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WiseGuy: The Author's Blog

The Painted Caves of Southern France, Part VII. The Beauties of Le Grotte de Cougnac

by Richard W. Wise

Author: The Dawning: 31,000 BC

copyright 2022

 

Of all the caves we visited, Grotte Cougnac won first prize for its natural beauty. In its broad chambers, slender stalactites drip from the high ceilings and translucent tubes cluster in masses like soda straws. Thin stalagmites rise from the floor—some stubby and phallic. Others have mated with stalactites to form elegantly shaped columns that remind us of a cathedral nave by Antoni Gaudi.
 
Dating back to the early Gravettian Period (33,000, some say 28,000-21,000 BP), its art contains the oldest art of the painted caves clustered around Les Eyzes de Tayak. Some may even be contemporary with the latest art created at Chauvet (31,000 BP). It should be noted that the periods discussed are specific to Central and Western Europe and are based on the evolution not of art but of tool-making technologies. 
 
The art throughout the caves is highly stylized, meaning that the style of the art in one cave adheres to conventions similar to those of other caves with renderings of the same period.
 
Each figure seems to begin with a gracefully drawn backline that defines the subject's ultimate shape. The outlines are often a single uninterrupted line. The elegance of line indicates a well-trained eye and hand. Drawing on cave walls, there was no way to erase or start over. The animals drawn are realistic, but these are icons. This is not true of Chauvet. The 35,000-year-old art is naturalistic; animals possess a singular individuality not present in the later art. Perhaps, it is the original which provided the basis for the stylization and uniformity which came later.  
 
The images, drawn in wood and bone charcoal and red ochre, include ibex, horses, and a beautifully rendered frieze of megaloceros—an ancient species of giant elk crowned with magnificent racks of antlers (see above). This image is among the oldest, with a Carbon 14 date between 30-24,000 BP. Showing a herd in motion, the frieze is reminiscent of some of the art at Chauvet, though not nearly so well executed. This period corresponded to the last glacial maximum when winter temperatures were at their lowest.
 
As early as 50,000 years ago, the cave was visited by Neanderthals, who sheltered in the entrance but probably did not explore the cave in depth. The caves were in use by Homo Sapiens for over 10,000 years.
 
The cave also boasts two rare anthropomorphic figures. One, drawn in charcoal, is of a crudely drawn man-like figure bent forward and pierced by what appears to be seven spears. The other, probably drawn by the same hand, is incomplete, beginning just below the shoulders with three spears, one rather uncomfortably piercing the figure between the buttocks. Dated to 25,000 years BP, these drawings are virtually identical to figures found at Pech-Merle and Lascaux.
 
 
Next: The Venus Figures, Part I. Stay tuned.

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The Painted Caves of Southern France, Part VI: The Sculpture

Beautifully executed ibex bas-relief carved in limestone: Abri de Cap Blanc

by Richard W. Wise,

Author: The Dawning: 31,000 BC

copyright: 2022

 

The walls at Bernifal and Lascaux and other caves are filled with engravings, including two engraved handprints not seen elsewhere. These are hard to photograph but show a mastery of line that could only have been obtained t much practice. The lines show a consistent flow, and the designs are repetitive in a given cave.  

 

This suggests a training method similar to the grueling process required of students of Suma-e painting and Japanese calligraphy. The apprentice practices making the same brush stroke until its execution becomes ingrained and almost automatic. It is a technique difficult to master with a supple brush and much harder with a mineral crayon or a flint burin.
 
Beautiful, precise, highly stylized engravings of animals are also found as portable art. At the museum at Les Eyzes, there are s engraved bones and a particularly famous engraving known as the licking bison rendered on mammoth ivory (above image).
 
On our first day in Les Eyzes, we visited Abri du Cap Blanc, an excavated sheltered overhang that was once open to the weather. The site has since been enclosed. Here we saw the magnificent horse sculptures.

 

These are bas-reliefs carved out of solid rock. The medium is limestone, a relatively soft sedimentary rock with a hardness of 2-3 on the MOHS Scale. The sculpture was chipped away using flint tools. Flint occurs in limestone and measures 7.0 on the MOHS scale. These are large horses and bovids—life-size sculptures—polished and py. The relief is more or less lifelike except for the distended body shape, which is characteristic of the art of the Magdalenian Period.
 
Like Colorito, a technique characteristic of the Baroque Period and the Impressionist juxtaposition of primary hues, Paleolithic art can be broken down into artistic/technical conventions which define periods. For example, in paintings of bison, the head is shown in profile, but the horns are executed in a two-thirds view with the shoulders facing toward the viewer. Also, at Lascaux, we see the so-called "Chinese Horses" with their unnaturally small heads. These conventions are characteristic of the Magdalenian Period (13-17,000 BP), during which the great majority of the art was produced. The subject matter also changes.
 
During the earlier Aurignacian Period (43-26,000 BP) at Chauvet, the depictions concentrated on predators, lions, and bears. In the Magdalenian, the focus was on grazing animals; horses, aurochs, ibex, and bison. Horses dominate at Lascaux.
 
Next: The Beauties of Grotte Cougnac. Stay tuned.

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The Painted Caves of Southern France, Part IV Lascaux

An auroch (ancient species of cattle) drawn in Manganese Dioxide.The last auroch in Europe dies in the 16th century.

