World History

Lascaux Cave

cave painting - aurochs bulls

Treasure Discovered!

The Art

Touring the Cave

Horse: a Closer Look

Lascaux Cave

Treasure Discovered!

It’s September 12, 1940. You are fourteen year old Rascal Ravidat. You and your dog Robot are walking and romping in the crisp autumn air.

Robot runs toward an uprooted tree. He noses the ground. With a yelp, he disappears!

“Robot!” you shout while dashing after him. You can hear Robot whining and barking.

You rush to the spot. There’s the hole! And somewhere down there in the darkness is Robot. His bark sounds far away. There’s no way you can reach him.

“Robot, I have to get help. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Dashing back to your house, you locate three older friends and explain the situation. Everyone urgently packs for underground exploration, adding shovels to enlarge the hole.

When you and your friends return to Robot, he barks ecstatically. You shine a powerful flashlight down the hole. Robot is about fifty feet down!

“We’re coming for you, Robot!”

Shovels dig into the edges around the hole, throwing dirt in all directions.  

The most experienced spelunker inspects the shaft. “It’s an easy climb back up. Maybe it’s the secret tunnel to Lascaux Manor. The tree grew over the hole and hid the entrance. That’s why it’s never been found.”

“The tunnel that leads to another tunnel, then treasure?” you ask excitedly.

He nods. “I’ll go down first.” He lowers himself a few feet then scrambles back up. “Yes, easy.” He disappears down the shaft.

Silence. More silence. Agonizing silence.

“Are you all right down there?” you shout.

“You fellows have to see this!”

You wriggle into the shaft, your heart pounding. Down you go into the darkness. At the bottom you squirm around and out of the shaft.

Robot is wriggling his whole self, jumping up on you and licking you. You kneel and hug him fiercely. “You’re okay, Robot. We’re here to get you out.”

You look toward your friend. His flashlight reveals the drawing of a horse on a cave wall. At the edges of the light, parts of other animals fade into the darkness.

“Whoa!” you say, switching on your flashlight. The walls are covered with a variety of animals.

After your other friends arrive, your group explores the cave. There is room after room of drawings! Walls and ceilings are covered with six thousand figures representing animals, humans, and geometric art.

After resurfacing with Robot, you and your friends rush to the authorities.

The curator of the Prehistory Museum, a sketcher, and two other men return to the shaft site with you and your friends. You lead the first guided tour of Lascaux Cave.

The authorities, stunned by the art work, declare that this is the oldest art found yet. Its value is infinitely more than the treasure chest you were seeking.

The Art

Lascaux Cave, made of limestone, is located near Montignac, France.  The art work is traditionally dated at 15,000 B.C.

Damage was extensive during the fifteen years the public was allowed access. The cave was closed and the art work restored. A series of replicas were made for the public so they could still experience the art and, in some cases, the feel of entering the cave.

The art is not the same throughout. In some places, the rock is softer than others allowing etching instead of painting. Unfortunately, the etchings have not survived well.

Most areas have been brush painted with the common colors of red, yellow, and black. Ochre and hematite were used. So was goethite, which is reddish-brown or yellowish-brown. Manganese-containing pigments delivered silver-gray results. Charcoal may have been used, but if it was, it was used sparingly.

The art on some walls may have been painted with pigment suspended in animal fat or calcium-rich cave groundwater or clay. This suspension was applied by swabbing or blotting it on the wall instead of using a brush. We haven’t seen these techniques before!

The source of the pigments has been traced to a site two hundred miles away! Surely, this is not graffiti. The art had great importance to those who drew it and those who saw it.

Touring the Cave

Let’s take a tour.

We are in the Hall of Bulls (actually they are aurochs bulls). Some figures are immense: up to sixteen and a half feet long! Does their size indicate importance? Or is it actual life size? That’s something we have not seen before.

Two rows of aurochs face each other. On the north side of the wall, two aurochs are accompanied by ten horses and a large unidentified animal with two straight lines on its forehead, affectionately called “the unicorn.”

On the south side, three large aurochs are next to three smaller ones painted red. They are accompanied by six small deer and the only bear in the cave. For some reason, the bear is drawn on the belly of an aurochs.

One of the bulls is seventeen feet long, the largest cave art yet discovered! Also, the bulls seem to be in motion. (Why only the bulls?)

Now we enter the Axial Diverticulum. Here, the bulls, horses, deer, and an ibex cover the walls. One running horse was brushed with manganese pencil. On the ceiling, animals seem to roll from one wall to the other. Among the figures are many geometric shapes: sticks, dots, and rectangles.

The Passage is too damaged to examine.

The Nave has four groups of figures accompanied by geometric shapes. The groups are the Empreinte (Footprint) panel, the Black Cow panel, the Swimming Deer panel, and the Crossed Buffalo panel.

The hind legs of the Crossed Buffalo (actually a Bison) are crossed, giving the impression that one leg is nearer the viewer than the other. Although primitive, this is the oldest example of the use of perspective!

The Feline Diverticulum seems to be an area of practice or experimentation. Named for a group of felines, engravings of wild animals can be seen in naïve style. A figure of a horse is unique because of its head-on pose.

The Apse contains more than a thousand engravings, some of which are superimposed over paintings. The Apse contains the only reindeer in the cave. This is odd because reindeer is thought to have been the main staple of the people’s diet.

The Well is the site of a mysterious scene. A man with a bird’s head and erect penis seems to lie on the ground. At his side is either a long-legged bird or a bird on a pole. To the man’s right is a buffalo facing the man and transfixed by a spear from its anus through its belly. Intestines hang out. A geometric sign runs from the spear point to the bird. To the left of the man, a rhinoceros moves away.

