Gregory G. H. Rihn (milwaukeesfs) wrote,
Gregory G. H. Rihn

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Sunday afternoon the 19th, we went to the Downer Theater to see "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," which is a documentary by filmmaker/auteur Werner Herzog about the discovery, study and significance of the Chauvet cave in southern France, which holds the earliest known artwork by humans.

Unlike other decorated caves, Chauvet, discovered in 1994, has never been open to tourists or casual visitors. It was speedily closed off from unregulated access and jealously perserved by the international scientific community. Thus, it took a film maker of Herzog's status to get permission to enter and film the cave under strictly controlled conditions. When we see the interior of the cave, we understand why this is done. Not only are there the astonishing drawings in a remarkable state of preservation, there are also such things as cave bear bones lying about, footprints of prehistoric humans and animals in the cave floor, and delicate 'soda straws' and other fragile cave stone constructions.

Scientists estimate that the original broad cave mouth was closed off more than 20,000 years ago by a rockslide, leaving only the narrow crevice through which the cave was rediscovered. This made the cave a literal time capsule.

The drawings themselves have been carbon-dated to be as old as 32,000 years, which makes them the oldest known drawings by a goodly piece. The well-known Lascaux cave paintings, by contrast, are estimated only 17,500 years old.

I joked with Georgie that the Chauvet paintings dated from before the discovery of color, since, with the exception of a couple of drawings in red ochre, the drawings are all in charcoal only. Nevertheless, they show a vital vision and very lively line. They incorporate sophisticated techniques of shading, and of composition, such as using natural features of the rock to make an eye or a shoulder blade.

There are both similarities and differences between Chauvet and later caves. Most of the creatures depicted are prey animals, such as horses, rhinoceroses, and bison. Lions, bears, and hyenas are also depicted, which is an ususal number of predators. As with most decorated caves, there are no complete human figures.

This film is fascinating for its view back into prehistory. On the big screen is probably the best opportunity most of us will ever have to see these artifacts, given the deteriorating conditions facing caves such as Lascaux. Highly recommended for those interested in human history, the history of art, archeology, or paleontology.

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Tags: art, history, movies, science
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