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Paleolithic Paint Job

Two French archeologists are trying to get closer--much closer--to an ancient act of creation.

By Roger Lewin
Jul 1, 1993 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 5:00 AM


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You have to be dressed right for this job, says Michel Lorblanchet, whose beret-capped head and white goatee make him a virtual caricature of a Frenchman. Lorblanchet, an archeologist with France’s National Center for Scientific Research, slips out of mud-caked overalls and, with a colleague’s help, struggles free of a pair of snug rubber boots. It’s pretty tight in there, he says, referring to a cave he has been working in, not to his boots. You have to crawl a long way, he adds. That’s how we get so filthy. Lorblanchet is describing his efforts to study the ancient paintings deep inside the caves of the Lot Valley in southwest France. These depictions of a lost world--of Ice Age bison, horses, mammoths, and deer--were painted between 30,000 and 10,000 years ago. They remain among the most haunting of all archeological finds.

The region here, known as Quercy, is dominated by rugged gray limestone plateaus intermittently sliced by fertile valleys and farmland. The cuisine of the area--a matter of constant and weighty discussion among the locals--is rich and robust: truffles, foie gras, duck confit, deeply flavorful lamb, and strong, dark wines. There is an earthy sensuosity about the place. When Lorblanchet, a native son of the area, describes it simply as my country, you know he is speaking not only for himself but for generations of people whose roots are planted in this land. The Quercy sensuosity also apparently imbues Lorblanchet’s unorthodox approach to studying cave art.

Traditionally cave art archeologists, perhaps to beef up their scientific credentials, have striven to understand the meaning of these paintings through objective inquiry. They have relied heavily on statistical analysis (which animals were represented where in the caves, for example) to test their hypotheses about the art. Lorblanchet’s approach, by contrast, is freewheeling, subjective, experimental. He wants to get inside the minds of the early artists by reproducing some of their most famous works--not merely by tracing their outlines onto paper, as others have done in the past, but by replicating whole paintings on rock. Although he hopes to gain new insights, he has no theory to prove or disprove. Some of my colleagues think that experimentation without a preliminary theory is a waste of time, says Lorblanchet, the usual soft timbre of his voice gaining a slight edge of defiance. But I totally disagree with them. I don’t know what I will learn by temporarily becoming a Paleolithic painter, but I know I’ll learn something.

Actually, for all its apparent unorthodoxy, Lorblanchet’s work fits right into a new trend in cave art archeology. The Quercy archeologist is interested in how the early artists went about painting. Jean Clottes, another French archeologist, working in the Pyrenees, studies what their pigments were composed of. Although the two men’s styles could hardly be more dissimilar--one personal and intuitive, the other extremely high-tech- -they converge on the same novel question: What can we learn from the paint in these paintings? This investigative avenue doesn’t ignore all that has gone before, of course, but builds on it.

The scholarly study of Ice Age art began in the 1920s with the great French prehistorian Abbé Henri Breuil, who saw it as an expression of hunting magic. Breuil based his conclusions on contemporary anthropological observations of the Arunta aborigines in central Australia. To ensure a plentiful supply of prey, the Arunta performed rituals during which they painted images of the prey--principally kangaroos--on rock faces. (Rituals of this kind are now well known among many of the world’s remaining foraging peoples.)

Gradually, though, archeologists began to doubt that hunting magic alone could explain all prehistoric cave art. The overthrow of this hypothesis in the 1960s was led by another French prehistorian, André Leroi-Gourhan. After surveying more than 60 painted caves, Leroi-Gourhan came to see order in the images’ distribution. Stags often appeared in entranceways, ibex at the caves’ peripheries, and horses, bison, oxen, and mammoths in the main chambers. As Leroi-Gourhan saw it, this structure represented the division of the world into males and females--or, more mystically, maleness and femaleness. The horse, the stag, and the ibex embodied maleness; the bison, the mammoth, and the ox embodied femaleness. According to this structuralist interpretation, all caves were decorated systematically to reflect this male-female duality, which suffused the mythology of Upper Paleolithic people.

