As Jean Clottes notes in his foreword to this lavishly illustrated book, Palaeolithic art is one of the most fantastic manifestations of the human genius. To Lawson it forms “a precious legacy left to us by our Upper Palaeolithic forebears” which “enables us to ponder the mindsets of our early ancestors”. Lawson – a professional archaeologist – has for some forty years visited western Europe’s decorated caves, and his deep familiarity has produced a highly-readable and valuable addition to the literature on Palaeolithic art. It is focused geographically on western Europe, and divides into two parts; a narrative on the history of discovery, study, nature and chronology of cave art which forms the greater part of the book; and a gazeteer of twenty selected major caves in France and Spain which provide informative examples of how their art has been dated using the radiocarbon technique. The geographical focus is understandable; these two countries provide the overwhelming majority of decorated caves – approaching 350 between them.
The title of the book is misleading, given that engravings in open air situations such as Portugal’s Côa Valley are discussed in detail; many depictions created in caves using pigments would be more appropriately described as charcoal drawings; and technical studies of pigments, their production and techniques of use (including painting) are ignored. Examples of portable art from Spain, France, Germany and more widely afield that have provided critical references for dating cave art are also covered in detail. Dating forms arguably the strongest theme throughout the book, and Lawson’s rationale for this is clear: “instead of relying on subjective criteria, or the imprecise character of indirectly associated archaeological evidence, we can use an objective chronological framework”. His coverage of dating is arguably the weakest part of the book: although in many places he hedges his bets and presents arguments without bias he appears unaware or unwilling to engage with some serious issues in this field. Because of this some of Lawson’s statements are on the basis of current data incorrect: for example his belief that “the practice of painting and engraving cave walls with graphic scenes of wild animals…burst upon western Europe more than 35,000 years ago” is undermined by critiques of the very few dating projects on which the earliest dates for cave art are based, as well as an emerging pattern in which the earliest cave art is non-figurative, with “wild animals’ appearing only with the Mid Upper Palaeolithic (Gravettian) some 31,000 years ago. The book also ignores the growing number of minimum and maximum ages for cave art provided by Uranium-series (and to a lesser extent Thermoluminescence) dating of stalactites with clear stratigraphic relationships with art.
Lawson’s chronological ordering of cave art begins with Candamo cave in Asturias (now known to be much younger), followed abruptly by the similarly Early Upper Palaeolithic Chauvet cave (which a growing number of specialists have considerable doubt over). This leads him – via a consideration of the (well dated) portable art of the caves of the Swabian Alb to a potentially erroneous view that Aurignacian art was more varied in context and theme than it may well have been: ignore Chauvet and art focused on ‘wild animals’ in deep caves does not seem to appear until the succeeding Gravettian.
The book does, however, present a useful summary of the controversies over the age and development of cave art. Lawson is arguably at his best dealing with the history of cave art studies and the ‘wheres and whens’ of the art itselffrom the earliest discoveries of portable art in the 1860s and the discovery of Altamira in 1879, through the growing discoveries in France and the entrance of the formidable Abbé Henri Breuil into the study of cave art in 1900. With Breuil began the formal reconstruction of the chronology of Palaeolithic art, and his observations remain central to the process of dating today: comparisons of cave art with portable art recovered from dated archaeological horizons; the covering of parietal art by dated archaeological horizons; and the development of relative chronological schemes through the study of separate phases of superimposed art on cave walls. Breuil soon developed a chronological ‘cycle’ of cave art evolution; this and a subsequent scheme proposed by André Leroi-Gourhan in the 1960s still form the benchmarks against which new chronological absolute chronologies are viewed. The real revolution here came in the 1990s, with the application of AMS 14C dating to cave art pigments.
This is an excellent, highly-readable English language introduction to the nature of western European cave art, suiting students, specialists and interested amateurs alike. While well-researched and cautious it is not a critical tour de force however, and readers should approach its chronological ordering of the earliest phases of cave art with some caution.
von Paul Pettitt