Introduction to the Cave Art Paintings of the Chauvet Cave
INTRODUCTION TO THE CHAUVET CAVE
Panel of the Lions from the Chauvet Cave
The Chauvet Cave is one of the most famous prehistoric rock art sites in the world. Located in the Ardeche region of southern France, along the bank of the river Ardeche near the Pont-d'Arc, this cave was only discovered as recently as 1994, happened upon by a small team of cavers led by Jean-Marie Chauvet. Chauvet Cave's importance is based on two factors: firstly, the aesthetic quality of these Palaeolithic cave paintings, and secondly, their great age. With one exception, all of the cave art paintings have been dated between 30,000 & 33,000 years ago. In 1998, the eminent French prehistorian Dr. Jean Clottes headed the first research team in Chauvet Cave, under great security.
For the former director of prehistoric antiquities for the Midi-Pyrènèes region of France and scientific advisor on prehistoric art to the French Ministry of Culture, this security proved to be of vital importance - as the results of the Carbon 14 dating of the cave paintings started to emerge from the laboratories (Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de Environnement, Gif-sur-Yvette, France, Centre de Datation par le radiocarbon de Lyon, France, and the Research Laboratory for Archaeology, Oxford, UK), controversy and heated debates flared up as many entrenched and pre-existing conceptions were turned upside down.
The fact that these cave paintings were executed so skilfully yet so deep within prehistory has forced us to abandon the prevailing view that 'early art was naive art'. Not only is the Ice Age art of the Chauvet Cave extremely old, it is also very extensive and highly varied. And one other factor intrigued prehistorians around the world eagerly awaiting news from the research team; the Chauvet Cave and its Paleolithic paintings were more or less perfectly preserved.
With such a cave as Chauvet, there is the danger of treating it as a separate and sanitised unit. Dr Jean Clottes is keen to emphasize that a decorated cave, whatever its importance, can only be understood in its particular setting and context. It is located in a landscape whose characteristics influenced the ways of life and the beliefs of Palaeolithic people. Indeed, its art originates in the myths and practices of these people.
The importance of the Chauvet Cave, can only be understood in its particular setting and context
But in another sense, a sanitised unit it must be. Chauvet has been locked down. It is as secure as Kentucky's Fort Knox. More people have been to the summit of Mount Everest than inside Chauvet Cave. The steel door at the entrance, the airlocks, and the steel gantries to protect the floor are there to protect. For Chauvet, this is more preservation than conservation. Jean Clottes is emphatic; Palaeolithic cave paintings represent a practice that existed for an extremely long period of time, but it is an art-form that can never be recreated, even though the artists were our ancestors, and we look like they would have looked, and we share the same size brains.
This cave art was based upon and rooted in a cultural experience - an overall belief system which persisted with little change for over twenty millennia, ending only when the Ice Age finally drew to a close - which is obviously totally alien to the one that the majority of us live in today. Because Chauvet was found intact, a major priority for Jean Clottes' scientific team was to avoid the situation painfully learnt at Lascaux.
The cave paintings of Chauvet represent a practice that existed for an extremely long period of time, but it is an art-form that can never be recreated
In a complex of caves in the Dordogne region of southwestern France, the cave paintings of Lascaux are estimated to be up to 20,000 years old, consisting primarily of large animals, once native to the region. However, since the year 2000, Lascaux has been beset with a fungus, variously blamed on a new air conditioning system that was installed in the caves, the use of high-powered lights, and the presence of too many visitors. As of 2006, the situation became even graver - the cave saw the growth of black mold. In January 2008, authorities closed the cave for three months, even to scientists and preservationists. A single individual was allowed to enter the cave for 20 minutes once a week to monitor climatic conditions. Fortunately, the Lascaux Cave Paintings Symposium held in Paris in 2009 has secured the future of Lascaux.
The Bradshaw Foundation's role to discover, document and protect ancient rock art, cave paintings and rock engravings around the world demonstrates the range of protection that is both available and possible, falling somewhere between 'preservation' and 'conservation'. From the tight security of Chauvet to the guided tours of Niaux Cave. From the on-site Tuareg guide at the giraffe carvings of Dabous to the controlled access of the Yinchuan World Rock Art Museum and Preservation Park at Helankou in Inner Mongolia.
Dr. Jean Clottes
And what of the meaning of the cave paintings? The problem is when the culture and its stories and traditions responsible for the art have long since disappeared. On the other hand, in 'World Rock Art'  Jean Clottes explains other hazards of interpretation:
'In instances where these traditions survive, we have no way of knowing, when native informants elucidate an image for us, whether the art really means what they say it means. Their understanding can be influenced by various factors - by their gender or status, for example; and they may modify their explanation of the art when speaking to outsiders deemed unqualified to share meanings so sacred or secret. And when dealing with art for which no ethnological data are known, our predicament is worse still. What appears obvious may not be obvious at all. Does a painting of a bird depict an eagle, a supernatural spirit, or a shaman whose soul has taken flight? Is a bear really a bear, or a human transformed?'
'Some archaeologists think that it is impossible to know what rock art means and that the researcher's role is to study motifs and techniques, try to date the works, establish as far as possible whether these images were structurally linked, but not attempt to interpret them. From their point of view, we are faced with a choice: either say nothing at all about meaning, or make up stories that might seem interesting but would lack any objective, scientific basis.'
'Others feel that it is a pointless exercise to pursue classifications that lead only to dry statistics, or to establish the existence of general structures - relationships among different types of images - that we can perhaps record but not explain. They are right. Faced with the twin dangers of pursuing an arid intellectual exercise, on the one hand, and indulging in baseless fabrications, on the other, we must steer a careful course. In doing so, in spite of the undeniable difficulties we might face, there are ways to approach the study of meaning in a rigorous and scholarly fashion.'
World rock art clearly has a multiplicity of meanings. The art may be the affirmation of a presence, marking natural borders and traditional territory, such as the rock art of Helankou in China. The art may be a testimony, to a belief or a practice, such as creation myths and initiation ceremonies, such as the Bradshaw paintings or the Coso petroglyphs. It may seek to influence the world and the course of life through the paintings, such as the Wandjina paintings of the Kimberleys in Australia. Rock art may be associated with shamanism, where the painting was a favoured way to come into direct contact with the spirits of the supernatural world, such as the San paintings of South Africa. Jean Clottes' latest book 'Cave Art' explores the themes, the possible meanings and the numerous interpretations, establishing that even if none of the hypotheses can be accepted in their entirety, each still played a part in bringing about a better understanding of Palaeolithic art.
UNESCO World Heritage List?
As part of an initiative led by the Ardeche Local Council, the Rhone-Alpes Region and the Association des Amis de la grotte Chauvet Pont-d'Arc, the French Government has submitted an application for the Chauvet Pont-d'Arc cave to be listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. A decision is expected in the summer of 2014.