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Horses and goats etched into a section of a 15 metre-long panel found in the Armintze Cave, Lekeitio, Biscay Province
Image AFP
BBC News Europe reports on the discovery of 14,500 year-old cave art in the Basque town of Lekeitio on the Iberian Peninsula –
About 50 etchings were found in the Basque town of Lekeitio. They include horses, bison, goats and – in a radical departure from previously discovered Palaeolithic art in the Biscay province – two lions. Some depictions are also much bigger than those found previously – with one horse about 150cm (4ft 11in) long. “It is a wonder, a treasure of humanity,” senior Biscay official Unai Rementeria said.
More here.

A Nature Video documenting a cave in Indonesia that’s home to some of the oldest paintings and hand stencils in the world

The earliest known cave paintings have been discovered in a rural area on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesian. Using stalactite-like growths that cover some of the paintings and hand stencils experts have been able to date them from 40,000 years – 13,000 years before the present.
Pallab Ghosh, Science Correspondent for BBC News, reports Dr Maxime Aubert as saying that –
“The minimum age for (the outline of the hand) is 39,900 years old, which makes it the oldest hand stencil in the world. Next to it is a pig that has a minimum age of 35,400 years old, and this is one of the oldest figurative depictions in the world, if not the oldest one…”
There are also paintings in the caves that are around 27,000 years old, which means that the inhabitants were painting for at least 13,000 years. In addition, there are paintings in a cave in the regency of Bone, 100 km north of Maros. These cannot be dated because the stalactite-like growths used to determine the age of the art do not occur. But the researchers believe that they are probably the same age as the paintings in Maros because they are stylistically identical.
The discovery of the Indonesian cave art is important because it shows the beginnings of human intelligence as we understand it today.
Painting of a variety a wild endemic dwarfed bovid from Bone, Sulawesi, in Indonesia. The animal is found only in Sulawesi and was probably hunted by the inhabitants.
Image credit Dr Maxime Aubert
Prof Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, London is quoted as saying, “This find enables us to get away from this Euro-centric view of a creative explosion that was special to Europe.”
Full BBC article here. Read the research paper here. See also our earlier feature, Do the hand stencils found in prehistoric cave paintings belong to women?
A linear Neanderthal engraving found on a rock at the back of Gorham’s Cave, Gibraltar
Image credit Stewart Finlayson
Paul Rincon, Science editor, BBC News website, reports in BBC News Science & Environment yesterday that –
…the geometric pattern [above] identified in Gibraltar, on the southern tip of Europe, was uncovered beneath undisturbed sediments that have also yielded Neanderthal tools. Details of the discovery by an international team of researchers has been published in the journal PNAS.
There is now ample evidence that Neanderthal intellectual abilities may have been underestimated. Recent finds suggest they intentionally buried their dead, adorned themselves with feathers, painted their bodies with black and red pigments, and consumed a more varied diet than had previously been supposed. One of the study’s authors, Prof Clive Finlayson, director of the Gibraltar Museum, said the latest find “brings the Neanderthals closer to us, yet again”.
Full BBC article here.
40,000 year-old mammoth ivory figurine of a lion (right) and missing fragment (left)
Image credit: Hilde Jensen, Universität Tübingen reports last month that –
Archaeologists from the University of Tübingen have found an ancient fragment of ivory belonging to a 40,000 year-old animal figurine. Both pieces were found in the Vogelherd Cave in south-western Germany, which has yielded a number of remarkable works of art dating to the Ice Age. The mammoth ivory figurine depicting a lion was discovered during excavations in 1931. The new fragment makes up one side of the figurine’s head…
The 40,000 year-old figurine is one of the most famous works of Ice Age art. It was on show at last year’s Ice Age art exhibition hosted by the British Museum. According to archaeologist Nicholas Conard of Tübingen University’s Institute of Prehistory and Medieval Archaeology, and the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment Tübingen, the lion was originally thought to be a relief and was unique for this period. With the small fragment of one side of the lion’s head now reattached however it is clear that the figurine is, in fact, a three-dimensional sculpture. “The site has yielded a wealth of objects that illuminate the development of early symbolic artefacts dating to the period when modern humans arrived in Europe and displaced the indigenous Neanderthals,” says Conard, including evidence of the world’s earliest figurative art and music.
The lion figurine is now on show at the Tübingen University Museum.
Full article here. See also our earlier How to make a thaumatrope… feature.
Cave painting of a bull (colours accentuated by archaeologists)
Image credit: Ines Domingo
Belén Palanco, writing for The Art Newspaper, reports on –
