Saturday, 6 April 2013

Chauvet Cave’s Ice Age art - Jean Clottes at the British Museum

I've always been an enthusiast.
Definition: "a person who is filled with enthusiasm for some principle, pursuit, etc." From the Greek meaning 'one inspired.'

I'm quite well known for it, even at work. Former colleagues frequently laughed at my enthusiasm for the software products for which I provided technical support. At that time I was so enthusiastic about one product in particular, Strobe, that I usually managed to 'sell it' to a prospective new customer's technical team before our sales force had even made the first pitch.

I'm also rather enthusiastic about ice age art and the Swimming Reindeer, France and linguistics, which may now be obvious.

So, being an enthusiast myself, I love to encounter fellow enthusiasts, people who are passionate about something, often their work, but sometimes something else entirely.And when that enthusiast is also an expert, well, that's a real bonus.

Yesterday I took a day's holiday from work in order to return to the British Museum for an evening lecture  by Jean Clottes who is, without doubt, a real enthusiast, an expert in his field, and an inspiration. The lecture was called - A unique discovery: Chauvet Cave’s Ice Age art.

I travelled by train, with my copy of one of his many books, my notepad and my pen. And as I often find myself engaged in long conversations with my fellow passengers in crowded compartments, and since this time I really wanted to be able to sit and read and make notes, I bought a First Class ticket which extravagance granted me a whole four leather seats and table all to myself, and a compartment free of noise and distraction.

The day was not without irritations and frustrations, quite a few in fact which could have cast a cloud on my visit, but there were compensations. Meeting my son, The Ragazzo, albeit after a long game of cat and mouse during which we both managed to avoid finding each other; a frustrating game that ended when I finally decided that he'd failed to arrive and was about to disappear into an exhibition, whereupon I spotted him in the crowd. (No, I didn't have my mobile phone (see I dislike modern technology) which led to a telling-off from The Ragazza when I arrived home late and having broken my curfew.)

So I was able to take my son to the Ice-Age Art exhibition, which was actually very crowded and therefore not nearly as much fun as my first visit. It was so crowded that we couldn't get close enough to read the descriptions of the objects, which meant that I had to describe and explain (in hushed tones, of course) a little about them. That attracted the attention of a very little old lady who seemed to have got it into her head that I was An Authority, and who proceeded to ask me a great many questions, before demanding that I sort out her audio-visual tour equipment. I fully expected her to tip me at the end of her visit, and perhaps she would have, had I not been standing mesmerised before a certain carving of two swimming reindeer.

When the Ragazzo had to leave to prepare for a gig at which he was due to drum (he's a music student in London), I had an hour to fill before the lecture started. I could have cut to the front of the long queue for the new Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition and, waving my Member's Card, I could have  walked in for free and in front of everyone who'd been waiting for over an hour, but taking advantage of that privilege seemed rather rude and inconsiderate to me, so I opted for a twenty minute lecture on the Rosetta Stone, given by an unpaid volunteer and enthusiast.

And then to the lecture hall, by way of a photo shoot in the mirror of the ladies toilets. I took the picture because I am camera-shy, and since I have been asked if I'm happy to have my picture taken with the hand axe that I've been gifted by the chap who led the flint napping course at the museum a few weeks ago, I decided that it's time to stop being self-conscious.

So, Chauvet's cave and Jean Clottes...

La grotte Chauvet, grotte Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc ou encore grotte de la Combe d'Arc est une grotte ornée paléolithique située en Ardèche (France). Le site comporte 420 représentations d'animaux (peintures, gravures). 

De nombreuses datations directes par la méthode du carbone 14 ont donné des résultats cohérents proches de 31 000 ans BP. 

La communauté scientifique admet quasi unanimement que les œuvres de la grotte Chauvet datent de l'Aurignacien et comptent parmi les plus anciennes au monde. 

La diversité et la maîtrise des techniques dont elles témoignent ont profondément remis en cause l'idée d'un art préhistorique évoluant très lentement et de manière linéaire et ascendante.


Jean Clottes, préhistorien, est principalement connu du grand public pour les études qu'il a réalisées sur les grottes de Chauvet, de Cosquer et de Niaux.

Il a également participé, sur le terrain, aux travaux sur les grottes d'Enlène, la grotte du Placard ou le Tuc d'Audoubert.
Il est l'un des grands spécialistes de l'art préhistorique.


Translations are available, for the non-Francophones, but the important point to mention is that the Chauvet cave is special because it proves that the ability for create prehistoric art did not evolve gradually over many thousands of years, the paintings on the walls of the cave are so old and so sophisticated they prove that over 35,000 years ago our ancestors were already skilled artists.

