Style, Chauvet and Radiocarbon. (Method)

By Valladas, Helene; Clottes, Jean | Antiquity, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Style, Chauvet and Radiocarbon. (Method)


Valladas, Helene, Clottes, Jean, Antiquity


On Candamo

In the case of LSCE at least, it is not surprising that the two dates obtained from Candamo were the same, since they were obtained from the same (mixed) sample. One way to explain the age discrepancy between LSCE and Geochron is to assume that the charcoal dated in the USA originated in a 15 000-year-old tree whereas the charcoal dated in France had its origins in a tree felled more than 15 000 years earlier. Another possibility is that pollution might have affected certain samples and not others. After all, there is absolutely no evidence that the samples analysed by M. Hoyos, or dated at Gif And in the US, come from pigment of similar age and type. Not only were the samples collected at different spots and several years apart, but since we know that the Candamo cave has long been open to visitors, pollution is a factor to be considered. On the other hand, since dates ranging from 12 000 to 22 000 (LSCE, unpublished results) were obtained for some other figures (also sampled by Pr. Fortea-Perez) from the same Candamo panel, this strongly suggest that this cave may have been visited at different periods by prehistoric people and that some black pigments are a mixture of charcoal of different ages, or that some of these pigments may have been contaminated by exogenous carbon. All of this shows that the decoration of this cave is rather complex and that no systematic overestimation of the [sup.14]C ages should be imputed to the LSCE. It is not valid to use the Candamo ages as a litmus test for the reliability of radiocarbon dating of prehistoric cave paintings in general. The results obtained by either LSCE or Geochron from Candamo may prove to be anomalous, but that has no bearing on Chauvet.

On the date of Chauvet

When the discovery of the Chauvet Cave was announced and its initial dates were published in 1995 (Clottes et al. 1995), we naturally applied the necessary caution: `Only when a date can be confirmed by different methods should it be considered valid' (Clottes 1993: 21). In support of a date in the Aurignacian, about 30 000 years BP, we noted the following points:

* the originality of the themes and techniques in Chauvet make it difficult to use stylistic criteria to date the cave art;

* the sophistication of the art in Chauvet was remarkable, but could be compared to that of the portable art in the Swabian Jura, where ivory statuettes had long been found in Aurignacian layers;

* the animals represented on those statuettes (and on other Aurignacian sites in the Dordogne) recalled the abundant presence of animal species in Chauvet which become rare in French Gravettian and later art (Clottes et al. 1995; Clottes 1996a; 1996b; 2001).

* the similarity of themes and techniques used for the black, red or engraved animals did not allow us to distinguish different periods in the art;

* torch marks superimposed on a film of calcite covering earlier animal images were dated to around 26 000 BP, a result corroborated by further torch mark analyses in another chamber: the parietal stratigraphy was thus consistent.

All these facts and their consequences, despite stylistic arguments having early been expressed against them (Zuchner 1996), have been endorsed by Bahn: "If just one date of 30,000 had been obtained for the Grotte Chauvet in France, no one would have believed the result; it was the series of dates, together with the later figures obtained for torch marks on top of the calcite covering the art, which convinced everyone despite the universal amazement" (Bahn & Vertut 1997: 76) and "The early dates tally well with the sophisticated portable imagery known, from portable art in this period in south-west Germany and elsewhere in France" (Bahn 1998: 164). In fact, if those early dates "have caused surprise, this has been due to imperfect knowledge of the age of certain conventions in drawing or to an unhealthy reliance on Leroi-Gourhan's chronological sequence of four successive styles, which had always incorporated some major imperfection--most notably in its ignoring the great age (more than 30 000 years) of the sophisticated portable carvings of south-west Germany" (Bahn 1998: 168-9). …

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