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Rock art theories VI

12 May 2015
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Rock art theories: a brief overview of the salient theories concerning Palaeolithic rock art in Europe and around the world.

Observing not Interpreting

As the title suggests, this theory was based on the realisation that interpretation of the rock art of Upper Palaeolithic Europe was futile, and therefore the role of researchers was to observe the art. This observation was to involve the total corpus of figures in a cave, not just a selective few to fit a particular hypothesis.

Bison panel in Niaux

This systematic approach was proposed by André Leroi-Gourhan (1911 to 1986), the French archaeologist, paleontologist, paleoanthropologist, and anthropologist. He took a purely statistical approach to prehistoric cave paintings and began a systematic investigation in which he spent years classifying 72 groups of pictures in 66 caves. Leroi-Gourhan also contributed to the methods of studying prehistoric technology, introducing the concept chaîne opératoire (operational chain) which denotes all the social acts involved in the life cycle of an artifact.

From the statistics, he found correlations between the types of animals and their positions in the cave. From this stance, he equated Palaeolithic decorated caves with modern religious structures; with an entrance, a chamber and an altar, particular images in certain places and specific directions and routes. The cave was divided into zones, or organized sanctuaries, demarcated by symbols. 

Leroi-Gourhan found repeated associations in the rock art, such as horses and bisons, and these he suggested were symbols of binary oppositions, such as sexual duality. In other words, rock art within a cave portrayed a culture with a sophisticated spiritual view of the world. The art also portrayed the structure in society.

Symbols in the French cave of Niaux

Niaux Cave, located in the northern foothills of the French Pyrenees, may demonstrate this. The main entrance of the cave leads into a large and even-floored cavern, wide and high-ceilinged. The cave walls are smooth and clear - and empty. For the first 400 metres there are no paintings or engravings; no rock art whatsoever. But at a particular point the open cavern becomes restricted, caused by an ancient collapse of enormous jagged boulders from the ceiling. One can continue into the cave by climbing with considerable difficulty over the debris, or squeeze through a narrow passage to the left. As one emerges from this passage, and on either side of the opening, the paintings begin - as symbols. Simple linear lines in red seem to mark the beginning of the painted cave, the beginning of the experience.

The symbols continue (above), with a hundred or so red and black geometric signs - dashes, bars, lines, and series of dots - some painted using tools, some using fingers. The red is hematite, the black is either manganese dioxide or charcoal, both ground and mixed with water or fat. 

The first major chamber is the Salon Noir (top image), accessed by a vast sandy slope, with a very high ceiling. The dimensions and the acoustics conjure up a nave in a cathedral not a cave. The Magdalenians chose this chamber in particular to depict animals. Over 80% of the animals represented in Niaux are found here. The paintings are not spread over the entire surface of the cave walls, but are grouped together in separate, generally concave panels. They are composed of mostly bison and horses.

Niaux cave in France

At the very end of the cave there is one final painting (above), accessible to the Magdalenian artist and participant only by crawling on hands and knees; it is an indeterminate painting, perhaps a human figure, or perhaps the hind legs of a deer-like creature that seems to be disappearing into the very rock itself. The fact that the ultimate painting in the cave - in the farthest recess - is mysterious, when compared with the other more representational images in the Salon Noir, is probably highly significant. 

Critics of this theory state that whilst the systematic analysis of the rock art within a site is commendably extensive, there can never be a single blueprint that can be applied to rock art in general. Moreover, finding a structure does not necessarily enable interpretation.

Visit the Niaux Cave section in the France Rock Art Archive:



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