Rock engravings, including horses, confirm ancient origins of painting technique


An image of a horse recovered from Abri Cellier, left, and the details highlighted by the researchers at left.  Images: Randall White et al, doi: 10.1016/j.quaint.2017.02.001
An image of a horse recovered from Abri Cellier, left, and the details highlighted by the researchers at left. Images: Randall White et al, doi: 10.1016/j.quaint.2017.02.001

The painting technique we call pointillism, which uses small distinct dots to create images, grew from Impressionism in the 1880s, but newly discovered rock artworks, including images of horses, show its origins are far older.

The trove of 16 engraved and otherwise modified limestone blocks, created 38,000 years ago, confirms the ancient origins of the pointillist techniques later adopted by 19th and 20th century artists such as Georges Seurat, Vincent Van Gogh, Camille Pissarro, and Roy Lichtenstein.

“We’re quite familiar with the techniques of these modern artists,” observes New York University anthropologist Randall White, who led the excavation in France’s Vézère Valley.

“But now we can confirm this form of image-making was already being practiced by Europe’s earliest human culture, the Aurignacian.”

A close up image of the horse's head and shoulder, as marked in the image above, at left.
A close up image of the horse’s head and shoulder, as marked in the image above, at left. Image: Randall White et al, doi: 10.1016/j.quaint.2017.02.001

Major discoveries by White and his colleagues — which include images of mammoths and horses — confirm that a form of pointillism was used by the Aurignacian, the earliest modern human culture in Europe.

These add weight to previous isolated discoveries, such as a rhinoceros, from the Grotte Chauvet in France, formed by the application of dozens of dots, first painted on the palm of the hand, and then transferred to the cave wall.

Earlier this year, White’s team reported the uncovering of a 38,000-year-old pointillist image of an auroch or wild cow — a finding that marks some of the earliest known graphic imagery found in Western Eurasia and offers insights into the nature of modern humans during this period.

Now, in short order they have found another pointillist image — this time of a woolly mammoth — in a rock shelter of the same period known as Abri Cellier located near the previous find-site of Abri Blanchard.

Abri Cellier has long been on archaeologists’ short-list of major art-bearing sites attributed to the European Aurignacian.

Excavations in 1927 yielded 15 engraved and/or pierced limestone blocks that have served as a key point of reference for the study of Aurignacian art in the region.

In 2014, White and his colleagues returned to Abri Cellier, seeking intact deposits that would allow a better understanding of the archaeological sequence at the site and its relationship to other Aurignacian sites.

They had their fingers crossed that the new excavation might yield new engraved images in context, but nothing prepared them for the discovery of the 16 stone blocks, details of which have been reported in the journal Quaternary International.

One of these, broken in half prehistorically, was found in place with a radiocarbon date of 38,000 years ago.

Remarkably, the remaining 15 blocks, including the pointillist mammoth, one of three mammoth figures recognized during the new work at Abri Cellier, had been left on-site by the 1927 excavators.

As many of the engraved traces are rudimentary and thus difficult to interpret, the original excavators set them aside just in case they might have something inscribed on them.

The new article presents evidence that the 38,000 year date for the newly excavated engraving also applies to the new trove and to the other blocks found in 1927 and now housed in the French National Prehistory Museum.

Over the past decade, with these and other discoveries, White and his team have increased our known sample of the earliest graphic arts in southwestern France by 40 percent.

The 2014 work at Abri Cellier yielded 16 stone blocks with art dating back 38,000 years.
The 2014 work at Abri Cellier yielded 16 stone blocks with art dating back 38,000 years. Image: Randall White et al, doi: 10.1016/j.quaint.2017.02.001

Of the 44 subjects identified between the latest findings at Abri Cellier and those removed in 1927, three were horses.

Describing one (pictured), the researchers said it was possible to recognize the outline of a horse in
right profile even if its forequarters were poorly preserved and difficult to read.

The rear leg is a continuation of the hindquarters. The second rear leg seems to have been represented on the same plane as the first without use of perspective. The lines used were bold.

The back line is separated from that of the forequarters, perhaps due to poor surface preservation. The withers are discreet which is frequent in horse representations. The line forming the neck is not

An elongated cupule – a circular man-made hollow – may represent the ear. The front of the face is straight and the muzzle is short and rounded. The cheek is well illustrated.

The chest and the front leg were drawn by a single, curved line. Even if the curved belly line seems not to have been clearly drawn, it is possible that the two lines near the center of the figure are vestiges of it.

A few additional aligned cupules can be seen both within and outside the animal figure and seem to have no particular relationship to it.

“They provide just one more example of the numerous aligned cupules already seen on the Abri Cellier blocks,” the study team reported.

“The outline of the horse was done by a line composed of aligned cupules, the individual impact marks sometimes being smoothed over (back-line and front leg).

“The head was formed by lowering of the surrounding field to create a slight bas-relief. The ear is a simple elongate cupule.”

The study team included researchers from the University of Arizona, the University of Toronto, the University of Toulouse, Paris’ Museum of Natural History, and the University of Oxford.

The research appearing in Quaternary International was supported by the Partner University Fund and the Andrew Mellon Foundation, the Direction régional des affaires culturelles d’Aquitaine, the Institut des Sciences Humaines et Sociales, the Faculty of Arts and Science at New York University, and the Fyssen Foundation.

Newly discovered Aurignacian engraved blocks from Abri Cellier: History, context and dating
Randall White, Raphaelle Bourrillon, Romain Mensan, Amy Clark, Laurent Chiotti, Thomas Higham, Sarah Ranlett, Elise Tartar, Andre Morala, Marie-Cecile Soulier.
Quaternary International DOI: 10.1016/j.quaint.2017.02.001

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