Voices from the past: Researcher explores a mystery across 40 centuries

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The work dubbed Chariot Drawn by Four Horses is a standout piece of rock art in India.
The work dubbed Chariot Drawn by Four Horses is a standout piece of rock art in India.

A piece of Indian cave art depicting a chariot drawn by four horses was painted up to 4300 years ago. Matt Windsor reports on the work’s extraordinary complexity and the woman who crossed the Pacific to study the ancient rock art of Chaturbhujnath Nala.

You might think that someone who spends her days surrounded by Civil War muskets and Sherman tanks would be hard to impress when it comes to military relics. But Celeste Paxton has never seen anything like the 4000-year-old painting she came across in a rock shelter in central India.

Celeste Paxton on location at another rock art site in Bhimbetka, near Bhopal.
Celeste Paxton on location at another rock art site in Bhimbetka, near Bhopal.

The painting, which she dubbed Chariot Drawn by Four Horses, pictured above, offers clues to the early history of art, warfare and human civilization itself.

Paxton works at the Museum Support Center at the Anniston Army Depot, a vast storage facility that houses close to 200,000 artifacts for the US Army Center of Military History. (Picture a well-lit version of the massive government warehouse at the end of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.)

She is also a graduate student studying South Asian art in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s College of Arts and Sciences Department of Art and Art History.

A few years ago, Paxton came across photos of Chaturbhujnath Nala, an ancient rock art site in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh that is the longest rock art gallery in the world. Weathered rock overhangs of quartzite stretch several miles on either bank of a small tributary of the Chambal River.

They are filled with paintings, some of them unique in Indian rock art. Researchers have found “scavenging birds, mating tigers and wild animals interacting with humans, such as a scene of elephants chasing a hunter,” Paxton says. Some of the images date back as far as the Upper Paleolithic period, between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago.

Procession-600

Wars of the world

But of all the paintings at Chaturbhujnath Nala — and there are thousands — Chariot Drawn by Four Horses stands out. It depicts two warriors riding in a single-axle chariot. One wields an axe. Both are wearing helmets — or perhaps elaborate hairdos. To their right are two more weapon-carrying soldiers and a fifth, unreined horse, along with another animal that may be a deer. On the left is a much larger figure holding some kind of “fiery or explosive weapon in his right hand,” Paxton says. “This is a very unusual subject in rock art. You see a lot of handprints and animal imagery, but chariots are quite rare, especially in India. That caught my attention right away.”

Closeup of "Chariot Drawn by Four Horses," including the mysterious figure at left, "a very unusual subject in rock art," Paxton says.
Closeup of Chariot Drawn by Four Horses, including the mysterious figure at left, “a very unusual subject in rock art,” Paxton says.

Paxton dug deeper, impressed by the painting’s “extraordinary complexity and social awareness.” It raised many intriguing questions, she says, and could help answer others. “It comes from a transitional time in human history,” she says. “This era produced the first arms race of the ancient world. You are getting the first war machines — metal weapons are first being formed, chariots are first coming into being and you start to see widespread warfare.”

Chariots and fire

Based on mineral analysis and stylistic comparisons with other artworks, “Chariot dates approximately to between 2300 and 1000 BCE,” Paxton says. “That’s the Neo-Chalcolithic period, when the first copper and bronze castings were being created in India,” she notes.

The painting could help inform studies of the timing and extent of military development and early state formation in South Asia. Or perhaps it may mark the dawn of new religious traditions. It was painted at about the same time that the most ancient Hindu texts, the Vedas, were being composed. Could the large figure with the fiery hand represent a heroic figure, or perhaps a Vedic god interacting with men?

Paxton traveled to Chaturbhujnath Nala in spring 2016, at the end of the dry season. In the rainy season, the small creek that flows next to the ancient rock shelters can rise more than a dozen feet.
Paxton traveled to Chaturbhujnath Nala in spring 2016, at the end of the dry season. In the rainy season, the small creek that flows next to the ancient rock shelters can rise more than a dozen feet.

