Cave Art without the Caves

By Bahn, Paul G. | Antiquity, June 1995 | Go to article overview

Cave Art without the Caves

Bahn, Paul G., Antiquity

A series of major discoveries over the past 15 years have transformed our conception of the parietal art of the last Ice Age in Europe, confirming what had long been suspected by some researchers - that the well-known art surviving in roughly 300 caves in western Europe is unrepresentative and uncharacteristic of the period, owing its apparent predominance in the archaeological record to a taphonomic fluke. In reality we have no idea how important or frequent the decoration of caves was in Ice Age Europe, but it is extremely probable that the vast majority of that period's rock art was produced in the open air. Very few examples will have been able to survive the many millennia of weathering (unlike the caves), so that the six sites discovered so far are all the more precious. The current threat to the largest of them, in Portugal's Coa Valley, of being drowned by a dam is therefore a grievous blow to a phenomenon of which we still know almost nothing.

Open-air Palaeolithic parietal art

Since one of the original arguments against the authenticity of both the Altamira ceiling and the painted pebbles of the Azilian was that parietal art could not possibly survive from such a remote age even inside a cave (see Bahn & Vertut 1988: 23), it goes without saying that virtually nobody entertained the possibility that Ice Age depictions in the open air could have survived the millennia of weathering and erosion. There were occasional claims that open-air figures were of Palaeolithic age - notably at Chichkino, Siberia, where hundreds of animal depictions over a distance of about 3 km include a horse and a wild bovid considered characteristic of the end of the Ice Age - but few scholars have been prepared to take them seriously. However, the series of important finds in far western Europe have finally brought the proof that Palaeolithic people did produce art in the open air. So far, none of the six known sites [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED] has been subjected to any kind of direct dating (Bednarik 1995), though this may be possible for some in the near future: all are dated simply on the basis of the style of their pecked or engraved figures, but the same is true of the vast majority of Palaeolithic cave art. It is safe to say that if most of these figures had been found inside caves they would have been classed as Palaeolithic without hesitation. Inevitably, only engravings and peckings have survived outside the caves. Paintings were almost certainly produced outside too (indeed, some of these engravings may originally have been coloured, like Palaeolithic bas-reliefs and much portable art - see Bahn & Vertut 1988), but are most unlikely to have survived.

It is hard to say, at this early stage of the investigations, how open-air art relates to cave art - especially since there is still no consensus about the meaning of cave art after a century of study, with new caves like Cosquer and Chauvet constantly bringing surprises and modifying our knowledge. There are some similarities - the recognizable figures are primarily adult animals drawn in profile, with stylistic traits that correspond to those of known portable and cave art; they are dominated by horses and bovids; there are 'signs' and apparently abstract motifs; and the art seems to cluster in 'panels' (i.e. separate rocks). By virtue of its location, the open-air art appears inherently less mysterious or magical than the art in deep caves, but of course this is no guide to its meaning, since we know from ethnography that open-air art can be enormously powerful, religious or taboo, just as it can also be simply decorative or narrative.

The first discovery, three animal figures, including a fine horse, 62 cm long and 37.5 cm high, was made in 1981 on a rock-face on the right bank of the Albaguera, a little tributary of the river Douro, at Mazouco in northeast Portugal, at an altitude of 210 m above sea-level (Jorge et al. 1981; 1982; Jorge 1987; Jorge et al. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Cave Art without the Caves


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.