Ice Age Cave Art: A Poetic Investigation
While living in Paris in 1973, my wife, Caryl, and I met Helen Lane, a translator, who was then living in southwestern France, in the Dordogne. Helen said that we had to visit the Dordogne before returning to the States, and she made such a beautiful case for visiting this region that we rented, sight unseen, an apartment in the same farm complex where Helen lived, a few miles outside of Les Eyzies, which dubs itself "The World Capital of Prehistory."
We bought a second-hand Renault Caravelle and drove south six hours into the Dordogne, also known by its older name, the Perigord. The southern Dordogne, where one finds Les Eyzies, is cut through by the Dordogne and Vézère rivers, which have carved precipitous gorges in the limestone plateaus. As we drove, we saw lines of poplars and willows reflected in the smooth waters and set against a background of meadows. Tall white cliffs, dotted with scrub and evergreen oaks, arched out over the narrow, curvy back roads. Châteaus, half-hidden in greenery or perched in full view above the rivers, added a touch of elegance to the landscape. The combination of wide, slowly meandering rivers set beneath eruptions of craggy limestone cliffs created a sense of robust and peaceful mystery.
Once we were settled in our farm apartment we learned the meaning of Les Eyzies' self-identification. Within twenty miles of this town of 200 people were some thirty caves and rock shelters with bas-reliefs, engravings, and polychromatic paintings of animals, human beings, and mysterious signs in the shapes of spaceships, huts, red dots, and sexual symbols. We learned that this imagery was made by Cro-Magnon people, our direct ancestors, whose skeletons had been discovered in 1868 in the Cro-Magnon rock shelter in Les Eyzies, which was part of the rock wall that also now served as the back wall for the Hotel Cro-Magnon. These caves and rock shelters were decorated (or ensouled) between 35,000 and 10,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age. We quickly realized that Helen Lane had led us not only to the most mysterious landscape we had ever experienced, but also to those sites where our ancestors made the extraordinary move from no image of the world to an image.
The range of this art is staggering: some caves contain only crude gougings, while others, like Lascaux and Pech-Merle, house engravings and paintings whose quality is as fine as anything in Western art. Such caves were not lived in but appear to have been intended as "sanctuaries" and show signs of ritualistic usage spanning thousands of years. Studies show that early Homo sapiens needed to spend only around twenty hours a week on survival concerns. Because of the abundance of game during the last Ice Age, he had time for spiritual and imaginative activities as well as survival-oriented ones. Imagine an underground Notre Dame in which people could create the first electrifying outlines of the gods as they performed animal sacrifice, rites of passage, commemorations of the dead, and rituals to ensure fertility. The fact that so much of their material has survived a nearly imponderable period of time is a testimony to the endurance of humankind's desire to transform the world in a spiritual way.
After Caryl and I began to visit local caves such as Font-de-Gaume, Combarelles, La Mouthe, Bernifal, Cap Blanc, and La Grèze, Helen loaned us her cave book collection and I discovered something of equal importance in regard to anything I might write: no poet had taken on the Upper Paleolithic and done what the poet Charles Olson had called a "saturation job." There was the novelist and essayist Georges Bataille's 1955 monograph on Lascaux and that was it.
Over the past twenty-five years, I have written a book--Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination & the Construction of the Underworld--that makes use of mental imagery as well as perception, or poetic imagination, as well as thorough field work and research. Sometimes a section is all poetry, sometimes all prose--at other times it is a shifting combination like a Calder mobile, with poetry turning into prose, prose turning into poetry. I have also drawn on a range of thinkers outside of archaeology proper. While I studied the work of the Abbé Breuil, André Leroi-Gourhan, and Alexander Marshack, for example, I also read Geza Róheim, N. O. Brown, and James Hillman.
Over this period of research time, Caryl and I have led four tours to the cave art of the Dordogne. Our trip is now sponsored by the Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. We meet our group in Paris, where we spend several days, and then drive south on a private motor coach for ten days in Les Eyzies. I give lectures on the caves in the mornings, and we visit the caves in the afternoon--along with visits to markets, châteaus, and regional specialties.