Art Placement and Painting in Total Darkness

modern rock art by teyjah

Has it ever crossed your mind how it is that our ancestors created such wonderful cave art in total darkness? Although the majority of cave art was created closer to cave entrances, there is still a significant body of work that finds itself deep within the caves. What would account for the difference between “easily” reached location versus awkward or dangerous locations for the creation of art?

If you try and think more “prehistorically,” caves would have been (as they still are now) places of mystery and awe. Just hearing your echo could possibly induce fear and fill someone with reverence of some higher power. It is quite possible that some of these cave sites were used for certain shamanic rites or initiations but there are some sacred sites, such as Uluru, in Australia, that are imbued with power and are open-aired and the art appears to have been more for public consumption.

What are we to make of art that we find in tortuous passageways, deep within a cave system? For instance, there is a famous cave in France (Tuc d’Audoubert dated 15,000 to 10,000 BC) where two clay bison have survived (by luck, a chamber with no water drippings) but to find them required navigating very difficult physical passageways. The suggestion here, is that, the “very act of making the journey and of producing the images seems to have been what mattered; the artist never returned to visit”.

Why would art have been placed in these inaccessible places? If you have ever visited a cave, the silence, the coldness, the lack of light, the loss of direction and some claustrophobia can make you feel as if some supernatural forces are in control. You would certainly have to have a very strong motivational sense or perhaps believe that these acts or rites would empower you in some way to go to all that trouble. Then just the physical act of getting to some secret chamber and illuminating it would prove most challenging!

One author, Paul Bahn, suggests that perhaps “it was the act or production that counted, not the durability of the art”. He goes on to argue that these dangerous or hidden sites “involved altars and “chapels” and water was a focus of rituals here… perhaps they were visited to make contact with gods and spirits in some way”.

As it were, it could be that sections of the cave could have been illuminated by natural light at certain times but they have now been closed by tectonic shifts. We do know that certain open-aired sites are chosen for their visibility from a distance (think Galloway, Scotland) or how light filters across it. Whatever the reason for cave decorating you would have to have a strong impetus to do so. What are your thoughts?

Bahn, Paul. Prehistoric Art, “Art in total darkness” Cambridge Illustrated History. 1998. p. 138.

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