This mode of structuralism was eventually done in by its all- embracing scope. It could be true, but there was no way of knowing: How could you test a rule with no exceptions? These days archeologists are taking more diverse approaches. Structure could still play a role, for example, but a more limited one--individual caves may well have been decorated with an overall pattern in mind. More attention is now being paid to the art’s context. For example, Margaret Conkey, an archeologist at the University of California at Berkeley, argues that to understand what made the art meaningful you have to understand its social context. Which members of society produced the images? Was it the sacred right of a few important males? Were females involved, or even responsible for the art?

Still, even with a diversity of approaches, you can only hope for shadowy glimpses of Paleolithic life. You know, we should admit that it may never be possible to bridge the gap between the Paleolithic mind and the modern mind, cautions Lorblanchet. There are many barriers that stop us. The most immediate barrier, he says, is that our perspective on the world is so utterly different from that of the Ice Age artists. The country here was once a frigid steppe, roamed by herds of exotic species that have long since gone extinct; and the lives of the hunters, so intimately attuned to the rhythms of nature, were vastly different from our own. We are city dwellers, surrounded by angular buildings, following artificial rhythms of life, says Lorblanchet. How can we expect to be able to view the art as Upper Paleolithic people did? Lorblanchet hopes his new approach will help answer that.

Lorblanchet’s recent bid to re-create one of the most important Ice Age images in Europe was an affair of the heart as much as the head. I tried to abandon my skin of a modern citizen, tried to experience the feeling of the artist, to enter the dialogue between the rock and the man, he explains. Every day for a week in the fall of 1990 he drove the 20 miles from his home in the medieval village of Cajarc into the hills above the river Lot. There, in a small, practically inaccessible cave, he transformed himself into an Upper Paleolithic painter. And not just any Upper Paleolithic painter, but the one who 18,400 years ago crafted the dotted horses inside the famous cave of Pech Merle.

You can still see the original horses in Pech Merle’s vast underground geologic splendor. You enter through a narrow passageway and soon find yourself gazing across a grand cavern to where the painting seems to hang in the gloom. Outside, the landscape is very different from the one the Upper Paleolithic people saw, says Lorblanchet. But in here, the landscape is the same as it was more than 18,000 years ago. You see what the Upper Paleolithic people experienced. No matter where you look in this cavern, the eye is drawn back to the panel of horses.

The two horses face away from each other, rumps slightly overlapping, their outlines sketched in black. The animal on the right seems to come alive as it merges with a crook in the edge of the panel, the perfect natural shape for a horse’s head. But the impression of naturalism quickly fades as the eye falls on the painting’s dark dots. There are more than 200 of them, deliberately distributed within and below the bodies and arcing around the right-hand horse’s head and mane. More cryptic still are a smattering of red dots and half-circles and the floating outline of a fish. The surrealism is completed by six disembodied human hands stenciled above and below the animals.

Lorblanchet began thinking about re-creating the horses after a research trip to Australia over a decade ago. Not only is Australia a treasure trove of rock art, but its aboriginal people are still creating it. In Queensland I learned how people painted by spitting pigment onto the rock, he recalls. They spat paint and used their hand, a piece of cloth, or a feather as a screen to create different lines and other effects. Elsewhere in Australia people used chewed twigs as paintbrushes, but in Queensland the spitting technique worked best. The rock surfaces there were too uneven for extensive brushwork, he adds--just as they are in Quercy.

