paleolithic rock art

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Centre International d´Art Pariétal Montignac Lascaux in Dordogne

The Vézère valley in Dordogne, France, is a mecca of prehistory. It contains about 15 major sites, all on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The Lascaux cave has one of the most important groups of Paleolithic rock wall art, both by its number and by the exceptional quality of its works. The Lascaux IV project designed by Snøhetta in collaboration with Associate Architect SRA Architectes and exhibition designers Casson Mann, is in line with the decades of reflections and initiatives focused on reconciling the safeguarding of a heritage that is unique for the history of humanity.

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Chauvet Cave, located in southern France, is a cave that contatin the earliest—and best preserved cave paintings in the world. The images are from the Upper Paleolithic period and are at least 37 000 years old, but aside from the intricate paintings, the cave was also discovered to contain the fossilized remains of various extinct animals and plants.

One of the larger cave painting sites, Chauvet Cave is embedded into limestone cliffs and the sheer quantity of paintings and artwork is in itself spectacular, nevermind the size and quality of the pictures (which are themselves remarkable). What the images depict is also unique compared to other finds of this nature. As opposed to specifically painting typical herbivores (likely the quarry of prehistoric human hunters), the cave also depicts predatory animals as well, such as cave lions, panthers, bears, and hyenas. All told, there are at least 13 different species depicted in the paintins, including rhinoceroses. These images do not exist outside of context, however, and many of them depict complex scenes or interaction between species and other artistic and more abstract depictions (such as red ochre reliefs of hands, and other lines and dashes).

Chauvet Cave recently re-entered the public eye just this past March when a researchers recently claimed that the cave depicts various volcanic eruptions and that such paintings are the first time humans recorded and depicted those eruptions in history. Splashes of red ochre and what appears to be an impromptu dive into deeply abstract imagery (a notable departure from some fairly realistic animals) would seem to support this hypothesis.

The cave is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but unfortunately has been off limits to the public since 1994. As with the caves in Lascaux, frequent human activity inside the cave slowly cultivated a species of mould which could have damaged the paintings. A replica was opened to the public in April, 2015.

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North East Passage Grave of the Balnuaran of Clava or ‘Clava Cairns’, Inverness, 26.7.16. This structure stood at over three and a half metres in height and is composed of various materials. The passage of this cairn was so low that people would have to crawl in order to access the central chamber. The central space was likely lined with quartz along the back wall so that at the shortest day of the year, sunlight would have reflected on these surfaces and illuminated the chamber space. This grave is one of a large number of cairns that composed a large scale prehistoric cemetery. Of interest is the single decorated piece that forms one of the foundation stones of the cairn. There is much speculation as to whether the ‘cup and ring’ markings on this single stone represent constellations and stellar alignments.

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‘Little Meg’ Kerb or Round Cairn, Cumbria, 2.6.16. Great hidden site with some fantastic rock art clearly visible.

Back to the Cave of Altamira in Spain, Still Controversial

ALTAMIRA, Spain — The cave of Altamira in northern Spain contains some of the world’s finest examples of Paleolithic art. For years, visitors came to see the bisons, horses and mysterious signs painted and carved into the limestone as far back as 22,000 years ago. But in 2002 the cave was closed to the public when algae-like mold started to appear on some paintings. The damage was attributed to the presence of visitors and the use of artificial light to help them see the works.

Now Altamira is being partially reopened and in the process reviving the debate over whether such a prehistoric site can withstand the presence of modern-day visitors. Read more.