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Romanian rock art - as old as Chauvet?
2011 Dec 04


Published in INORA 61, 2011, pp. 1-3

A rhinoceros head drawn with charcoal in the Coliboaia cave (Rumania). Photo Jean Clottes

An account of the discovery of paintings in the Coliboaia cave in the Natural Park of Mounts Apuseni, department of Bihor, Rumania, was published in INORA (Besesek et al. 2010).

A French team, including two spelunkers (Marcel Meyssonnier and Valerie Plichon), a paleontologist who is a specialist of cave bears (Michel Phlippe), a prehistorian (Francoise Prudhomme) and two specialists of cave art (Jean Clottes and Bernard Gely), managed to reach the paintings on 16 May 2010. They established their authenticity. The team received logistical help from associations Speodava Ştei, Speowest Arad, France-Roumanie Speleologie, Orgnac - Grand Site de France, Grotte et Musee regional de Prehistoire (Region Rhone-Alpes) and the Apuseni Natural Park under the coordination of Viorel Lascu.

Undetermined animal dated by 14C in the Coliboaia cave (Rumania). Photo Jean Clottes

From the themes represented and the appearance of the animals, the initial hypothesis proposed for the dating of the drawings from seeing the first photographs was that they belonged to an ancient period of cave art, to the Gravettian or the Aurignacian (i.e. between 25,000 and 35,000 BP) (ibid.: 11). Another fact seeming to support the hypothesis was the association of a bone planted in the ground to a cave bear skull next to it, as similar examples were known from the Chauvet cave. During our May 2010 expertise, we could see that in fact the Coliboaia bones had been handled and deposited there in modern times, probably by spelunkers before the art was discovered. In the conclusion of their report, the two specialists of cave art however attributed - on stylistic grounds - the drawings they had long examined to the earliest period of cave art.

Calin Ghemis, an archaeologist with the Oradea Tanii Crisurilor Museum (Rumania), lifted two samples, the first directly from the extremity of a line in the interior of the head of one of the undetermined animals (a feline or a horse which had been scratched by bats); the other one being a piece of charcoal found quite close to that animal on a ledge below.

Finally, two very ancient dates have just been obtained by the 14C method with Artemis (LMC-14, CEA, Saclay) by the Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l'Environnement at Gif-sur-Yvette (LSCE/UVSQ, France) (Valladas et al. 2001). The one for the animal is 27,870 +/- 250 BP, i.e. 31,450/32,820 years Cal BP (GifA11002/SacA23417). The other one, from the piece of charcoal is 31,640 +/- 390 BP, i.e. 35,120/36,780 years cal BP (GifA11001/SacA23416) (Reimer et al. 2009). Whatever the reason for the difference between these dates, they put the Coliboaia art within the most ancient period of cave art.

The chronological difference between the two dates may be due to two different causes. If it is indeed a factual difference, there would then be two times of frequentation of the cave at an interval of 3,000 to 4,000 years. This is not impossible as, when we did our expertise, we had noted that the undetermined animal (89cm long and 39cm high) (Fig.) looked fresher than several of its neighbours and was not calcited. A few small pieces of charcoal were on the ledge below it: one of them gave the older date.

Another possibility would be that the two samples dated would be contemporaneous but that the one from the animal, minute for conservation necessity, would have kept a feeble contamination in recent carbon after chemical treatment, which would underestimate its age. A contamination making the other sample older than it should be is out of the question. Pending other analyses in the future, the small number of figures, their stylistic unity and the spatial closeness of the samples make us favour the second hypothesis rather than the first.

Those dates are also interesting from a methodological point of view. They confirm our preliminary diagnosis based on thematic and stylistic grounds, thus showing that this kind of chrono-cultural evaluation, despite all the doubts it raises these days, may be justified, particularly if we cannot get direct datings.

It is the first time that such an ancient art, comparable to that in the Chauvet cave, has been discovered and dated in Central Europe. Another painted cave, Cuciulat, has long been known in Rumania (Carciumaru 1988). Even if the style and technique (in flat tint) of the two identified animals (a horse and a possible feline) differ from the art in Coliboaia and if the chronology of Cuciulat may also be different, it is obvious that the discovery of Coliboaia reinforces the interest of Cuciulat, an undoubtedly Palaeolithic cave as its discovered had long said (ibid.).

With the Coliboaia dates a commonality of cultural practices and probably of beliefs from those very early times all over Europe is now apparent. This is not a mean result.

Viorel-Traian LASCU, Christophe MOREAU, Michel PHILIPPE, Francoise PRUD'HOMME, Helene VALLADAS

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