Review of ‘Cave Art: A Guide to the Decorated Ice Age Caves of Europe’ by Paul Bahn

01st June 2009

Davidson book review cover AA68Cave Art: A Guide to the Decorated Ice Age Caves of Europe by Paul Bahn. rances Lincoln, London, 2007, 224 pp., ISBN 0-7112-2655-5.

Iain Davidson

School of Humanities, University of New England, Armidale NSW 2351, Australia

This is a very useful book for travellers to Europe. It provides sufficient details for the visitor to get to some of the significant sites with paintings and engravings attributed to the Upper Palaeolithic of Western Europe. Without field testing, it is not clear that it will always be enough information, but there are also web addresses and phone numbers to make access easier. I suspect this is probably a good place to start for a tour of Upper Palaeolithic art. Unfortunately, for most tourists just interested in the art, the text contains many technical terms used by Upper Palaeolithic archaeologists in Europe without any attempt to make life easier for them (other than referring to the Pleistocene as the Ice Ages). This is a pity because it means that an otherwise useful book will baffle some of its buyers. The question that must arise for readers in Australia is whether there is a suitable equivalent for those wishing to visit significant Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander rock art sites. Perhaps it would be timely to emulate this and replace Josephine Flood’s (1990) The Riches of Ancient Australia.

Paul Bahn is a well-qualified author and the first chapter of the book provides a generally well-balanced introduction to the art, the history of our knowledge of it, and some of the current issues. I think there have been some valuable recent additions to our understanding of the historical context of the discovery of rock art which might have informed this discussion (e.g. Moro Abadia 2006). In the absence of reference to such recent work, there is a sense that the author is still fighting battles from a time when he first studied about Upper Palaeolithic art. I am not sure that modern visitors to French and Spanish caves (or indeed scholars) really need to know much about the failed attempts to identify structure that were fashionable in the 1960s.

Bahn, himself, has some well-known views about some of the sites discussed here. For the intended audience of non-specialists, it would be as well to see to what extent his views are represented in a balanced way in this book. For example, he says that ‘serious doubts persist about the attribution of all the incredibly sophisticated paintings of the cave of Chauvet to this early period’ (p.18). The situation is that Bahn himself has drawn attention to the fact that all of the dates from Chauvet were obtained from the same laboratory (Pettitt and Bahn 2003) and the case has been answered (Valladas and Clottes 2003). There may or may not be a problem, but for it to be a problem, for the doubts to persist, Bahn must be arguing for collusion between the laboratory and the archaeological researchers, and at least a hint of dishonesty. The important point for this book is that the reader must accept Bahn’s word that there is a controversy, for there are no references to the dispute, and Chauvet, because it cannot be visited, does not feature in the guide (it is not even on the map). This is a weakness in Bahn’s text.

There is a curiosity in the Introduction: Bahn states that it is a privilege to be able to see the art because there are so few sites. This stands in contrast with the arguments about the significance of the rock art of the Dampier Archipelago arising from its abundance. I fancy that in both instances there is some poorly thought-out special pleading. Such issues are complex and go to the heart of the value of cultural heritage and the reasons for protecting it.

In short, should you buy it? Well, if you plan to visit decorated caves it does have really useful details for visiting (though I wonder at the value of putting entrance prices in – it will ensure that the book dates quickly). If you want a broad understanding of the art to go with your visit, the book probably falls short.

References

Flood, J. 1990 The Riches of Ancient Australia: A Journey into Prehistory. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Moro Abadia, O. 2006 Arts, crafts and Paleolithic art. Journal of Social Archaeology 6:119–141.

Pettitt, P. and P. Bahn 2003 Current problems in dating Palaeolithic cave art: Candamo and Chauvet. Antiquity 77:134–141.

Valladas, H. and J. Clottes 2003 Style, Chauvet and radiocarbon. Antiquity 77:142–145.

Iain Davidson
Review of ‘Cave Art: A Guide to the Decorated Ice Age Caves of Europe’ by Paul Bahn
June 2009
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