When Lorblanchet returned home he looked at the Quercy paintings with a new eye. Sure enough, he began seeing the telltale signs of spit- painting--lines with edges that were sharply demarcated on one side and fuzzy on the other, as if they had been airbrushed--instead of the brushstrokes he and others had assumed were there. Could you produce lines that were crisp on both edges with the same technique, he wondered, and perhaps dots too? Archeologists had long recognized that hand stencils, which are common in prehistoric art, were produced by spitting paint around a hand held to the wall. But no one had thought that entire animal images could be created this way. Before he could test his ideas, however, Lorblanchet had to find a suitable rock face--the original horses were painted on a roughly vertical panel 13 feet across and 6 feet high. With the help of a speleologist, he eventually found a rock face in a remote cave high in the hills and set to work.

Following the aboriginal practices he had witnessed, Lorblanchet first made a light outline sketch of the horses with a charred stick. Then he prepared black pigment for the painting. My intention had been to use manganese dioxide, as the Pech Merle painter did, says Lorblanchet, referring to one of the minerals ground up for paint by the early artists. But I was advised that manganese is somewhat toxic, so I used wood charcoal instead. (Charcoal was used as pigment by Paleolithic painters in other caves, so Lorblanchet felt he could justify his concession to safety.) To turn the charcoal into paint, Lorblanchet ground it with a limestone block, put the powder in his mouth, and diluted it to the right consistency with saliva and water. For red pigment he used ocher from the local iron-rich clay.

He started with the dark mane of the right-hand horse. I spat a series of dots and fused them together to represent tufts of hair, he says, unself-consciously reproducing the spitting action as he talks. Then I painted the horse’s back by blowing the pigment below my hand held so-- he holds his hand flat against the rock with his thumb tucked in to form a straight line--and used it like a stencil to produce a sharp upper edge and a diffused lower edge. You get an illusion of the animal’s rounded flank this way.

He experimented as he went. You see the angular rump? he says, pointing to the original painting. I reproduced that by holding my hand perpendicular to the rock, with my palm slightly bent, and I spat along the edge formed by my hand and the rock. He found he could produce sharp lines, such as those in the tail and in the upper hind leg, by spitting into the gap between parallel hands. The belly demanded more ingenuity; he spat paint into a V-shape formed by his two splayed hands, rubbed it into a curved swath to shape the belly’s outline, then finger-painted short protruding lines to suggest the animals’ shaggy hair. Neatly outlined dots, he found, could not be made by blowing a thin jet of charcoal onto the wall. He had to spit pigment through a hole made in an animal skin.

I spent seven hours a day for a week, he says. Puff . . . puff . . . puff. . . . It was exhausting, particularly because there was carbon monoxide in the cave. But you experience something special, painting like that. You feel you are breathing the image onto the rock--projecting your spirit from the deepest part of your body onto the rock surface.

Was that what the Paleolithic painter felt when creating this image? Yes, I know it doesn’t sound very scientific, Lorblanchet says of his highly personal style of investigation, but the intellectual games of the structuralists haven’t got us very far, have they? Studying rock art shouldn’t be an intellectual game. It is about understanding humanity. That’s why I believe the experimental approach is valid in this case.

In contrast to Lorblanchet’s freewheeling style, Jean Clottes’s research looks much more like science as usual--technical and analytical. Clottes, a scientific adviser on rock art to the French Ministry of Culture, works in the Midi-Pyrénées, a wild and mountainous region that abuts France’s border with Spain. Many of the caves in these mountains contain fine examples of Ice Age art. The most celebrated of the decorated caves is Niaux, which is approached by a gaping entrance on the steep northern slope of the Vicdessos Valley. About half a mile into this long, meandering cave is the Salon Noir, a towering cavern containing black images of horses, bison, ibex, and deer. Among the questions that preoccupied Clottes during his many visits to the Salon Noir was the age of these images. Were they all created at about the same time? And who created them?

