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Paleolithic Cave Art in France
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Paleolithic Cave Art in France

by Dr Jean Clottes
Paleolithic Cave Paintings and Rock Art in France : Extracted from the Adorant magazine 2002

The Niaux Cave | Film Download

Less well known than other European caves such as Chauvet and Lascaux, Niaux houses some of the world's most spectacular rock art.
Download the Niaux Cave Film

The techniques utilised

Page 5 of 8

In France, only 18 sites are known with sculptures. The most important ones are Cap-Blanc in the Dordogne and the Roc-aux-Sorciers in the Vienne (lakovieva & Pinion 1997, Airvaux 2001). That technique is the one that required most work. Some images evidence a 5 cm relief or more. It is present in all the main groups except that of the south-east.

Clay modellings are all dated to the Middle or Late Magdalenian and they are all found within a restricted area, in four caves of the Ariege Pyrenees : Labouiche, Bedeilhac, Montespan and Le Tuc d’Audoubert. Those in the latter two caves are famous, Montespan because of a clay bear which is a real statue, nearly lifesize, and Le Tuc d’Audoubert because of two extraordinary bison following each other in a premating scene. A particularly naturalistic female sex was modelled on the ground in Bedeilhac. It is difficult to understand why other works made with such a simple technique have not been found in other groups and at other periods.

rock art cave paintings rock art cave paintings

Bison of Le Tuc d'Audobert

Caves of the Ariege Pyrenees

Statues of bison modelled in clay in Le Tuc d'Audobert. Photo R. Begouen
(right) Artists Impression PreHistoric children.

Finger tracings are everywhere. Their presence depends upon the qualities of the walls : when their surface is soft it becomes possible to draw with one’s fingers. Finger tracings are often not naturalistic, with volutes and incomprehensible squiggles that occupy many square meters on the walls and ceilings, as in Gargas and Cosquer (Clottes & Courtin 1996). Most frequently they belong to the earliest periods of the art. The engravings on the ground are more frequent in the Pyrenees than anywhere else. For them as for the paintings in the open preservation problems are vital: it is so easy not to notice them and to destroy them by trampling. This must have happened innumerable times.

The engravings on the walls are less famous than the paintings because they are less spectacular, but they probably are more numerous. They were mostly made with a flint and the effects achieved are very diverse. Sometimes, the artists contented themselves with sketching the outlines of animals by means of simple lines which can be deep and wide or thin and superficial according to the hardness of the surface. The finest ones can only be seen now under a slanting light, but modern experimentation has shown that they must have been far more visible at the time they were made, when they stood out white against the darker colour of the wall ; since then they got patinated and their colour is the same as that of their environment. This remark may explain the very numerous superimpositions of motifs that can be found in caves like Les Trois-Freres, Lascaux or Les Combarelles. In other cases, the artists used scraping, which shows white on the wall and enables all sorts of possibilities by playing with the darker hues of the wall and the lighter ones of engravings (Les Trois-Freres, Labastide) (G.R.A.P.P. 1993).

Paintings are generally red or black. The reds are iron oxides, such as hematite. The blacks, either charcoal or manganese dioxide. Sometimes they did real drawings with a chunk of rock or of charcoal held like a pencil. Elsewhere veritable paintings were made. The pigment was then crushed and mixed with a binder to ensure the fluidity of the paint which was then either applied with a finger or with a brush made with animal hair, or blown through the mouth (stencilling).

Modern analyses even revealed that in the Magdalenian of the Pyrenees some paintings (Niaux, Fontanet) had been made according to real recipes by adding an extender, i.e. a powder obtained from the crushing of various stones (biotite, potassium feldspath, talcum). The aims were to save on the pigment, to make the paint stick better to the wall and to avoid its crackling when drying (Clottes, Menu, Walter 1990). Some images evince different techniques for the same subject : bicolour, joint use of engraving & painting.

rock art cave paintings

In Les Trois-Freres (Montesquieu-Avantes, Ariege), many engravings are superimposed. Tracing H. Breuilt

As early as the Aurignacian, more than 30,000 years ago, the most sophisticated techniques of representation had been discovered and were in use, as can be seen in the Chauvet Cave. Those artists made use of stump drawing in order to shade the inside of the bodies and provide relief. They also used the main two colours (red and black), fine and deep engraving, finger tracing and stencilling.

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