For this week’s lecture, we were pleased to welcome Prof. Paul Pettitt of Durham University. The title of the lecture was ‘The emergence of cave art in Palaeolithic Europe, new research, new hypotheses’ and this made for a treat, with Prof. Pettitt's excellent synopsis of Palaeolithic cave art as he saw it, captivating the imagination of the audience and making this year’s inaugural lecture that extra bit special.
What Prof. Pettitt first highlighted is that there appears to be problem with the way in which Palaeolithic cave art is interpreted. When one thinks of, or is presented with the cave art of this period, it tends to be very generalised. We tend to see images from a select few sites, which are then used to try and decipher the phenomenon of Palaeolithic cave art as a whole, even though a lot of these images are dated thousands of years apart. Prof. Pettitt believes that this phenomenon of cave art occurred sporadically across its time span, with what he referred to as ‘flashes of inspiration’ popping up here and there only for brief periods of time. With this in mind, he suggested that one must take more of a regional approach when looking at Palaeolithic cave art. From the get go, Prof. Pettitt stated that he believes that even before this period there were examples of art, in relation to tattooing and that of decorating oneself, for example, beaded necklaces etc. and that these were the earliest form of art activity. Another main aspect of cave art, which seemed to have been mentioned numerous times, was the ‘synecdoche’ of the art. This word was being used in relation to the fragmentary engravings, which appear in the cave art, with 95% of them being fragmentary, for example, different parts of animals, but as long as we can see what is being depicted, there is no need to create the full representation. The act of art is more important.
Prof. Pettitt would argue that the earliest figurative art does occur in Europe, with simple outlines of animals occurring around 36000 years ago at regional levels, for example, in parts of Germany. It is only due to recent developments in dating and we can really only now show chronological developments in the art. Prof. Pettitt discussed the technique of dating stalactite growth over pieces of cave art and also uranium-series dating in order to more accurately date the art.
The lecture progressed into talking about the handprints which feature predominantly in the upper Palaeolithic cave art. The main discussion, which seems to surround these handprints, is whether they are of male or female, or of the indications of missing fingers evident from the handprints, which he describes as being evident at only a small number of sites. More importantly, what needs to be assessed of these handprints is there location and positioning within the caves. A large majority of the handprints appear to be located on natural forms in the rock or within tightly compact spaces, and there are even those that are set across fractures within the rock. Even attempting to reach some of these handprints is challenging, with a lot of them being placed in hard to reach places either high up or close to the ground, and the dexterity and skill required to produce this art must indicate the significance of its symbolic meaning. Is this yet again this ‘synecdoche’ described by Prof. Pettitt, showing the earliest representations of the human form?
In summary, Prof. Pettitt revealed, what he referred to as his ‘falsifiable hypotheses’ at the end of the lecture. He suggested that the first art which appeared was that of body art, which later developed and became more elaborated taking on a more symbolic decoration of the body, and then an extension of this art appears in the form of cave art later down the line. This interpretation in turn does do away with some looming questions, for example, why is it, if the modern human brain developed over 200,000 years ago, why don’t we see it being put to any use until around 50,000 years ago? The answer to this according to Prof. Pettitt is that yes we do, with art being depicted on the body for 150,000 years prior to the cave art of the Palaeolithic that we have come to know.
By Micheál Butler