Science & Tech

Vivid images, stern warnings mark Ice Age ‘rock’ star’s talk

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Oohs and ahhs greeted slide after slide as English author and freelance scholar Paul G. Bahn presented “The Shock of the Old: New Discoveries in Ice Age Art” at the Yenching Institute Feb 26.

One of the world’s leading authorities on cave drawings and engravings of the Paleolithic era — “Old Stone Age” art dating from 32,000 to 11,000 years ago — Bahn, who has a doctorate in archaeology from the University of Cambridge, was introduced as a “wonderful example of how someone without an academic position can make a major impact.” Clearly that was the case, as the audience responded to him like a “rock” star, laughing heartily at his quips and queuing up to talk to him at a reception after the lecture.

Bahn noted at the beginning of his Peabody Museum-sponsored talk — the annual Hallam L. Movius Lecture — that, though he wouldn’t necessarily be discussing up-to-the-minute finds, few of the discoveries he would present had yet been published. He began by detailing his team’s 2003 detection of the art at Creswell Crags, a limestone gorge in Nottinghamshire, England, that contains the only known Ice Age rock art in Great Britain. “I’d had the ambition of looking for cave art in Britain for 30 years,” he said, “and I found it the first morning we looked. It was a bit of anticlimax, really. I don’t have any more ambitions in life.”

Bahn’s self-deprecating humor was belied immediately when he began expounding on the engravings at Church Hole in Creswell Crags, which he and his colleagues found in 2004. One of the reasons no one had noticed the art before is that an expedition in the late 1800s removed the cave’s sediments, he said, lowering the floor about 6 feet and essentially moving the art so high up the wall that it can’t be easily accessed. Added to that, the engravings were covered with more than a century’s worth of graffiti — which, on the upside, pegs as authentic the stag, bison, and other motifs uncovered.

Bahn went on to review finds at about a dozen sites in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, from the Vilhonneur “face” — argued by some to be the first human portrait in existence — in southwestern France to the facsimile caves that can be viewed by the public without damage to the originals at Ekain, Spain, and elsewhere.

Among the more interesting sites Bahn discussed is the labyrinthine cave at Cussac in the Dordogne region of France, discovered in 2000 by speleologist Marc Delluc. Bahn, who was critical of what he called France’s secretive yet inept response to Paleolithic art, while praising Spain and other countries, said, “It has taken me 10 years to negotiate through the minefield of the French ‘mafia’” to receive permission to enter the cave. He finally got in about two weeks ago, he said; officials would not let him take photographs or even make sketches of the art, but did allow him, under tight restrictions, to show six of the photographs they had taken.

The cave, which has high levels of carbon dioxide most of the year, is “huge” and filled with “some of the most wonderful engravings,” including a 13-foot-long bison and another with its head in two positions —“in profile and also looking at you” — as well as several mammoths and some “big ladies” with pendulous breasts and shelflike rear ends.

Amazingly, Bahn said, “preliminary studies suggest the whole cave was done by one artist,” and the engravings, which stand out clearly against the cave’s limestone walls, are very similar to those of the Pech Merle cave near Cabrerets, a little more than 100 miles away. Another surprise: several sets of human remains. “We had never ever seen a decorated cave with skeletons before,” Bahn said, noting that one of the skeletons has been dated to 25,000 years ago. “Heaven knows what is going to turn up in this cave in due course,” he said.

Another fascinating discovery came in 1995 at a cave called La Garma in Ribamontan al Mar, Spain. Though the site was disturbed during the Middle Ages — and contains several medieval skeletons — it holds the third-largest collection of hand stencils in Spain, including a wall “which is just covered in red finger marks,” Bahn said. “I’ve never seen an intense concentration like this in one panel. It was clearly very, very important to put your mark on this panel.”

The 14,000-year-old cave — which is intriguing in part because art has been found deep inside rather than only at the mouth — is “just carpeted” with stone tools, animal bones, and “portable art” or small statues, and also contains several low enclosures made for unknown purposes. Some of the art can only be seen with binoculars because there is so much debris on the floor that must not be disturbed. One piece, which Bahn called the most beautiful found so far, is a bone dagger with chevrons carved all the way down and a young animal looking over its shoulder at two birds while apparently relieving itself.

Researchers have found a nearly identical motif in the Pyrenees and elsewhere, Bahn said, noting that whatever inspired the “bird and turd” spear throwers “must have been a very popular tale at one time.”

Bahn concluded by detailing what he called “the Lascaux crisis,” referring to bureaucratic bungling of the famous French site discovered by accident in 1940 by four teenagers and designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. Beset by fungus and other problems in the past decade, the caves have caused frenzied hand-wringing among archaeologists and others eager to preserve its detailed and abundant art. Bahn also mentioned the “cave of the horse” in Gouy, near Rouen, also in France, which is so overgrown with plant roots that one scholar “walked in and just burst into tears.”

He contrasted what’s going on in French cave conservation with Coa Valley, Portugal, where, in the 1990s, schoolchildren and other citizens helped block the building of a proposed dam that would have destroyed the art; the area is today a World Heritage site. “Hooray for Portugal and Spain,” Bahn concluded. “France has got to pull its socks up.”

The annual lecture is supported by an endowment established in memory of Hallam L. Movius, a Paleolithic archaeologist at Harvard and a member of the Department of Anthropology for many years, as well as a longtime curator in the museum.