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WiseGuy: The Author's Blog

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. CLICK HERE

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The Painted Caves of Southern France, Part III

By Richard W. Wise

 Did I say seven? More like ten days in Southern France devoted to cave art. From Vallon Pont d'Arc to Les Eyzes de Tayak, we've visited Chauvet, Bernifal, Lascaux, Font de Gaume, Cougnac, Rouffignac and Abri du Cap Blanc. The first cave, Chauvet, one of the most important, is also the oldest dating 33-36,000 BP. The caves clustered around Les Eyzes are all from the Magdalenian Period 24-17,000 BP. Our travels covered about five hundred miles.
The paintings at Chauvet are true marvels. Out The art is about predators not the grazing animals typical of the caves at Les Eyzes. Cave lions, mammoth, cave bears and wholly rhinoceroses make up 65% of the art.
A brace of lions, visible only to the withers—heads outstretched—stalking the primeval taiga. Horses—each an individual—whiney and neigh. Below them, a pair of Wooly Rhinos meet horn-to-horn. Another group of stacked Rhino, the first six back lines only, or is it a single multi-legged proto-futurist animal, shown in multiple poses, shaking his horned head?
Most of what is seen at Chauvet are charcoal drawings. Much easier to date than later works where the artists used a mineral, Magnesium dioxide to draw the black outlines. The age of the oldest drawings was recalibrated in 2020 to 36,500 BP. 
The images portrayed are sophisticated. They have a freshness and originality lacking in the later works in Lascaux and Altamira There is some evidence of stylization, but it is limited. Is it any wonder that its discovery in 1994 threw the preconceived linear evolution of art into a cocked hat?  There is evidence that many groups visited Chauvet over the millennia prior to the landslide that sealed it 22,000 years ago. Perhaps, Chauvet acted as an inspiration to later painters.
Could Chauvet have been a beginning, the creative spark that resulted in a school of painting that lasted more than 20,000 years? And, what does it say about the cultural evolution of European Homo Sapiens? Stylized art is, after all, degenerate art. It takes creativity and turns it into uniformity. It is also an indicator of a maturing, settled culture. 
Archaeologically, the Upper Paleolithic of Southwestern France is divided into five broad successive periods; Aurignacian (∼39,500–34,000 BP), Gravettian (∼34,000–26,100 BP), Solutrean (∼26,100–24,600 BP), Magdalenian (∼24,600–15,500 BP) and Azilian (∼15,500–11,500 BP). BP means "Before present" which is figured from the year 1950. The problem is coming up with a basis for these divisions, if divisions they are. All we have is a pile of bones in one hand and a pile of flint in the other. In some cases; we have images, painting, engraving, drawing and sculpture which is often ignored in archeologists  demographic evaluation of cultures in these successive periods.
Next: Spectacular Lascaux: CLICK HERE

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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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Book Review: Jade: A Gemologist's Guide by Richard W. Wise

Richard W. Hughes, Editor
Lotus Publishing/RWH Publishing
ISBN: 9780964509757

Jade: A Gemologist's Guide is one of those books readers love.  You can spend hours grazing through its twenty-five chapters. With contributions by no less than twenty-two of the world's leading jade experts: dealers, gemologists, archeologists, lapidaries, carvers, curators' and historians. There is something of interest with each turn of the page. Read on

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Goodreads Giveaway

Goodreads members may enter giveaway to win a free paperback copy of my latest novel: The Dawning: 31,000 BC.




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The Painted Caves of France Part II

A Paleolithic portrait approximately 17,000 years old. Benfifal Cave near Les Eyzes.

This portrait is unique. We were not allowed to take pictures. The image, downloaded from the internet, hardly does the portrait justice. What we saw in the flashlight's beam was a distinct, image of a man with a long oval face perfectly outlined in black, prominent eyes and thick eyebrows and black hair worn in a topknot. When lit from the side, he appeared to have a moustache. Was this a self-portrait? Who was he? He looks hauntingly modern. He could be my neighbor.


My immediate question: could it be a later drawing. "No!" the guide explains, the portrait is rendered in Manganese dioxide which cannot be directly dated. The calcite dripping covering the image clearly dates it as prehistoric. The images in the cave are Magdelenian--15,000 years old. Our guide believes the portrait to be of the same age.
The walls at Benifal and Lascaux and other caves are filled with engravings. These are hard to photograph but show a real mastery of line that could only have been obtained though 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 teaching of Suma-e painting or Japanese calligraphy.


The student practices making the same brush stroke over and over until its execution becomes ingrained and almost automatic. It is a technique difficult enough to master with a supple brush and harder with a flint burin.
Beautiful, precise, highly stylized engravings of animals are also found on portable art. At the museum at Les Eyzes, there are a number of engraved bones and a particularly famous engraving known as the licking bison rendered on mammoth ivory. https://www.facebook.com/richardwwisebooks


Part III, Stay tuned.

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The Painted Caves of France Part I

By Richard W. Wise
I am finishing up my soon to be published historical novel,The Dawning: 31,000 BC scheduled for publication in October. The action takes place in and near the famous Chauvet Cave of Southwestern France. The cave art figures in the narrative. I decided to go in case there was something I missed and there was. Here are my impressions.