In December 1994 Jean Clottes received a phone call. A new cave had been discovered in the Ardeches region of France.  He was told to come quickly. It was the holiday period, his family had gathered to celebrate, it was not a good time to leave them behind and to drive 400 kms to explore a cave. He went, of course he went. And the rest is, as they say, history...

Can you imagine how it must have felt to descend into the caves, to wriggle on your belly through a tiny passage, so tiny that the men were obliged to remove as much of their clothing as possible in order to squeeze through the rocks, to emerge on a ledge in a cavern where the stalactites and stalagmites had grown, untouched and undisturbed for thousands of years, and to be one of the first people to see the palaeolithic paintings in the cave at Chauvet?

There are horses...

Thought to have been painted by one person, these horses form the centrepiece of the Chauvet cave.

There are rhinos...

This pair of males are fighting.  Such naturalistic scenes are rare in palaeolithic cave art, which makes this painting unique, and special.


There are lions...

Although it is usually only the females who hunt, this scene also includes males, since the pride is hunting a bison.

There are cave bears...

The cave bears were large, ferocious and to be avoided, and they dwelt in the caves.

Cave bear skulls have been found collected in heaps and with femur bones carefully placed nearby.

There is an owl...

I don't think I've ever seen an owl in a piece of cave art. This one has his head turned completely round, the ancestors were obviously also impressed by this trick.

There are others, many, many others. I could sit and post pictures all  day, or you could buy the book by Jean Clottes and read all about them for yourself. Suffice to say that the hour-long lecture was brilliant and the applause at the end was long and enthusiastic. We had all been captivated and enthralled and would probably have sat and listened to Jean Clottes all night. 

At the end of the talk and slide show, Jill Cook invited questions.
I sat with my hand raised, but hesitantly and shyly, I lacked the confidence to catch her eye and so didn't get to ask my question of M. Clottes. I admit to feeling disappointed, and to mentally berating myself for my cowardice. An opportunity to ask a question from one of one's heroes doesn't often arrive and I had failed to grasp it.

So, I did something that was totally out of character, for me.
When the last question had been asked, and as people were leaving, I marched down to the front of the lecture hall, I politely took Jill Cook aside, and I asked her if I might request that he sign my copy of his book?

As he did I told him I'd heard his talk about the Chauvet cave on radio France Culture, that it had been fascinating.

Jean Clottes looked surprised. I don't think he expected me to chat to him in French. I hadn't either but it just happened.

And so I left the museum late, by which time the sun had set and the lights of London were shining brightly. The journey by tube back to Paddington station was, thankfully, speedy and event-free. I emerged from the underground to find a fast train to Swansea conveniently waiting at Platform 3.

I took my First Class seat, drew the curtain, opened my book and sat back to look at the pictures and to smile contentedly as the train sped through the darkness. An hour later I was home, exhausted, totally and utterly exhausted but inspired, very, very inspired by an evening listening to Jean Clottes talking about the Chauvet cave.

Jean Clotte - article in Time Europe 
Bradshaw Foundation - The Cave Art Paintings of the Chauvet Cave 


  1. Glad you had a good time :)
    And glad to see the pic!
    Any new random reindeer/art/weaponry due in the mail next week?

    1. It was brilliant! I am so glad that I went, even if I did get told off by my offspring for not taking my phone. "Mum, you were in London, alone, what if Something had happened?"

      I'm not expecting to receive any more gifts, although if the British Museum would like a loving home for those Swimming Reindeer, well, I wouldn't say no. :-) Being up close and personal to the originals was a real treat, again, I don't think I'll ever grow tired of standing smiling at them.

      And if M. Jean Clotte is ever in Abingdon and would like to come to dinner.... I have copies of cave paintings adorning my walls and I do have my replica of the Swimming Reindeer for a table centre piece!

  2. Funny that I should find this article just after you left a comment, so I stopped by to see who you were...

  3. Coincidence indeed
    But you do know me, I used to be a Mouse

  4. Replies
    1. Merci bien Lucy!
      C'était tout à fait génial!

  5. Oh, Julia, this is my favourite subject as you know! So wonderful that you met the great Jean Clotte and had a wonderful day studying Chauvet's art. Have you seen Herzog's 3D film on that Cave? I highly recommend it! If I remember right, Clotte was in it too. If interested I wrote about the film here:

    1. Dear, Marja-Leena. I have been awaiting your response, knowing how much you love cave art and how much of an enthusiast you are. It was wonderful and to have met Jean Clottes and obtained his signature in my book was a real treat. I bought a copy of the DVD in the museum shop and plan a weekend of indulgent viewing...
      I shall now read your own post and smile.


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