One of the toughest problems in the study of rock art is accurately dating it. Radiocarbon dating, the surest method, can be done only if charcoal is present in the paint. (The first such dates were obtained in 1989, when a technological advance--carbon dating by accelerator mass spectrometry--made it possible to use much smaller paint samples.) For the most part, however, archeologists have had to rely on what they term stylistic chronology. This basically depends on a subjective assessment of painting styles and on the assumption that particular conventions--such as the use of perspective--belong to particular periods. According to Leroi-Gourhan’s chronology, nearly universally accepted, the paintings in the Salon Noir were painted in a uniform style typical of the period known as the Middle Magdalenian, which occurred some 13,000 to 14,000 years ago. But the pigment analysis that Clottes undertook with physicists Michel Menu and Philippe Walter revealed a different story.

Clottes’s study was inspired by some work that Menu and Walter had done previously at the cave of La Vache, some 450 feet from Niaux, as the crow flies, on the southern side of the Vicdessos Valley. Although La Vache had no paintings, it did contain engraved bone objects, along with charcoal remains, that carbon dating established as being between 12,000 and 13,000 years old, an age corresponding to the period known as the Late Magdalenian. Trapped within the grooves of the engraved artifacts were residues of red and black paint. Menu and Walter decided to find out what these paints were made from.

Back in Paris, at the Research Laboratory of the Museums of France, the two physicists used scanning electron microscopy, X-ray diffraction, and proton-induced X-ray emission to examine the physical and chemical properties of these paints. The pigment minerals held no surprises: the red was hematite and the black was basically manganese dioxide. The interest lay in the extender, a general term for materials that artists use to stretch pigment and, along with water, enhance its ease of application. Menu and Walter’s analysis revealed that the extender in the La Vache paint was a mixture of biotite and feldspar, minerals easily obtained in the valley. But what intrigued the researchers was that biotite and feldspar don’t occur together. The Paleolithic painters had to mix them together, then grind them with the pigment to form paint, says Clottes. Quartz grinding stones bearing traces of paint production were discovered in the caves. This tells us that the Paleolithic painters didn’t just use whatever was available, Clottes points out. They had a specific recipe.

Was the La Vache recipe--call it recipe B, for biotite and feldspar--also used at Niaux? Because of their proximity, there seemed a good chance that the hunters of La Vache belonged to the same social group that frequented Niaux, explains Clottes. If so, they probably used the same pigments. Traditionally archeologists would have hesitated to take paint from prehistoric images to test the idea, but Menu and Walter’s methods required only a tiny quantity--less than half a milligram. In 1989 they received permission to lift 59 pinhead-size pieces of pigment from images in the Salon Noir and other locations in the cave. When these paint samples were analyzed, Clottes’s intuition was proved correct: most were indeed recipe B, suggesting that they, too, might be 12,000 to 13,000 years old, just like those in the cave across the valley. His deductions were recently confirmed in a follow-up study capitalizing on one of the surprises of the Niaux pigment analysis. Tests revealed that the recipe B paint was layered: there were traces of charcoal under the black manganese pigment. Carbon dating on the charcoal flakes under one of the images corroborated that the paint was 12,800 years old, consistent with the paint at La Vache.

The confirmation of Clottes’s hunch, however, opened a can of worms. Based on Leroi-Gourhan’s stylistic chronology, the Niaux paintings were up to 14,000 years old. Yet at least some of the Niaux paintings employed a paint recipe--recipe B--that carbon dating established as 12,000 to 13,000 years old. Did this mean that the recipe had been in use for at least 1,000 years? Or could there be something wrong with the chronology based on stylistic similarity?

We didn’t know what to make of it, says Clottes. And the situation became more complicated, because in some paint samples from Niaux, we found a different recipe. In this paint mixture, call it recipe F, the extender was only feldspar. It contained no biotite, and there was no charcoal beneath it. We toyed with the idea of different paint recipes being used by groups of different social status, or even one recipe for men, the other for women. But it seemed just as likely that the different recipes were used during different periods.

