Thematic Changes in Upper Paleolithic Art: A View from the Grotte Chauvet

By Clottes, Jean | Antiquity, June 1996 | Go to article overview

Thematic Changes in Upper Paleolithic Art: A View from the Grotte Chauvet


Clottes, Jean, Antiquity


The direct dates obtained from three animals in the Grotte Chauvet - two confronted rhinoceroses [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED] and a bison - caused a sensation because of their unexpected antiquity, since they are between 30,340 and 32,410 b.p. (Clottes et al. 1995). They were immediately confirmed by a date from a non-calcited torch-wipe superimposed on a film of calcite that covered some lines drawn on the panel next to that of the confronted rhinos: 26,120 [+ or -]400 b.p. (GifA-95127). In another chamber a fragment of charcoal, that became detached after a torch-wipe identical to the previous one, gave a similar date: 26,980[+ or -]410 b.p. (GifA-95129). Finally, some pieces of charcoal from the floor in several parts of the cave have been dated to 29,000[+ or -]400 (Ly-6878), 24,770[+ or -]780 (Ly-118/Oxa) and 22,800[+ or -]400 (Ly-6879) b.p. respectively.

These results establish the Aurignacian age of part of the parietal depictions. Naturally it would be risky to extrapolate them to all of the figures. One can see evidence for some later visits, both in observations of superimpositions (Clottes 1995: 110) and also in the dates from the torch-wipes and those from the charcoal on the floor. Did the later visitors draw on the walls? One cannot as yet settle the issue one way or the other. While awaiting new direct dates and a detailed archaeological study of the parietal art, we are reduced, as is almost always the case (cf. Clottes 1993a), to considerations of style in the broadest sense of the term - that is, to the study of the themes, techniques and modes of representation - in order to reach a provisional opinion about the ensemble's degree of homogeneity.

Since the first visits to the Grotte Chauvet and the initial observations (Clottes 1995), a greater knowledge of the cave and of the data that have been collected allow us to supply some further, more precise details. They all point to great homogeneity. In this vast cave, one finds the same themes everywhere, with a majority of rhinoceroses, lions and mammoths. The omnipresence of these animals is all the more significant since these are subjects which are generally rare in European parietal art. For each species, one finds the same conventions of depiction repeated: the mammoths were sketched with an arched belly, the bison with horns in frontal perspective and a bushy mane, while the horses' manes are thick and massive, and the rhinoceroses have very distinctive ears, drawn as a short double arc on either side of the neck [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. These conventions are found regardless of superimpositions: for example, on the big Panel of Horses, some engravings were truncated by a scraping of the surface before the black paintings were done; the upper body of a rhinoceros that escaped destruction presents the same characteristic little ears as the later examples. These preparations of the wall in several chambers, like the generalized usage of shading for the interior of the body in the painted animals, all combine to point to a homogeneous art which, if not the work of a single person, was at least produced by artists who shared the same conventions and used the same techniques.

Was a homogeneous art, like that of Grotte Chauvet, executed entirely during a short period, of the order of a few dozen, even a few hundred years, or was it produced over millennia? This recurrent problem is linked to that of the duration of the conventions and themes. Only the multiplication of direct dates would enable us to obtain some evidence for an answer to this question.

Meanwhile, we are reduced, as always, to hypotheses and assumptions, using the few solid bases available. It is probable that conventions in drawing the animals (perspective of horns, precise details like the ears of the rhinoceroses, depiction of the coat or the ends of the legs) are capable of evolving more rapidly than themes. They are often a matter of personal choice, judging by the variability of the depictions. …

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