A series of hunting scenes dating from 7,000 years ago have been found by archaeologists on the six-metre long wall of a small cave in the region of Vilafranca in Castellón, eastern Spain – but it is being kept a secret for now. A layer of dust and dirt covered ten figures, including bulls, two archers and a goat. The murals were exposed to harsh weather but the paintings pigments have not seriously deteriorated.
Inés Domingo Sanz, a research professor at the University of Barcelona, and Dídac Román, a research associate (archaeology) at the University of Toulouse II Le Mirail and University of Valencia, discovered the site while undertaking government-sponsored research into another excavation area in the region. Sanz says that “some of the [painting] details are unique [and unlike anything] across the entire Mediterranean Basin”.
The cave was discovered in November 2013 but its location will only be revealed once security measures are in place, after vandals defaced a 5,000-year-old rock painting in Spain’s southern Jaén province in April.
More here.
Reproduction of a bison from one of the Altamira cave paintings
Source Wikimedia Commons. Image credit Rameessos
BBC News Europe reports today that –
Spain’s famous Altamira caves are briefly being opened to the public, for the first time in 12 years. Five elderly Spaniards chosen in a draw can marvel at its ice-age paintings of bison, bulls and other animals. The visit, including time accessing the caves, will last only about half an hour – allowing the group just eight minutes to admire the paintings.
During the visit, dozen of sensors will monitor changes in the cave’s temperature and humidity, to see if more visitors can be allowed in in future, our correspondent says. As part of the experiment, a total of 192 people will be allowed to see the paintings in weekly visits until August, El Pais newspaper reports. Despite the historic nature of the viewing, taking pictures will not be allowed. Nor will visitors be allowed to touch the rock. They will be also dressed in protective clothing, to help prevent contamination of the site.
The caves were closed in 2002 to protect the paintings from microbiological damage caused by visitors. Perhaps they should stay closed to the general public. These 22,000 year-old paintings are just too precious and too vulnerable to risk further degradation from public viewing – no matter how small and restricted those viewings may be. 
Full BBC article here. Includes an excellent video, presented by Andrew Graham-Dixon, showing a visit to the replica Altamira caves housed in the National Museum and Research Center of Altamira.
Horse painting and hand stencils from the Pech Merle caves in France. Charcoal residue from the horse on the right has yielded a radiocarbon date of 24,640bce
Image credit Jean Vertut
Writing for National Geographic Virginia Hughes asks, “Were the First Artists Mostly Women?” It now appears that three-quarters of the hand stencils found in prehistoric cave paintings belonged to women –
Archaeologist Dean Snow of Pennsylvania State University analyzed hand stencils found in eight cave sites in France and Spain. By comparing the relative lengths of certain fingers, Snow determined that three-quarters of the handprints were female. “There has been a male bias in the literature for a long time,” said Snow, whose research was supported by the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration. “People have made a lot of unwarranted assumptions about who made these things, and why.”
Archaeologists have found hundreds of hand stencils on cave walls across the world. Because many of these early paintings also showcase game animals—bison, reindeer, horses, woolly mammoths—many researchers have proposed that they were made by male hunters, perhaps to chronicle their kills or as some kind of “hunting magic” to improve success of an upcoming hunt. The new study suggests otherwise. “In most hunter-gatherer societies, it’s men that do the killing. But it’s often the women who haul the meat back to camp, and women are as concerned with the productivity of the hunt as the men are,” Snow said. “It wasn’t just a bunch of guys out there chasing bison around.”
Experts expressed a wide range of opinions about how to interpret Snow’s new data, attesting to the many mysteries still surrounding this early art. “Hand stencils are a truly ironic category of cave art because they appear to be such a clear and obvious connection between us and the people of the Paleolithic,” said archaeologist Paul Pettitt of Durham University in England. “We think we understand them, yet the more you dig into them you realize how superficial our understanding is.”
Full article here.
Ancient cave paintings of white-lipped peccaries discovered by researchers in Brazil’s Pantanal and Cerrado biome
Image credit: Liana Joseph/WCS
The Wildlife Conservation Society reports on 8 November 203 that –
Researchers tracking white-lipped peccaries in Brazil got the surprise of a lifetime. The team discovered ancient cave drawings made by hunter-gatherer societies thousands of years ago. The remarkable drawings are diverse and add significantly to our knowledge of rock art from the Cerrado plateau region.
The extraordinary discovery was made on Brazil’s Cerrado plateau in 2009, while the team was conducting surveys and collecting data on the pig-like peccaries. These animals are important indicators of healthy forests but are sadly disappearing from the area due to deforestation and hunting.
More here.
Dunhuang mural as revealed under multispectral imaging
