which I have rarely found the equivalent in originality and refinement in contemporary art. Just a few disparate examples, all personally seen and experienced in one way or another, and all somehow mirroring modern art forms.
Curiously, it was only with the revival of abstract and conceptual art in the twentieth century that the vast realm of past nonfigurative expression was "recognized" or came to be of interest once again. The absence of abstraction in the nineteenth century prevented the first archaeologists from seeing, let alone appreciating, the value of nonfigurative art forms, including those of the Paleolithic. Only figurative work was taken into consideration; the rest was ignored, at best pushed to the side and forgotten, at worst thrown away. In fact, it was not until the middle of the twentieth century that geometric designs, schematic representation verging on abstraction, signs, as well as simple notches, lines, and striations, were studied carefully, but by only a few, including the famous prehistorian André Leroi Gourhan, whose observations are still a reference today. I decided that these designs would be my specialty, despite the evident difficulty of such a choice: how can one approach nonfigurative expression when no one is around to explain it?
A lot more is said and written about cave art. That field is studied by a large majority of paleoarchaeologists, who, like me, are fascinated by the beauty and magic of parietal paintings and of the caves themselves. For 30 years I have been exploring the caves—those in Spain as often as possible and those in the Dordogne over and over again, sometimes even daily at certain times of the year, since sharing the caves with others has become an essential part of my life. There's always something different to discover that I hadn't noticed before: a perfect line, the shape of a rock, a subtle change of color, the expression of an eye, a sign hidden in a corner. It can be a different emotional experience each time as well, depending on one's frame of mind. Even in the middle of a group of tourists, it is easy to find oneself strangely alone. The darkness enhances not only the bright colors of the paintings, like glistening gems in a black velvet jewelry box, but also our most intimate thoughts of the moment. The impact can be one of elation, serenity, sadness, or fear. The senses become acute and are magnified: sight, smell, touch, hearing, even the taste of the air. More mysterious are the unexpected intuitive reactions that can unfold in the powerful environment of a dark cave: sensual, sexual, spiritual, or visionary.
I have never been afraid in a cave, even in the narrowest, most difficult passages. Caves are warm, wet, welcoming places to me—secure places, where I like to meditate, or "cave dream," listening in the pitch dark to the silence, interrupted now and then by the sound of drops of water falling or the muffled echo of distant voices. There is no notion of time. How often have I been surprised to find that night has fallen when I emerge after a long stay underground, coming out from darkness to find darkness outside. It is perhaps, more even than the brilliance of the art, this dissolved sense of time in the caves that brings us so immediately into contact with these ancient people. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why they are celebrated places.
* * *
Unlike my scientific articles about portable art, written in French, my university language, I have chosen to write this book in English, my mother tongue, for more freedom of tone, for a more personal touch. No matter how much research is involved, this book cannot pretend to be anything other than subjective, partial descriptions of periods and populations that we modestly have to admit not knowing enough about. I have had to make choices all along, in the brief account of human evolution, the development of tools, the potential dawn of language, and what I find to be significant in each cultural phase. I hope it will be more like a story than anything else, a distillation of years of information, conversations with specialists and amateurs alike, colored by what has left the strongest impressions on me. I am deeply grateful to all the archaeologists and anthropologists who have contributed to what is understood about early mankind, and I hope that the fact that I don't refer specifically to each one's excellent work won't be too much of a surprise, especially where good friends are concerned. If I mention one, I'll have to name everyone, and that would weigh down on the storytelling.
We shall undertake a profound, awe-inspiring journey, through five marvelous Ice Age art sites in the Dordogne: a shelter and four caves. The waters of the past, from the origins of humankind to the end of the Paleolithic, rush by in intervals as we move cautiously from one cave to another.
I've deliberately chosen the five major sites that are still open to the public: Font de Gaume, famous for its polychrome paintings; Combarelles for its hundreds of fine engravings; Cap Blanc shelter for its spectacular sculpted frieze; Rouffignac for its magnificent drawings and engravings, notably of mammoths; and finally Bernifal for reasons too complex to summarize in a few words. All five are of the same Magdalenian cultural period, each is remarkable, each unique with its own specificities, yet also with much in common with the others, as we shall see. Although just about everyone has heard of the famous Lascaux cave, now closed to the public, few have any idea that other treasures lie nearby, those that we are about to discover. Because of the inconvenience of most caves' topography, it is difficult to take photographs of the work, and those that exist give only a partial idea of what constitutes a whole: the figures' interactions and their relation to the mineral environment, for instance, their scale, or the relief and consistency of the wall's surface. This is why I've chosen caves that each reader can actually see and experience for him- or herself. It's still possible, but for how much longer? We are blessed with this opportunity.
