sign in a cave in Laos

27 January 2019

Hand stencils, rock art, Anthony Gormley BBC2

An interesting documentary on BBC2 by British sculptor Anthony Gormley. Gormley is probably best known for his "Angel of the North" statue. In the documentary, he was investigating the age of art, having originally thought that Europe had the oldest art - from the cave paintings in France and Spain.

This is taken from the BBC2 webpage -
"Why do humans make art? When did we begin to make our mark on the world? And where? In this film, Britain's most celebrated sculptor Antony Gormley is setting out on a journey to see for himself the very beginnings of art.

Once we believed that art began with the cave paintings of Ice Age Europe, tens of thousands of years ago. But now, extraordinary new discoveries around the world are overturning that idea. Antony is going to travel across the globe, and thousands of years back in time, to piece together a new story of how art began. He discovers beautiful, haunting and surprising works of art, deep inside caves across France, Spain and Indonesia, and in Australian rock shelters. He finds images created by hunter-gatherers that surprise him with their tenderness, and affinity with the natural world. He discovers the secrets behind the techniques used by our ancestors to create these paintings. And he meets experts making discoveries that are turning the clock back on when art first began.

Finally Antony asks what these images from millennia ago can tell us - about who we are. As he says, 'If we can look closely at the art of our ancestors, perhaps we will be able to reconnect with something vital that we have lost."

I was particularly interested in the hand stencils, these are found on 3 continents. Firstly Gormley showed those in  Pech Merle Cave in France. Photos taken from the Pech Merle webpage -

Gormley spoke to French archaeologist Michel Lorblanchet, who has suggested that the application of the paint for some of the paintings was probably by means of a delicate spitting technique. He says the 200 black spots had the charcoal (?) applied this way, as well as the 6 hand stencils. Lorblanchet then demonstrated making his own hand stencil on a rock outside, by chewing charcoal and gently spitting onto the rock. It took about 45 minutes. The paintings are actually deep in the cave, the ancient artists would have used light from fire, and then used charcoal from the fire for their paintings.

Gormley talks about how Neanderthals are usually considered to have inferior mind and didn't produce cave art. He went to El Castillo Cave in Spain, and talked to Professor Alistair Pike, who has worked on dating techniques. There are 40 hand stencils in this cave. Some of these red stencils are now covered with calcite, dated at 37,000 years. 40,800 for the red dots. The calcite arrived after the stencils were made. These are some of the oldest of European paintings and most have been done by Neanderthals. Pike also worked at Maltraviso Cave in west Spain, where there are many hand stencils, and found calcite deposits on the stencils dating to older than 66,000 years old. This is 25,000 years before humans arrived in Spain, so must have been done by Neanderthals.

This shows art was done earlier than first thought. And was done by Neanderthals, not humans.

Gormley then went to Sulawesi, in Indonesia. Cave art has been found here, and was done at the same time as the paintings in Europe, but the people presumably had no contact. He met Maxine Aubert and sees more hand stencils. Unfortunately many of the paintings have disappeared over the last 30 years as parts of the rock surface have fallen off, probably due to pollution.

I saw some of these paintings in 1994. My blog, Cave of Hands. The babi rusa was probably painted with a brush.

They go on to Leang Timpuseng, with a babi rusa painting, dated at minimum 35k years old, as well as a hand stencil dated at 40 k, minimum . The babi rusa would be the world's oldest figurative art. There is now an archaeological dig in the cave.

So the Indonesian and Europe art is about the same age, done on opposite sides of the world. Is there similar art to be found in say Africa, India etc?

Next, Gormley went to the Kimberley in Australia. This has a huge variety of rock art, animals, plants and humans, but hasn't been properly dated yet. There are no paintings of humans in Europe, but there are in the Kimberley, showing humans "celebrating, and alive". There are also hand stencils.

As Gormley says, these separated communities of modern man left signs of being, a human need to express something. Whereas the practice of painting in Europe ended about 10 k years ago, in the Kimberley rock art is still a part of spiritual life. There is still a living connection.


BBC2 Antony Gormley: How Art Began,  2019, 73 minutes, official website.

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