 

by Richard W. Wise 

 

Like Chauvet, at Lascaux, most of the works are outlined in black. At Chauvet, the artists used charcoal. At Lascaux and many of the caves surrounding Les Eyzes de Tayac, artists usually used a crayon of Magnesium dioxide. It appears that the artist began with the line of the back.

 

What is amazing is how these elegant lines which so beautifully define the animals' shape were drawn with a single uninterrupted stroke. Using these techniques on cave walls it is not possible to erase and start over. At Lascaux, another technique was used. The outlines were made using a masking/blowing technique, an early form of spray painting.
 
The ubiquitous negative handprints found at both Chauvet and Lascaux are also found in caves throughout the world including Australia, Indonesia, and the American Southwest. The artist either fills his mouth with powdered charcoal or ochre and using his hand---or perhaps that of another---as a stencil blows the powder onto the wall or worked with a primitive blowpipe. Many of these prints appear to have been created by women. Handprints can be found at both Chauvet and Lascaux with 15,000 years between them. 
 
The lyrical elegance and mastery of line remind me of Matisse or the Suma-e artists of Japan. How many times must this stroke have been drawn, and meticulously practiced to reach this level of perfection? Was it practiced in sand or with a graver on flat pieces of shale or perhaps on a deerskin stretched across a frame as was done by native Americans in the Southwest?
 

The drawings at Lascaux were created using, primarily, a range of ochres (iron oxides) Drawings or paintings in red ochre are found all over the world. Red ochre was also smeared on the bodies of the dead in both Neanderthal and Cro Magnon burials. The hue can be quite saturated. Red is one of the first colors to be recognized and named in primitive cultures. Perhaps—surprise, surprise— the color of blood had symbolic meaning.

 

Blood red ochre could be created by heating yellow ochre to approximately1,000 C. It passes through yellowish brown to purple, blood red, and finally black. The palate was quite sophisticated. Other colors such as, umber and burnt umber were also used.

 

Heating technology was also used to create glues and to improve the working characteristics of flint tools.
 
Next: The Portrait at Bernifal. Stay tuned.

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HISTORICAL NOVEL SOCIETY INTERVIEW: Richard Wise on launching The Dawning: 31,000 BC. (Expanded)

How would you describe this book and its themes in a couple of sentences?

 

The Dawning: 31,000 BC is a story about the deep past and a meditation on the present. Aside from the romance and adventure, the theme revolves around the development of human political and social culture which I contend is based on human nature, a nature which has not changed since the beginning of human history.

 

In contemporary literature, prehistory is often portrayed as an idyllic period, free of strife, where men and women were equal and there was magic in the air; the domain of Rousseau's noble savage. While an interesting theme, it is total fiction. In The Dawning, I have attempted to portray the people and the period as I believe it really was.

 

What attracted you to writing fiction about prehistory?

 

The magnificent 30,000-36,000-year-old paintings discovered in 1994 at Chauvet Cave in Southern France. The art is dynamic and sophisticated and tells of a culture which could hardly be called primitive.

You paint a vivid picture of daily life in prehistory: hunting, making fire, travelling, the weather, animals such as cave lions and hyenas. What kinds of research did you do for this story?

 

I took an archaeology course at University of Virginia, read about twenty-five books, everything from scholarly tomes to the Boy Scout Manual. There are a number of groups practicing experimental archaeology and there are published journals. I watched videos of fire making, flint knapping and spear throwing to name just a few.

 

Which research books did you pull off your shelf most often?

 

The Bulletin of Primitive Technology (experimental archaeology) was useful. I bought a set. Desdemaine-Hugon's Stepping Stones was another. Don's Maps and The Bradshaw Society were two very useful websites.

 

The shamans play significant roles in your story. How did you imagine your way into these characters and their influence in their communities?

 

The first shamans were tribal wise men. Often, they were the dreamers, the non-conformists, the tinkerers. Small groups of hunter/gatherers produced little surplus. Everyone had to, literally, pull their weight. No one was just wandering around, shaking rattles and mumbling to themselves.

 

I favor the Eastern European term, šamán and used it throughout The Dawning. "Shaman" carries with it a boatload of connotations—men in horned headdresses and painted faces, covered in feathers. These images conjure up something of an anachronism, a stereotype. I doubt that tribal wise men fit that image in these small mobile clans in earliest times. More likely, they earned their keep as part-time healers and storytellers.

 

Later we see shamans morphing into priests and then into priestly castes who claimed to influence the spirits but were essentially parasitic. In the historical development of culture they--along with the warriors--eventually took over and still rule. Osirus, Anubis, Enlil, Ahura Mazda--most of these made up dieties were worshipped far longer than Christianty has been around. Among these hunter/gatherers there was no surplus upon which a priestly class could feed and take root. 

 

Are there elements of your own life experiences that you have woven into your story?

 

Very little. My academic background is in philosophy. My views of human nature—which is pretty dark—definitely influenced my characterizations.

 

There is tension between the two half-brothers, Baal and Ejil. Do you have tricks for getting to know your characters?

 

No tricks. The experts tell us that these people were just like us. We share the same nature. So, analogies about the relationships of modern human siblings were useful.

 

Not so many novelists have chosen to write about the period of prehistory. Jean Auel, William Golding, Raymond Williams spring to mind. Have other prehistory novelists been significant for you?

 

Don't forget Jack London. I haven't read Williams. Auel's first book was brilliant though it's a bit dated given what we've learned through DNA studies and other discoveries over the last twenty years. Golding took on the impossible. How do you write close third person with characters who lack self-consciousness? Neanderthals did have a sense of self.

 

 

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