My intention is above all to celebrate the art itself for what we can see, without interpreting or necessarily understanding it. To let the art and the designs, mysterious and magical as they are, ultimately, perhaps, speak for themselves and for their creators.
Font de Gaume
The steep climb up to the mouth of the cave of Font de Gaume can be experienced as a transition from present to past, a gradual shedding of modern everyday concerns. Bright wildflowers are scattered over the flaky rock surface on the way up. If you're lucky, you might see some wild orchids in the spring, especially the rare "bee" orchids with their delicate mauve flowers lined up along the stem, each centered with what looks just like an intrusive bee. Small, brilliant-blue butterflies, always in the same spot, fly away as we pass. Farther up, wild strawberries carpet some of the shadier spots. Trees have managed to grow despite the scarcity of earth, some even forcing their way through holes and cracks in the cliff: oak, maple, hazel, fig, wild plum, juniper. All the way up, imposing cliffs loom high above, streaked with vertical bands of black and whitish-gray lichen. In July and August it can be unbearably hot, the rock walls baked by the fierce afternoon sun; all the more refreshing is the cool air of the cave entrance.
A spacious shelter welcomes us after the last few steps, framing the original entrance, sculpted first by millions of years of water erosion, then by wind, drafts, frost. Well protected and west-facing, this sheltered overhang was once used by Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherers who lived here under wood and animal-skin structures, tents, or lean-to huts against the walls. Never did they live inside the cave itself. A clear distinction therefore must be made between caves, dark and deep, and cliff overhangs, open to daylight. The darkness, the high level of humidity—up to 98 percent in this cave—and the suffocating accumulation of smoke that would issue from campfires would be enough to dissuade anyone from settling in the depths of a cave. Except in a fewcases, caves don't yield the heaps of stone and bone fragments or the artifacts commonly discovered on habitation sites, nor do they show traces of everyday activities, food remains, or domestic hearths, all of which are usually found outdoors or under open cliff shelters.
Caves were therefore special places, dedicated exclusively to the expression and possibly the celebration of symbolic imagery, whether mythological, magical, or spiritual. They were cultural sanctuaries of sorts. What their true significance was we don't know; whether they were frequented or not, meant to last or not, we don't know; whether they are illustrations of a momentary event or whether they carry the essence of millennia of tradition, or both at the same time, we don't know. It is the limited, controlled subject matter that was portrayed over thousands of years that reveals the cultural importance of the figures. The absence, or taboo, of certain themes, the codified stylistic transcription of others, the graphic conventions, shared far and wide over such long periods of time, prove that this isn't art for art's sake, an individual's freely inspired creation. We'll see this in the course of our exploration. Undeniable and measurable by all is the quality of the work and the talent and experience of its authors. The necessarily long-term apprenticeship of the artists not only indicates how much value was attached to obtaining a high-quality result but also tells us about the cultural context, rich and complex, sufficiently strong, cohesive, and stable to support and instigate the creation of such wonders. Whatever the meaning, whatever the rituals or beliefs—shamanistic, animistic, totemic, or of a kind we can't even imagine—the quality of the art and the act of performing the art are both events in themselves.
* * *
Font de Gaume was "discovered" by Denis Peyrony in September 1901, four days after the nearby Combarelles caves, and was extensively studied by the greatest specialist of the time, the abbot Henri Breuil. The novelty, in fact, was the acknowledgment of the Paleolithic age of the paintings, not the discovery of the cave itself, which had always been open and known by local people. Several caves had already been discovered but not recognized as prehistoric: the famous Altamira cave in Spain as early as 1879, and, in France, Chabot (1878), Pair-non-Pair (1883), and Marsoulas (1883). Indeed, although small art pieces had already been acknowledged as Paleolithic because of their depictions of Ice Age fauna, it seemed inconceivable that "primitive" man could achieve such imposing painted or carved compositions, particularly in the darkness of caves. Not until the 1895 discovery of the nearby cave of La Mouthe (Les Eyzies), with not only paintings and engravings but also an elegantly shaped stone tallow lamp, under which was engraved a graceful ibex, did official specialists finally authenticate the antiquity of these sites. Here was proof at last that it was possible for a Paleolithic artist to venture, and create, underground. (Another such lamp was found much later at Lascaux cave [Fig. 3].) At last, Altamira could be acknowledged, 23 years after its discovery and, sadly, after the owner, Count de Sautuola, had died.
Excerpted from Stepping-Stones by Christine Desdemaines-Hugon. Copyright © 2010 by Christine Desdemaines-Hugon. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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