Link: Touring the new facsimile of Chauvet

Smithsonian Magazine sent Joshua Hammer to tour the new facsimile recreation of Chauvet Cave, which is called Caverne du Pont d’Arc: “Finally, the Beauty of France’s Chauvet Cave Makes its Grand Public Debut”. The result is a great article describing the interior of the cave from a tourist’s point of view and the behind-the-scenes story of how a large team worked to create the facsimile:

Five hundred people—including artists and engineers, architects and special-effects designers—collaborated on the project, using 3-D computer mapping, high-resolution scans and photographs to recreate the textures and colors of the cave. “This is the biggest project of its kind in the world,” declares Pascal Terrasse, the president of the Caverne du Pont d’Arc project and a deputy to the National Assembly from Ardèche. “We made this ambitious choice... so that everybody can admire these exceptional, but forever inaccessible treasures.”

The article briefly recounts the problems that emerged after the discovery of Lascaux Cave, which prompted the creation of the facsimile Lascaux II, and led ultimately to the restriction on visits to Chauvet from the time of its discovery in 1994. More interesting, Hammer tells some of the story of the cave’s discovery, including feuds among spelunkers to be credited for different aspects of the find. Much of this drama has been publicly aired in French news magazines, but will be unfamiliar to English language readers.

I find the story discouraging yet foreign to my experience. I have worked for the last two years with an exceptional community of cavers in South Africa, who very much operate on a collaborative and team-oriented approach. So it is sad to see French cavers vying with such vitriol over these issues.

Clottes’ role in the discovery is likewise very interesting, and the article describes how bitter archaeologists and prehistorians can be about interpretation of cave art:

Clottes’ original interpretation of Paleolithic art was at once embraced and ridiculed by fellow scholars. One dismissed it as “psychedelic ravings.” Another titled his review of the Clottes-Lewis-Williams book, “Membrane and Numb Brain: A Close Look at a Recent Claim for Shamanism in Paleolithic Art.” One colleague berated him for “encouraging the use of drugs” by writing lyrically about the trancelike states of the Paleo shamans. “We were accused of all sorts of things, even of immorality,” Clottes tells me. “But altered states of consciousness are a fundamental part of us. It is a fact.”

It is an interesting aspect of the history of science that the study of prehistoric art was initiated outside of a scientific framework. Science has over the years been retrofitted into the process of investigating these finds, and has made a great deal of progress understanding not only the chronology but also the composition of groups who participated in creating them. Yet there is so much information latent in the paintings themselves that is resistant to scientific investigation. The symbolic and traditional aspects of such artistic creations only be approached from a humanistic perspective.

Cave art speaks to us across the years with a distinctively human voice. The dense symbolic and iconic information in artistic creations of the Upper Paleolithic has often caused us to miss the whispers of earlier human artifacts, which present only snippets of information about ancient social and cultural systems. But by understanding the repeated cultural circumstances that led different ancient peoples to mark their worlds in this artistic way, we may find new insights about the smaller-scale creation of objects like the Trinil incised shell, the Krapina eagle talons, or the Blombos ochre engravings.