China Central Television reports Thursday that –
As a key stopover on the ancient Silk Road, the Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes in Northwest China’s Gansu Province have major historical significance. Now, a new technique has been adopted to preserve the ancient murals in the caves. What’s more, it can also help visitors see the murals in all their original glory.
The murals have suffered from on-going degradation 
However, with the help of a multi-spectral imaging technique, the original colourful paintings can now easily be seen. “We can’t see any paintings on this wall, but by using the multi-spectral imaging technique, all the layers of paintings can be ’reproduced’,” said Su Bomin, director of Conservation Institute of Dunhuang. Using this technique, archaeologists discovered several paintings featuring exquisite costumes.
Full article and video here. See also our earlier feature on The International Dunhuang Project.
Figurine of a lion, carved from mammoth ivory and now with its head re-attached. The figurine was found at the Vogelherd Cave in South-west Germany and is approximately 40,000 years old
Photo by H Jensen. Credit: University of Tübingen reports on Thursday that –
Researchers from the University of Tübingen have successfully re-attached the newly discovered head of a prehistoric mammoth-ivory figurine discovered in 1931. The head was found during renewed excavations at Vogelherd Cave, site of the original dig in 1931. The recent excavations, between 2005 and 2012, have yielded a number of important finds. The discovery of this ivory head helps to complete a figurine which now can be recognized as a lion – and demonstrates that it is possible to reassemble often fragmentary figurines from the earlier excavation. The new discovery is presented in the 2013 edition of the journal “Archäologische Ausgrabungen in Baden-Württemberg”.
Full article here.
How to make a thaumatrope (what’s a thaumatrope and why would you want to make one?) and the illusion of movement in the prehistoric and historic. A guest feature by Littlestone.
Dirk Huds explains that, “A thaumatrope is a simple manual animation device. A piece of card is attached to pieces of string that, when manipulated, cause the card to rapidly flip over. Illustrations on each side of the card appear to merge into a single image as the thaumatrope is spun.” For example the dog below seems to be chasing the birds when the thaumatrope is spun.
The 1825 thaumatrope above is by John Ayrton Paris, which was shown in the Exhibit of Optical Toys (from the collection of Laura Hayes and John Howard Wileman) at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in 1996. “The invention of the thaumatrope, whose name means “turning marvel” or “wonder turner,” has often been credited to the astronomer Sir John Herschel.  However, it was a well-known London physicist, Dr. John A. Paris, who made this toy popular. Thaumatropes were the first of many optical toys, simple devices that continued to provide animated entertainment until the development of modern cinema.” More examples of thaumatropes (and other optical toys) can be found on the wonderful The Richard Balzer Collection website here.
Auroch roundel found in the Mas d’Azil cave, southern France
Musée d’Archéologie nationale et Domaine national de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Paris
What’s really interesting is that there seems to be a thaumatrope in the Ice Age art exhibition now showing at the British Museum. The thaumatrope shows an auroch calf on one side and an auroch cow on the other so, when spun, the calf morphs into a cow (or vice versa). It’s astonishing that people 13,000-14,000 years ago had such and appreciation of movement and were able to depict it so ingeniously, not only in the thaumatrope (if that really is what it is) but also much earlier in the poise of animals, the representation of multiple legs, heads and whole body forms in their cave paintings and engravings. Movement was obviously very important to these early painters but was it important because it helped them understand how an animal ran or was it important as an appreciation of the beauty of an animal in motion (or both, or more).
The Horse Panel, Chauvet Cave, southern France
Until relatively recently (not until Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase of 1912) we seemed to have lost the ability to depict movement in our paintings – was that a result of placing too much emphasis on our ‘still life’ and portraiture paintings? Our attempt to freeze a thing or a person in the present rather than depicting them forever moving forward as our ancient painter ancestors were so adept at doing.
Nude Descending a Staircase by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)
Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art
I say we seemed to have lost the ability to depict movement in our paintings until Duchamp, but perhaps not that recently; there is this example from the early 13th century showing a Taoist hermit at the court of a Chinese emperor (original in colour) lowering his eyes in deference. The effect of movement here, and the emotion that it conjures up is stunning, and perhaps not so far removed in intent from thaumatropes of 13,000-14,000 years ago and cave paintings from even earlier times.
A Taoist hermit from a mural in a 13th century Chinese Taoist temple
 See also The Heritage Trust’s earlier feature on the  World’s oldest animation? here.

