It's dark in there. Deep in the caverns located in cliffs of the Ardeche River gorge somebody left images of a world unseen. Bears, ibexes, lions and more are depicted in over three hundred complete and and partial imagery along the rock walls. Some have even been "erased" by smudges overlying the originals. In some cases the animals are probably fighting. The rutting season? Others are massed together as if migrating or hunting in packs. To depict these fauna so precisely required immense talent. Yet they could only have been drawn in the flickering light of oil lamps or torches. The very walls must have seemed to flicker with life as the painters went about their craft. Who were they? Why did they put so much effort into these images? What can we learn from them?
Jean Clottes, leading a team of researchers, has been examining the Chauvet caves for over a decade. In this book, the images are catalogued, defined and analysed for age and content. More than anything else, this book is a fantastic depiction of the images, in both panoramic and in close detail. It has been an immense task and the work has barely begun, as Clottes notes. Access to the cave, even when permitted, requires patience, dexterity and allows no tinge of claustrophobia! Yet some of the photographs show the researchers at their work or examining their surroundings. It's a vivid contrast to see but the boots of one crawling through an access tunnel, then standing almost lost in an immense grotto.
A compilation of the work of several authors, Clottes' book offers more than the images of our ancestors' paintings. It's made clear that whatever the painters' drive to convey their views of lions, mammoth or bison, it wasn't an evolving aesthetic sense or the expression of a leisure class. Among the collections of photographs, analysts attempt to derive some meaning from the depictions. To Joelle Robert-Lamblin, the closest approximation to these Palaeolithic artists are the Inuit. In an essay pointing out similarities and differences, attention is given to the role of the cave itself and known shamanic practices. For both societies, the bear is a figure of significance. At Chauvet, paintings are done over cave bear scratchings, and in one place a bear's skull has been carefully positioned. Were the skull and the many paintings of bears an appeal for their power, or an attempt to ward off predation?
Interpretation of these images isn't easy, but Clottes explains some of the patterns and practices involved. Reading his text requires a bit of page flipping, since the cave has so many chambers, all named for some factor or another [although "The Sacristy" at the far end defies explanation]. In the "earlier" part of the cave, the images are rendered mostly in red ochre. In the deeper chambers, the dominant colour is black. Certain animals abound in some grottoes, while others are nearly devoid of images. Many surfaces which almost cry out for use remain blank. Clottes suggests these divisions are based on initiation levels of those allowed within the sacred confines - a practice common in many of today's religions. Further, the mystery of the lack of human figures remains unresolved.
Beyond the glorious photography, Clottes provides maps of the various chambers and a table of dated artefacts. The dating, as he notes, was a shocking revelation. The images were depicted over thirty thousand years ago. And their creation wasn't continuous. A five thousand year stretch, a distance in time equal to that of the Old Kingdom of Egypt to today, separates the two major periods of occupancy. Was the location lost, or simply visited without adding new graphics? The notes and bibliography for this account are thorough, but are limited to the immediate work. Clottes is still working on the images and their meaning. He may produce another book on Chauvet, but it will not truly replace this one. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]