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. …

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