Wednesday, August 12, 2009


IN THE LAND OF TEMPLE CAVES, by Frederick Turner, 2004, Counterpoint, New York.

This interesting little book, by an unabashed Francophile, has a difficult job defining itself. It was ostensibly written about the Paleolithic cave art in France, but keeps straying into paeans about the food and wine. There is a recurring sub-theme about the World Trade Center disaster of September 11, 2001, and confusing detours through the failed art career of Adolph Hitler and a meeting with a suspiciously creepy hunter in the woods. This book strikes me as stylistically very like the type of book that would have been written by expatriate American writers in Paris between the world wars, which is, I suspect, the model that Frederick Turner sees himself in, and deservedly so it appears.

This said, he has managed to express some insights about the Paleolithic art of Europe that all of the experts have not been able to express. For instance, on page 32 he writes that “what little we do know is based on a mere fraction of original whole, for the art of the caves cannot be imagined to represent all of Ice Age art. There have been found, for instance, scores of small figurines of humans and animals, indicating the existence of portable art of considerable complexity, many of these from Eastern Europe and Siberia. There must also have been decorations on hide and paintings and engravings on exterior surfaces exposed to the elements that wore them away, perhaps even within the lifetimes of their creators”. Instead of focusing on the cave art and ignoring the huge gaps in our knowledge he has used the presence of cave art to point out how much is still missing in our knowledge of these ancient cultures. At his best Turner broadens and deepens our perceptions of the humanity of the creators of this amazing cave art, and colors in the human context of their societies. Having reminded us of this broader context that the art belonged in, he then points out other assumptions that necessarily follow, assumptions of their dreams and hopes, fears and joys.

Turner lost me on page 119, however, when he described hiking along a wooded trail when he came across three pieces of stone in the path. These were a fragment of limestone, a piece of hematite that looked as if it had been utilized by the ancient people, and a chunk of what he believed was worked flint. To the horror of this member of the Colorado Archaeological Society of a quarter-century standing Turner described picking the stones up, putting them in his pocket, and continuing his hike idly rubbing them together with his fingers in his pocket. The artifacts are not only stolen, removed from context, but then handled roughly to add new scratches and markings rendering any possible analysis of them meaningless.

Perhaps part of my problem with Turner’s book is just that different context. The only books on rock art that I have seen which were not written from an archaeological context seem to generally have been written by New-Agers . I am just not used to a book written by a non-archaeologist which actually has material in it that I can admire, and that provokes actual cognition, as does the rock art that inspired it.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Peter,

    Thanks very much for this very interesting blog. If it's OK with you, I've quoted from your book review (with attribution and link, of course) on my own forum, Ishtar's Gate. I'm not allowed to post a link here, but if you Google Ishtar's Gate, our website usually comes up second on the list, under the listing for Ishtar's Gate on Wikipedia.

    Once again, many thanks. I will be listing your blog in our Useful Links on Ishtar's Gate and I will also be a regular visitor.