Female figure sculpture approximately 20,000 years-old
The British Museum announces its Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind exhibition which begins on the 7 February 2013 and runs until 26 May 2013.
Discover masterpieces from the last Ice Age drawn from across Europe in this groundbreaking show. Created by artists with modern minds like our own, this is a unique opportunity to see the world’s oldest known sculptures, drawings and portraits.
Ice Age art was created between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago and many of the pieces are made of mammoth ivory and reindeer antler. They show skilful, practised artists experimenting with perspectives, scale, volumes, light and movement, as well as seeking knowledge through imagination, abstraction and illusion.
Details of the exhibition here.

Amanda Crum writing in WebProNews reports that –

News out of France concerning Prehistoric cave drawings that were animated by torch-light is taking the art history world by storm, and has overwhelmed this artist to the point of awe.

The cave drawings were found by archaeologist Marc Azema and French artist Florent Rivere, who suggest that Palaeolithic artists who lived as long as 30,000 years ago used animation effects on cave walls, which explains the multiple heads and limbs on animals in the drawings. The images look superimposed until flickering torch-light is passed over them, giving them movement and creating a brief animation.

“Lascaux is the cave with the greatest number of cases of split-action movement by superimposition of successive images. Some 20 animals, principally horses, have the head, legs or tail multiplied,” Azéma said.

Full article here. See also our earlier feature on the bowl discovered in a grave at the 5,200 year-old Burnt City in Iran.


Conservators at work in the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang, north-west China
Katie Hunt writing for CNN reports that –
The Mogao Grottoes complex in remote Gansu province in northwestern China may see visitor numbers limited next year as tourism takes its toll on the 1,000-year-old Buddhist frescos. The challenge for the local authorities in Kaiping, and at China’s other heritage sites, is how to manage tourists visits so that they bring maximum economic benefit without harming the heritage sites and those who live nearby.
One radical solution is to limit visitor numbers. For example, from next year the Mogao Grottoes in remote Northwestern China plans to allow 6,000 visitors per day, down from up to 11,000 at present, says Agnew at the Getty Conservation Institute.
More here.
Engraved rib bone fragment, estimated to be some 12,500 years old, showing the profile of a horse. Found in 1876 at Creswell Crags and now on long-term loan from the British Museum to the Creswell Crags Museum & Heritage Centre. Source Wikipedia. Image credit DaveKav
Creswell Crags is one of Britain’s most important archaeological sites, as important as Stonehenge or Hadrian’s Wall. The caves tell the fascinating story of life during the last Ice Age when the Crags were amongst the most northerly places on earth to have been inhabited by our ancient ancestors. The recent cave art discoveries underline the international significance of the site
The Crags have suffered from the late nineteenth century when the Creswell Caves became known to scientists. Early excavators used dynamite to blast their way into the caves, and a road and a sewage works have been built in the gorge. Tens of thousands of archaeological finds from the site are now dispersed amongst 30 different museums around the UK.

The Creswell Initiative is the title of a major project which proposes to carry out the works necessary to look after, protect and tell people about the story of life at Creswell Crags. The total cost is estimated at £14 million. The project will give a major boost to the local economy, creating a new vision for the future of this ex-coalfield area.

Source Creswell Crags Museum & Heritage Centre.



June 2022
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