In comparison to other rock art sites, very little has been written about Chaturbhujnath Nala, and even fewer images are available, Paxton says. Working with her mentor, associate professor Cathleen Cummings, Ph.D., she developed a two-pronged approach for her master’s thesis. She would do a close analysis of the artistic choices in the painting, such as the decision to use a bird’s-eye view of the chariot. “I think this was very intentional,” Paxton says. “These artists knew how to show things realistically, but the images I’m looking at are shown abstractly. Those choices make it a true work of art.” Paxton is also “taking a step back to ask how this work fits into the history of rock art, and art history as a whole,” she says.

Drinks with royalty

Paxton’s research took a major step forward this spring, when she and her husband spent two weeks in India, traveling to Chaturbhujnath Nala and several other ancient art monuments across the country. She met with noted scholars, stayed in a palace once owned by the Maharajah of Jhalawar “and had evening drinks with his grandson,” Paxton says. She took more than 700 photos of the rock art galleries, rising early in the morning to make the two-hour trip to Chaturbhujnath Nala from Jhalawar, “the closest city with any type of accommodation.”

Paxton took more than 700 photos at Chaturbhujnath Nala, documenting the site like never before. The guide in the foreground is watching for jaguars, which had been seen in the park that day.
Paxton took more than 700 photos at Chaturbhujnath Nala, documenting the site like never before. The guide in the foreground is watching for jaguars, which had been seen in the park that day.

When she first started studying the site, Paxton had a hunch that the small stream flowing between the rock shelters might have been used for artistic effect, reflecting shimmering light onto the paintings. (See the video clip below.)

“I had all these ideas about the reflection from the water,” Paxton says. “Dr Cummings encouraged me to think about field research and told me about the Caroline P. Ireland Travel Grant, which gave me $US1000 toward my research.”

Jain temple in Bhopal, India
Jain temple in Bhopal, India

Close up and far away

Paxton, who has an undergraduate degree in art from Jacksonville State University, always knew she wanted to study art history in graduate school. “I talked to my mentor there, Dr Karen Henricks – she had wonderful things to say about the professors at UAB, and they were true,” Paxton says. “Dr Cummings has been instrumental in my development as a student.”

Paxton’s studies have also proven helpful in her day job at the Museum Support Center, she adds. “The research skills I’ve acquired at UAB have been very useful at work,” where she is one of several charged with the inventory, cataloguing, research and proper storage of everything from macro-artifacts like the “Atomic Annie” — the Army’s M65 nuclear cannon — to microartifacts such as a custom-painted World War 2 bomber jacket.

“One of the things that professors at UAB like Dr Cummings and Dr Jessica Dallow have shown me is that while it is important to do a close analysis of the artwork or artifact, it’s also important to take a step back, to examine the broader context of the object in question and see it as part of a larger whole,” Paxton says. “I try to always keep that in mind and approach my research from both angles.”

The trip offered Paxton a chance to experience the vibrant pageantry of rural Indian life, including this family outing aboard a moped.
The trip offered Paxton a chance to experience the vibrant pageantry of rural Indian life, including this family outing aboard a moped.

After finishing her master’s degree, Paxton plans to take some time off to refine her “museum skills” before going on to get her doctorate. “My dream job would be to work with South Asian art in a museum or research institute,” she says. “Dr Cummings is now helping me find opportunities to do more fieldwork — things that will really broaden my understanding of South Asian art.”

Voices from the past

Paxton is also focusing on cataloguing the images she captured at Chaturbhujnath Nala and in the surrounding villages, where she found strikingly similar paintings on the exterior walls of many homes.

“There are images that are almost identical to the rock art,” she says. “In India, rock art is not always valued. Many Indians believe it was done by foreigners or supernatural forces and so they do not consider it part of their cultural or artistic legacy. As a result, many rock art sites have been subject to vandalism and in worst-case scenarios, even blown up to build roadways or flooded by dams. That part of their heritage is now lost forever.”

Although ancient rock art sites are often undervalued, the artistic styles found there are still reflected in current village life, as seen on this house.
Although ancient rock art sites are often undervalued, the artistic styles found there are still reflected in current village life, as seen on this house.

Paxton hopes her research will help secure the rightful place of these sites in art history, Indian history and world history. “I want to substantiate that Chaturbhujnath Nala and similar rock art sites are a significant part of India’s cultural heritage, as well as the cultural heritage of all human beings, and that they should be preserved,” she says. “Demonstrating the continuity between the art done then and now helps to make that case.”

Republished courtesy of the University of Alabama at Birmingham

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