Sunday, June 19, 2011


Painted aurochs, Lascaux, France.

We do not know whether or not any of the painted caves in Europe were conceived of as overall complex compositions although this is one thread historically pursued in attempts to unravel the “meaning” of the painted walls and chambers in the caves. Modern analysts measure the relationship of painted images and panels in the cave in terms of their proximity and distance from other images and panels, the cave entrance, etc.
There is no one space in any of the painted caves of Europe from which one can see all of the art. In general the art is scattered in panels in various locations throughout the cave, and in some isolated figures. This is done in a search for significance in their arrangement, both the placement of panels within caves and the arrangements of elements within the panels themselves. The prehistoric artists may have bypassed locations that were easily approached for places that are (and were then) quite hard to get to. This suggests that something about specific locations was quite important, and maybe the distances between was important as well. In other words, perhaps there is a reason why this image is supposed to be a certain distance from that image.

Illuminated cave art.

A potential viewer entering the cave would then see the painted images in a certain order, moving from this image or panel to the next in sequence. Certainly, with the simple illumination of torches and animal fat lamps used originally the painted images would emerge from the dark as one approached their location, only to fade into the dark again before one moved very far away. This suggests the possibility of an integrated interpretation of the overall in the same way that a modern Hollywood movie has scenes definitely assembled into the overall plot (think of story boards), with the spacing of panels and elements serving as the equivalent of timing in the narrative, the equivalent of spacing and time within the telling of the story.

The proponents of this theory would probably point out that the imagery contained in each panel would be similar to the actors in each scene in our movie, with some actors appearing in one scene, some appearing in another, some appearing in more and others in fewer scenes, but all necessary to the overall plot of the film.

While I cannot personally believe that they were originally conceived of, and produced, as an overall complex but unified whole, I can agree to the probability that they were seen that way by later visitors. Although we know that some of the painted caves of Europe were not visited by later visitors, I am not aware of that proscription for all caves. Imagine a later visitor entering one of these caves with his own torch or fat lamp for illumination and seeing for the first time the surprising and unexpected images. This viewer would also see them in some order and would, I believe, be forced to make up a narrative to explain the images in their order. This narrative would almost surely not be the same one that the original creators would have applied to their work, but it would be as powerful and important to these later viewers as it was to the original creators. Indeed their subsequent mythology and legends would necessarily accommodate the these pictures which require explanation by their very existence. Indeed, it is quite possible that the order in which the later viewers approached the contents of the cave would necessarily be different because the entrances to these caves are known to have changed over time. A rockfall or landslide could cover up one entrance while another one is being created by erosion. We know that for many of the caves our modern entrances are definitely not the same as the ones used originally.

In the American west we find little art in caves proper but much rock art in our western canyons and a the same case can be made for its viewing and interpretation. Wouldn’t the story you come away with depend on where you started? You can enter the canyon at its mouth, its head, or perhaps find a trail to drop down somewhere along the canyon’s length. This would also affect the order in which you saw the panels.

Our ancestors may have exited prehistory and entered history carrying a cosmic view and mythology based upon memories of their ancestor’s interpretation of the illustrated caves. This means that the old stories and legends that we learn could be directly traceable back in time to the stories and legends used to explain the cave paintings and other rock art. Our myths and legends could be traceable back to roots in the painted caves of Europe, and even today we are making up our own stories to explain them.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, never thought of it that way. Maybe the panels in succession are creation stories,ect. I could picture the ancients leading their children into the cave and telling them the stories! Puts a whole new light on "oral traditions", maybe not just oral afterall! Deb