Lascaux Discovered (1940)

Monday, June 21, 2010


Painting of stag and reindeer at Lascaux Cave.
In 1940 the cave of Lascaux in the Dordogne region of France was found by four schoolboys—it had the most spectacular collection of Paleolithic wall art yet seen. French archaeologist Henri Breuil was the first specialist to visit the cave and to verify its Paleolithic provenance. In 1902 Breuil and colleague Carthailac rediscovered and explored the cave of Altamira in Spain— and had put to rest all skepticism about the site and the authenticity of prehistoric cave art by announcing that the art on the walls of Altamira was Paleolithic and not fake. Since then the two had explored the cave of Naiux in France, and Breuil had become the world’s expert on cave art.

Lascaux has never been completely excavated, so detailed information about chronology and occupation is lacking. Nonetheless it is believed to be a site that people visited occasionally and specially for ritual purposes. It is believed the art was not all created at the same time and was the result of a number of different episodes of decoration. Charcoal fragments have been dated to around 17,000 years ago. It is best known for its magnificent paintings— some 600, and for its engravings—some 1,500. These are all the more remarkable in that they appear in different sections of the cave.

The first space in the cave is the great “hall of bulls,” about 20 by 5 meters, where the walls are covered in painted figures—the main group 5 meters long and dominated by four enormous black auroch bulls, along with smaller horses and deer and what appears to be an animal with two straight horns known as a unicorn. This space joins a gallery 20 by 1.5 meters by 3.5 meters wide that is decorated with paintings of cattle, deer, and horses. An adjoining shaft is decorated with the only human figure—a bird-headed man spearing a bison. A third space, 5 meters by 5 meters, is decorated with black deer heads and male bison. Another narrow shaft is decorated with engravings of felines. The Paleolithic entrance to the cave has never been found.

Ladders and scaffolds must have been used by the artists to get close to the higher surfaces, and there are pieces of wood in the caves that are probably the remains of these. In the highest space sockets are cut into the rock faces, some 20 meters above the floor. These were packed with clay and evidence of branches used to span the space has been pressed into the filler. At Lascaux there is abundant evidence of the techniques used to create Paleolithic cave art—stone tools for engraving, lamps, mineral fragments, basic mortars and pestles stained with pigments, and hollowed stones containing pigment powders. Sources for the ochre used in the cave have been identified.

Lascaux was opened for public visitation in 1948, but unfortunately because of modern algae and pollens and the heating of the atmosphere due to the large number of visitors, the surfaces of the cave complex began to deteriorate. In 1963 it was closed, but in 1983 a facsimile Lascaux was opened nearby.

Further Reading Bahn, P. 1998. The Cambridge illustrated history of prehistoric art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Bahn, P., and J. Vertut. 1988. Images of the Ice Age. New York: Facts on File. Boule, M. 1921. Les hommes fossiles, eléments de paléontologie humaine. Paris: Masson. Boule, M. 1923. Fossil men. English translation. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd. Chippindale, C., and P. Tacon, eds. 1998. The archaeology of rock-art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Ramos, P. A. Saura. 1999. Cave of Altamira. New York: Abrams. Ruspoli, M. 1987. Cave of Lascaux. London: Thames and Hudson.

Excavation of Maiden Castle (1934–1937)


An archaeologist cleans a skeleton with a brush. Dr. Wheeler supervised the excavations at Maiden Castle, near Dorchester which have brought to light a number of skeletons. The excavations reveal the scene of a battle of AD 40. Photographed August 31, 1937.

Sir Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler (1890–1976) was educated in the classics at University College London and in fine arts at the Slade Art School. He was one of the few young archaeologists to survive World War I. In 1920, after becoming keeper of archaeology at the newly founded National Museum of Wales, Wheeler began to excavate the Roman forts of Segontium (1921–1922), Brecon Gaer (1924–1925), and Caerleon (1926).

At these sites Wheeler began to develop and test the excavation techniques for which he later became famous. The last great advances in this area were made by General Augustus Pitt-Rivers in the 1880s, and Wheeler built on these, clarifying site stratigraphy by keeping simple, graphic, and sectional records of surfaces and sections. In 1926 Wheeler declined the Abercrombie Chair of Archaeology in Edinburgh and moved to work at the London Museum, where he wrote a series of classic and popular catalogs based on his research on Roman, Viking, and Saxon London. He continued to be fascinated by the relationship between Iron Age and Roman society in Britain, excavating at the Sanctuary of Nodens at Lydney in Gloucestershire (1928–1929), and at the late Iron Age and Roman city of Verulamium, near the town of St. Albans in southern England (1930–1933). At all of them Wheeler continued to develop his expertise in stratigraphic excavation and dating.

Between 1934 and 1937 Wheeler excavated the massive Iron Age hill-fort of Maiden Castle in Dorset in southern England. Many Iron Age hill-forts had been identified and excavated prior to this, but work had been hampered by the fact that they had either been excavated on too small a scale or without knowledge of pottery typology. The Maiden Castle Report, published in 1943, was a triumph, a book written in a highly direct and engaging style but full of important information.

Since his first excavations in Wales in 1921 until the last year at Maiden Castle in 1937, Wheeler had been refining his approach to excavation focusing on those elements such as excavation strategy and techniques, recording, and personnel management, which were also Pitt-Rivers’s concerns. The fact that both men had distinguished military careers has not gone unnoticed. At Maiden Castle Wheeler excavated in a checkerboard of grid squares that achieved two significant goals. First it allowed him to open up large areas without losing stratigraphic control. Second, the squares could be effectively linked up to create a sense of near-continuous stratigraphy across a large site. The approach, called the “Wheeler method,” set the benchmark in field excavation for the next forty years, achieving a goal that Pitt-Rivers never attained—to radically influence the process of field archaeology and through it to focus on the link between method and the reliability of interpretation. He was to use it to great effect in India during the 1940s and 1950s during excavation of Indus civilization sites.

Further Reading Cunliffe, B. 1999. Sir Mortimer Wheeler, 1890–1976. In Encyclopedia of archaeology: History and discoveries, ed. T. Murray, 371–384. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. Hawkes, J. 1982. Mortimer Wheeler: Adventurer in archaeology. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson. Sharples, N. M. 1991. English Heritage book of Maiden Castle. London: Batsford/English Heritage. Wheeler, R. E. M. 1943. Maiden Castle, Dorset. Oxford: printed at the University Press by J. Johnson for the Society of Antiquaries.

 
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