To settle this puzzle, Clottes, Menu, and Walter analyzed the paint recipes from a wide range of decorated caves in the region that have been firmly carbon-dated. Would the two recipes at Niaux turn out to correspond to two different prehistoric periods? So far--and Clottes points out that the sample is small, about ten sites--recipe B has been found consistently with Late Magdalenian work (about 12,000 to 13,000 years old), while recipe F is exclusively Middle Magdalenian (about 13,000 to 14,000 years old). We don’t know why Paleolithic painters changed the recipe for the extender around 13,000 years ago, asserts Clottes. Perhaps, he speculates, it made the paint easier to apply or gave it a slightly different color. But whatever the reason, it gives us a way of attaching a date to paintings when radiocarbon methods are not possible.

Thus the Niaux paint studies answered Clottes’s question in a completely unexpected way: despite their similarity, the paintings in the cave were not all created within a short period of time. Many generations could have separated recipe B and recipe F paintings. The more general implication--one that archeologists will have to struggle with in the years to come--is that style is no certain guide to chronology. The methodology that supported years of archeological work has suddenly crumbled. But that isn’t the only ripple the studies have left in their wake.

Archeologists have long believed that the Salon Noir at Niaux was a sanctuary--a sort of Ice Age cathedral where important ceremonies were held. Clottes himself subscribes to this gut feeling. There is something special about the Salon Noir, he says, as he leads the way along the uneven corridor that takes you to the cave’s inner chamber. When you enter with a small lamp, you naturally follow the right-hand wall, retreating from that great black void to the left. Eventually, inevitably, you reach the Salon Noir, with its soaring ceiling beyond the reach of torchlight. It’s as if the place draws you here. Clottes shifts the beam of light to the walls, dramatically revealing the panels of black bison, horses, ibex, and deer. He swings the beam from panel to panel, creating an eerie sense of movement in the ancient images as he points out how stylistically homogeneous they are. This homogeneity, he explains, has been very important to our perception of the cave as a sanctuary.

When archeologists speak of a sanctuary, they typically imagine a richly decorated cave in which the paintings seem to form a planned, cohesive body of work. The two most famous examples are Altamira in Spain, with its huge polychrome extravaganzas, and Lascaux in France, with its fabulous friezes. But by that logic, wouldn’t the discovery of different paint recipes in the Salon Noir, spanning as much as two millennia, cast doubt on Niaux’s status as a sanctuary? That seems logical, but it turns out to be wrong, asserts Clottes. For evidence, he returns to the pigment studies that uncovered charcoal fragments under the most commonly used paint in the Salon Noir. That indicated to us that the Upper Paleolithic artists first made a sketch using a charcoal stick, then painted over the outline, says Clottes.

This technique--a preliminary sketch followed by careful painting--is not common in Paleolithic art. The combination of sketch and painting not only takes more time, says Clottes, but also implies premeditation. It suggests that the artist had some sort of composition in mind, sketching first and only filling in the outlines with paint after he or she was satisfied with the overall effect. That kind of care, argues Clottes, is much more consistent with paintings found in heavily decorated sanctuaries than in the more run-of-the-mill caves with their scattered images that look as if they’ve been hastily dashed off on brief visits.

I believe people repeatedly came to the spot we’re standing on now, says Clottes. It was, he is sure, a gathering place of lasting social and mythological significance. You know, he finally confides, I’ve been in this cave many times. I’ve stood in the place where the Upper Paleolithic painter stood. I’ve traced the images. You put your hand where his or her hand once was; you move it, producing the same lines. Sometimes it feels uncanny. It brings you closer to them. Closer, but still frustratingly distant.

At moments like this the differences in style between Clottes and Lorblanchet seem to evaporate. The first time I did my own hand stencil, I was shocked, recalls Lorblanchet. There it was, my hand, separate and distant from me, but very definitely me, a more powerful signature than any writing. I had put myself into the rock, become part of another world. For Paleolithic people, that other world, a potent mythological world mediated by simple images, was probably as real as life on the frigid steppe. Today we see only images on the rock.

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