Ice Age art represents an astonishing explosion of human creativity. But what does it all mean? Much of what we thought we knew has been radically revised in the light of new findings and advances. Paul Pettitt turns to the new edition of Paul Bahn’s Images of the Ice Age to reveal the latest.
Awe-inspiring Ice Age art: a 4m-long panel of black and red horses in Ekain cave (Basque Country). Magdalenian in date.
Some three decades separated the discovery of the sublime cave art of Altamira in 1876 and the acceptance of its authenticity by prehistorians at the turn of the 20th century. A lot can happen in three decades, and in terms of research into Palaeolithic art, this continues to be the case. In 1987, Paul Bahn published his now-classic Images of the Ice Age, but in the intervening years there has been a wealth of discoveries, research, and advances in research methods.
A horse head on a fallen fragment from the sculpted frieze of Angles-sur-l’Anglin (Vienne). Magdalenian.
Caves with art are being discovered by archaeologists and speleologists at a rate of around one per year – particularly in Spain – and discoveries have extended to the UK, Germany, and Indonesia. These include spectacular caves like Chauvet and Cosquer in the south of France. Many more clusters of engraved and pecked art on rock surfaces in the open air are now known in France and Iberia, including the valleys of the Côa
in Portugal and nearby Siega Verde in Spain. Over 400 caves containing engraved, drawn, and painted art are known, and many of these are well documented. It seems clear that art was originally abundant and geographically widespread.
To incorporate all these new finds, Bahn’s masterful book has required two major rewrites, with the thirdedition newly published. In the following article, I will reveal some of the biggest discoveries detailed within it, while also sharing some of my thoughts on the subject.
Images: © J Vertut
This is an extract from a feature published in CWA 79. Read on in the magazine or click here to subscribe.
Reindeer engraved on the wall of Altxerri cave (Basque Country). Magdalenian.