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Entries in Prehistoric Art (8)


Prehistoric Paintings: “An Endangered Species”

Paintings from the Lascaux Cave Complex - France (click photos for larger images)The most famous prehistoric paintings are found in Lascaux— a complex of caves in southwestern France containing art that goes back as far back as 25,000 years. Discovered in 1940 by four teenagers, Lascaux was first examined by archaeologist Henri Breuil, who developed a system of classification for prehistoric art that was utilized through the 20th century, though its not in use any longer. The cave contains nearly 2,000 figures, in three main categories: animals, human figures, and abstract signs (which may be a language). Interestingly, the paintings (rendered with mineral pigments) and engravings contain no images of what would have been the surrounding landscape or the vegetation of the time—which certainly adds another element of mystery to these fascinating works of art. In recent years, new research has suggested that the Lascaux paintings may incorporate prehistoric star charts. An alternative hypothesis is that this type of art is spiritual in nature, relating to visions experienced during ritualistic trance-dancing. But the jury is still out on their true meaning. 

Now, there’s quite a saga associated with Lascaux. The opening of the complex after World War II (in 1948) changed the cave environment. Carbon dioxide from the exhalations of 1200 visitors a day, the presence of light, and changes in air circulation created a number of problems—including lichens and crystals on the walls. This led to a closure of the caves in 1963, to tourists. A replica cave for visitors to Lascaux opened in 1983—nearby the original complex. A limited number of professionals were still permitted in the original caves—for research purposes. In 2001, the authorities in charge of Lascaux changed the air conditioning system in the original complex to better regulate the temperature and humidity. However, an infestation of white mold began spreading rapidly across the caves’ ceilings and walls, which had to be treated with quicklime. In 2007, a new fungus, creating grey and black blemishes, began spreading in the caves. Organized through the initiative of the French Ministry of Culture, an international symposium titled "Lascaux and Preservation Issues in Subterranean Environments" was held in Paris in 2009. It brought together nearly 300 participants from 17 countries, with the goal of comparing research and interventions conducted into the preservation of such environments. The proceedings of this symposium were published in 2011. Seventy-four specialists in fields as varied as biology, biochemistry, botany, hydrology, climatology, geology, fluid mechanics, archaeology, anthropology, restoration and conservation, from numerous countries (France, United States, Portugal, Spain, Japan, and others) contributed to this publication. The Lascaux Cave complex is an excellent example of arts culture getting it wrong—and then working very hard—using many layers of professionals—to make it right. Even with all of the research that’s been conducted—there still remain many unanswered questions. Perhaps one day the original Lascaux complex can be re-opened—without harm to its contents. That’s the goal.


Löwenmensch (Lion Man) - The World’s Oldest Sculpture

Löwenmensch (Lion Man) c. 40,000 BCE - 29.6 cm (11.7 inches) in height, 5.6 cm wide, and 5.9 cm thick - Ulmer Museum - Ulm, GermanyThis sculpture—Löwenmensch (Lion Person)—was found in Germany in 1939—broken into over 200 pieces. It’s a work carved out of ivory from a mammoth, worked with a flint stone knife. It’s both the oldest known sculpture in the world (created c. 40,000 BCE), and the oldest known uncontested example of figurative art yet discovered—with hybrid zoomorphic and anthropomorphic features. The “Venus of Willendorf” no longer holds that honor, people. She’s only 27,000 years old! Arts culture is always learning more.

The pieces from this work were stored until the late 1960s, when a reconstruction was attempted but remained incomplete. Further excavations led to the discovery of more pieces. In 1988—a complete reconstruction was finally possible, and this is the result. The age of the figurine was determined by carbon dating material from the same layer where the sculpture’s pieces were found. Through study, we now know that it’s associated with the archaeological Aurignacian culture (35,000 to 45,000 years ago) located in both Europe and Asia. There are seven parallel, transverse, carved gouges on the left arm—and archeologists and art historians are still working on determining their significance. The reconstruction and understanding of a work of art can often take a very long time. Arts culture can only do what its knowledge and resources allow, at any given time.


The World’s Oldest Art

Ostrich eggshell fragments - 62,000 years old - Western Cape of South Africa (click photo for larger image)These ostrich eggshell fragments, with patterns etched into their sides, are among the very earliest examples of decorative art—or what was once known as “minor” arts. From the Western cape of South Africa, wares such as this one were created 62,000 years ago, and are far older than the earliest writing or any other art forms that still exist. The symbols engraved on them are regular lines and hatches, and are so many in number that archaeologists think they may well be communicative, or at least symbolic. Since 1999, these fragments have been researched and protected in a collaboration between the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cape Town and the Institute of Prehistory and Quaternary Geology at the University of Bordeaux. 270 fragments have been found. It’s estimated that fragments exist for 25 complete containers. Imagine that! It’s been determined that the tradition of engraving found on the eggshell vessels lasted for several thousand years. It is only through the work of many, many dedicated professionals that these treasures— and an understanding of them—have come to light.


Rock of Ages: Australia's Oldest Artwork Found

The rock art was discovered in a cave called Nawarla Gabarnmang. Photograph: Bryce Barker/AFP/Getty ImagesJust when we thought we’d found it all--another 28,000 year old work is discovered:

“An archaeologist says he has found the oldest piece of rock art in Australia and one of the oldest in the world: an Aboriginal work created 28,000 years ago in an outback cave...Barker said he had found evidence that the cave where he found the rock art had been occupied for 45,000 years.”



Long Ago... Far Away... Prehistoric Cave Painting at Lascaux

Lascaux: The Great Hall of Bulls. The most impressive of all Palaeolithic art, the works extend on both sides of the vaulted walls of a sloping floored rotunda. (click photo for larger image)The most famous prehistoric painting site is Lascaux--a complex of caves in southwestern France, famous for its cave paintings. The original caves are located near the village of Montignac, in the Dordogne département. They contain some of the earliest known art, dating back to somewhere between 13,000 and 15,000 BCE, or as far back as 25,000 BCE. Click here to connect with a host of sites addressing Prehistoric Art.