A Question of Style: Reconsidering the Stylistic Approach to Dating Palaeolithic Parietal Art in France

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"Le premier desir du prehistorien en face d'une paroi portant un decor est peut- etre moins celui de comprendre le secret des images que d'etablir leur chronologie, de prendre pied en temps'Andre Leroi-Gourhan (1984:197).


It is estimated that no more than tive per cent of European caves containing Palaeolithic parietal art have direct chronometric dates (Pettitt & Pike 2007). This situation is due to a number of factors including cost, the required presence ofcarbon (charcoal) in the paintings and, until recently, the destructive sample size required for radiocarbon dating. At present there are no reliable alternative direct chronometric methods (see Pettitt & Pike 2007). The situation is further complicated by the fact that seemingly contemporaneous images can be separated by hundreds if not thousands of years (Clottes et al. 1990; Davidson 1997: 148) and, therefore, multiple dates may be required to identify independent episodes of image making. As a result, while AMS dating requiring smaller sizes and more precise and accurate caiibration curves is now available (Reimer et al. 2010), the discipline still relies mainly on stylistic dating to temporally order Palaeolithic decorated caves (Bahn & Vertut 1997: 73).

These stylistic schemes, principally those formulated by Breuil (1952) and Leroi-Gourhan (1962), have enormously influenced the way we understand the origins and development of parietal art. These researchers based their schemes on the presence of stratified, in situ portable art that could be linked stylistically to parietal art in the same cave. Parietal art in other caves that could in turn be associated stylistically with these caves was then used to produce an overall chronological framework within which to study Palaeolithic art (Gonzalez & Behrmann 2007; Pettitt & Pike 2007). While there are many differences between their approaches (e.g. Breuil saw two cycles, with the second building on the first, whereas Leroi-Gourhan saw a single progression), both scholars emphasised the gradual origin and linear progression of the art. Within this scheme, animals developed from simple, archaic forms into complex, detailed, accurate figures, and non-figurative signs evolved from simple, naturalistic markings into abstract, stylised expressions (Leroi-Gourhan et al. 1995: 439, 441,456, 491; Bahn & Vertut 1997: 70; Clottes 1998: 125; Lewis-Williams 2002: 812). Later discoveries were fitted into these chronologies, which solidified over time. Ina very real sense, this stylistic framework has come to dictate what we expect to see in the archaeological record. Using the dating record for French parietal art, this paper will examine the chronometric foundations of stylistic dating.


Nearly 80 per cent of all known Upper Palaeolithic (UP) parietal and portable art in France is attributed to the Magdalenian period (c. 18 000 BP-11 000 BP) (Leroi-Gourhan et al. 1995: 491). Is this spike in artistic production primarily the result of hominin behaviour, differential preservation due to taphonomic processes, or the manner in which the stylistic framework is implemented? In all likelihood, this 'explosion' of art is likely a result of some combination of these factors, but in this paper we focus only on the role played by stylistic dating. Drawing on the established stylistic framework as a point of reference, researchers often attribute a newly discovered site to the Solutrean or Magdalenian unless there is substantial physical evidence to the contrary. Bahn comments "who, for example, would have assigned the Vogelherd animals, the Hohlenstein-Stein statuette, the Galgenberg figurine, or the Brassempouy head to the Aurignacian if they had not been found in layers from that period?" (Bahn & Vertut 1997: 71).

Similarly, the art at Chauvet was tentatively assigned to the Solutrean or Magdalenian period before the early radiocarbon dates were obtained (c. …