Lascaux, Lost Caul
“This piece does not pretend to be a literary essay. It is a cry from my heart over what is happening to the cave. Are we aware what the loss of Lascaux would mean, not just to people alive today, but to generations to come? It should not be read or judged as literature. It is emergency journalism.”
— Clayton Eshleman
The cave of Lascaux, with its 600 paintings and 1,500 engravings, is the most magnificent example of the Upper Paleolithic (32,000 to 9,000 years ago) creative force in human culture which surged into, and made sacred, for the first time, subterranean levels. The fauna that roam, trot, and gallop the walls of Lascaux’s 17,000 year old galleries, while painted by the Cro-Magnon people, exist outside of a human dimension — they are 100% animal and, with a few exceptions, are devoid of anthropomorphic gestures. Only in the obscure signs cropping up around and across the animal bodies does a symbolism assert that these divine beasts are being shifted into a human context. Such signs circulate around the animals either like incipient corrals and brands, looking for ways to move in, or as alphabetic gestures, linking the animals’ coats and gestures with seasonal changes.
Specific achievements at Lascaux include: the most important prehistoric signs, the use of an imaginary ground level, clear patterns of animals within each decorated panel, trick perspectives, breath from muzzles marked by dots or short strokes, dappled appearances created by powder or liquid pigments blown through bone tubes, hazy manes created by light sponging, sharp outlines made by use of movable marking instruments.
Color-wise, there are twenty-five tints, including ten reds, six yellows, six blacks, and one white. The 364 horses are of all colors, plain, composite, chestnut, black, bays, grayish yellow, and dappled, with summer and winter coats. The largest of the animals depicted is a polychromatic aurochs eighteen feet long.
The area known as the Apse is a cupolar ceiling once nine feet above the ground (which involved scaffolding to reach). Over ten feet in diameter, it is packed with over 1400 mostly engraved figures: animals and parts of animals, comets, blazons, ovals, barbed signs etc. The all-over impression created by the Apse is that of a location and a surface so special that it cried out to be covered with markings. As Lascaux’s “holy of holies,” it evokes a primordial star map, as well as a visual pun-filled labyrinth, a kind of Upper Paleolithic Finnegan’s Wake.
Below and to the west of the Apse is the entrance to the sixteen-foot-deep Shaft. In the 1960s, evidence of twisted rope made from vegetable fiber was discovered, suggesting that the Cro-Magnons descended into the Shaft hand over hand down such a rope. On the Shaft’s lower wall, to the left of the iron ladder now used for descent, is the most marvelous “scene” in Upper Paleolithic image-making. On one side is a hairy rhinoceros, on the other a bison with its intestines spilling out from a gash in its belly. Aslant under the bison is a bird-headed man, naked and ithyphallic, quite possibly a shaman in flight who has dropped his bird-headed staff as he penetrates bison paradise. While there are some thirty hybrid figures in Upper Paleolithic caves (including two in Lascaux’s Apse) that can be interpreted as magical hybrids, the bird-headed man in the Shaft is the most solid evidence that we have for the presence of proto-shamanic mental travel, or the rudiments of poetry, 17,000 years ago.
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