Horse: a Closer Look

Let’s look closely at the horse painting above.

The first thing that strikes us are the proportions of the horse. Compared to today’s horse, which is the result of thousands of years of breeding, this horse has short legs and a bulky torso.

The yellow coloring gives rounding to the hip and rib cage. Black highlights the mane, face, and legs. There is attention to detail even to the feathering over the fetlocks!

Perspective is artfully shown between near and far legs.

What I find amazing is the artistry of movement. The legs show activity, probably a trot. The tail does not hang downward as in a walk, but neither is it streaming behind as it would be in a gallop.

The characteristics of the rock is used for the path. A path always indicates travel. It inclines upward and seems to turn away from us.  This change of view is emphasized by the shorter front legs and the tiny head.

Movement is represented in art by diagonal lines. This technique is used copiously by this artist. The longest diagonal reaches from the horse’s poll to the end of the tail. All legs and the neck are diagonal, as is the mane. The horse is moving through a field of grain, perhaps wheat, represented by individual stalks, all of which are bent diagonally.

I am awestruck at the quality of this art!

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Photo credit: found on Adobe

World History

Cave Paintings: Art or Grafitti?

cave painting

Cave of El Castillo

Cave of Altamira

Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave (Chauvet Cave)

Cave Paintings: Art or Graffiti?

Cave of El Castillo

This cave is located on the northern coast of Spain in the Cantabria region. It is part of the Caves of Cantabria UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There are many petrographs in the caves. Unlike a petroglyph, which is a carving, a petrograph is a “writing,” and before writing it was a drawing.

We are only interested in the oldest, because it is the oldest in the world!

This petrograph is a red stippled disc. Is it the sun? No one knows.

It is traditionally dated at 40,000 B.C.: about 100,000 years later than Murujuga.

Did it survive the flood? Normally paint would not survive. It would have had to exist in a hard rock cave that was thoroughly sealed.

These are limestone caves. Flood theorists expect that soft rock caves like these were caused by the scouring of the flood cataclysm. Therefore, even the oldest painting was drawn after the flood.

Cave of Altamira

The Cave of Altamira, which is close to the Cave of El Castillo, was formed by early karst formation. The topography was formed by dissolution of “soft” or carbonate rocks such as limestone. It includes a barren rocky top layer with no rivers or streams. Underneath is the water and drainage system: rivers, fountains, caves, and sinkholes.

Flood theorists think all “soft” caves were likely caused by the flood.

Let’s talk about the petrographs. They are traditionally dated at 36,000 B.C.

The art is amazing! It’s on the walls, yes, but also across the ceiling!

What a crick in the neck! How did they get up there? Did the artists build scaffolding? Wait. We don’t picture ancient people able to build and use scaffolding! Time to readjust our mindsets—again.

Animals and abstract shapes are painted in polychromic style using the natural color of the rock, charcoal, and ochre or hematite.

Ochre is a natural clay earth pigment. It consists of ferric oxide and varying amounts of clay and sand resulting in pigments from yellow to deep orange to brown.

Hermatite is a reddish-black mineral that can be crushed into pigment.

Animals in different poses were drawn with multiple colors from yellow to orange to reddish brown to black.

But the pigments were not only used in their natural state. Sometimes they were diluted. This variation in intensity produced a study in light and dark, and a sense of shadow.

As if that wasn’t enough, the artists used the cracks and shapes of the rock itself as part of their art. For instance, a bison could be drawn over a bulge in the rock in such a way that the bulge becomes the bison’s rounded ribcage!

Yes, the picture above is from Altimira, and you can see the rounded shoulder and ribcage. Look at the shading! The anatomical detail!

These people are way beyond my pay grade.

Later art included hand stencils. These were made by placing a hand on the rock and blowing pigment over them, possibly using a tube.

When calculations proved that these handprints were usually female, feminists rejoiced. The assumption that men were the artists because they were the shamans (and who says that’s true?) had been debunked!

Steady there. That could be true. Or perhaps male artists preferred female prints and used hand models.

This glorious art is no graffiti!

cave painting

Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave (Chauvet Cave)

The cave is located near southeastern France. The soft, clay-like floor retains paw prints of cave bears and depressions thought to be “nests” where they slept. Skulls of cave bears and an ibex are present. There are also paw prints of a dog or wolf.

There are also the footprints of a child.

The art is traditionally dated at 30,000 B.C.

There are no complete human figures. A few panels of red ochre hand-prints exist. Abstract lines and dots are found throughout the cave. Hundreds of animal paintings fall into at least thirteen species. Frequently painted cave art animals include horses, aurochs (a large, wild Eurasian ox, predecessor of today’s cattle), and mammoths.

The above Chauvet Cave petroglyph is a horse.

But many predatory animals are also included: cave lions, leopards, bears, and cave hyenas. They also painted rhinoceroses! Rhinoceroses in France?

Three artistic techniques were used here that were rarely used elsewhere.

The first seems like common sense, but it wasn’t common: scraping the cave wall clear of debris before beginning to paint. This left a smooth, lighter surface.

Second, artists sometimes incised or etched around the outlines of certain figures, giving them a three-dimensional quality. These figures also seem to move. Because only some figures are chosen, the question rises whether this technique indicated these figures were more important.

The last technique is one of scenes. Animals are sometimes shown as interacting with each other. A pair may be butting heads in a mastery contest.

Why are we so excited about the scenes? There are scenes in the Australian petroglyphs.

Ah, but apparently in Europe that composition had been lost. At Chauvet it was rediscovered.

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Photo credits:

Altamira: Jesusdefuensanta on
Chauvet: atlanta-kid on