Seven days in Southern France devoted to cave art. From Vallon Pont d'Arc to Les Eyzes de Tayak, we've visited Chauvet, Benifal, Lascaux, Font de Gaume, Cougnac, Rouffignac and Abri du Cap Blanc. We've traveled about five hundred miles.
Most of the works are outlined in black. The artist usually used a crayon of Magnesium dioxide, pine or bone charcoal. Particularly as Lascaux, the animals were outlined using a masking/blowing technique, a form of spray painting. It appears that the artist began with the line of the back. What is amazing is how these elegant lines which beautifully define the animals shape were often drawn with a single uninterrupted stroke. Using these techniques on cave walls it is not possible to erase and start over.
The ubiquitous negative hand prints which are found in many caves, including those in Australia, Indonesia and the American Southwest. The artist either fills his mouth with powdered charcoal or ochre, uses a stencil and blows the powder onto the wall or uses a blowpipe.
The lyrical elegance of line reminds me of Matisse.  How many times must this stroke been practiced? Was it done in sand, with a graver on shale or perhaps on a deerskin stretched across a frame as was done by our own Southwestern native Americans.
There are basically three colors; black, white and red. The white, normally the background rock, the red is red ochre (powdered iron/hematite drawn with crayon or blown). The technique was sophisticated. The ochre heated to various temperatures, turned brownish, orangy, red and even purple.
At Benifal, near the town of Les Eyzes, we got our biggest surprise when our guide trained the beam of her flashlight on a beautifully drawn portrait of a Paleolithic man. Human representations are rare; almost non-existent in French Paleo art. Unlike the animal rendering, when figures do appear, they tend to be vague, partial and not well rendered. These figures are best described as anthropomorphic (man like) rather than as clear images of humans.


Part II, A Big Surprise: CLICK READ PART TWO

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Review: Sapphire by Joanna Hardy READ FREE: Gemmology Today Magazine

Sapphire: A Celebration of Colour
By Joanna Hardy
Edited by Robert Violette
Thames & Hudson, 2021
978-0-500-024775 $125.00
Sapphire is the third volume in a series on precious gemstones written by Joanna Hardy, produced by Thames & Hudson and edited by Robert Violette. The other two are appropriately titled Emerald and Ruby.
What strikes the reviewer immediately is the book's size. At 10.3 x 1.6 x 13.8 inches, it qualifies as an elephant portfolio, weighing in at a whopping 7.4 lbs. (3.36 kilos)
Hardy's depth of scholarship is impressive, though the book would be more appropriately titled "Sapphire Jewellery" as that is the focus of the discussion throughout. Hardy begins with an impressive historical introduction followed by an opening chapter on Early Trade, which contains much of interest. For example, I had assumed that most sapphires, even those in early European jewelry, came from Sri Lanka. I was totally unaware of the existence of a source in the Auvergne region of France. This chapter is followed by Medicine and Magic. READ ON FREE

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Graybeard: Monster Wave Stalks The North Atlantic (short story)

December, 1965: the ship had pulled a Bravo over the Christmas holidays. Thirty days steaming in a giant square of ocean off of Argentia, Newfoundland, charting icebergs. They had ridden through two official hurricanes. Winds up to force nine.  Seas running twenty to thirty feet for the first fifteen days of the patrol. Two weeks with the hatches battened down—without a breath of fresh air—the crew was getting squirrely.  It was a Thursday night just past 2100 hours (9:00 PM).  The watch had changed an hour before. 
Clark was reading a novel in his cabin when the monster wave hit. It was a rogue, a graybeard, eighty feet tall—some later claimed it was over a hundred. Clark had heard of them, but like most sea stories—he figured—they were more hyperbole than fact. The Yakutat was steaming upwind, plowing into the oncoming swells. Nobody knew where the huge wave came from or why. It hit the ship dead astern. READ CHAPTER ONE FREE ON KINDLE VELLA:   Graybeard

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Youngkin: The Republican Cult Strikes Back.

Last Friday, the Republican party censured two of its members, Representatives: Adam Kinzinger and Liz Chaney. It also denounced the congressional committee investigating the January 6th attempted insurrection and labeled its work as the "persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse."
While a majority of Republican office holders remain in thrall to the cult of the former president, others are touting the successful campaign of Virginia Republican governor Glenn Youngkin as a new, softer, model in Republican electoral strategy.
Youngkin, a soft-spoken multi-millionaire with a full head of hair, won a close election (50.6-48.6%) against a popular former Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe in the state's most expensive governor's race to date. Several reasons have been given for the Democratic loss, but the primary reason may be McAuliffe's gaff in a debate over the issue of Critical Race Theory (CRT) when he said: "parents should not be telling schools what they should teach."
The attack on CRT--a term that has come to mean teaching any of the truths about American history that discomforts conservatives-- came seemingly out of nowhere, appears to be the brainchild of one Christopher Rufo, a west coast conservative activist. Rufo, raised the issue in a September 2nd 2020 appearance on the Tucker Carlson Show. CRT had infested the federal bureaucracy. Rufo stated that the president could ban it by executive order. The next morning, Rufo received a call from Trump chief of staff, Mark Meadows. Trump was ready to act.
Youngkin, a kinder, gentler acolyte, avoided Trumpian braying and stuck to bread and butter issues during the course of the campaign. While Republican activists whipped up the base and newly formed parent's groups began to Mau-Mau local school board meetings, Youngkin embraced the anti-CRT movement and the idea that parents should be active in their children's education including having a right to have a say in school curricula.
Once elected, Youngkin's people introduced bills in the state legislature that would ban "divisive concepts" (see previous blog post) and set up a state system of charter schools. This new system of education which would have paralled the exiting public system and bypassed local school boards, would include state per capita funding being withdrawn from local school districts and transferred to schools set up by for profit companies.


Aside from using state funds to off set the cost of sending his friends kids to private schools, according to Youngkin's strategy, fix failing schools by simply choking off their funding.

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