by Bruno David. Thames & Hudson, February 2017. 256 p. ill. ISBN 9780500204351 (pbk.), $24.95.
Reviewed March 2017
This informative and authoritative work is a valuable contribution to the international archaeological study of cave art. The author distinguishes cave art from rock art with the former being contained within cave entrances and deep, hidden caverns, while the latter were created on exterior rock surfaces and are more readily accessible.
As a professor of archaeology at Australia’s Monash University, David not only traces the study of cave art beginning with Altamira in Spain, discovered in 1868, and Lascaux in France, discovered in 1940, but he also introduces the reader to sites in Australia, New Guinea, Guatemala, and Africa (among others) that were discovered during and after the 1980s. These discoveries correspond to technological developments within the field of archaeology, one of which is accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) which allows carbon dating based on inspection of tiny bits of organic matter.
In an art historical vein, the author seeks contextual meaning and rationale ascribed to each body of work created by the artists. The author compares European paintings with no ethnography, to Mayan paintings which have ethnographic texts to help explain them. He rejects former “grand theories” ascribed to prehistoric art as the doodles of under-developed people creating art for art’s sake, or perhaps pictographs of animals painted by primitive hunter-gatherers. Rather he sees the images as part of religious or ceremonial purposes, that require further study by descendants of indigenous peoples and other related research. Artifacts such as beads, lamps, bones, and decorative carvings exist alongside wall paintings of animals, humans, spirits, and other anthropomorphic forms.
The audience for this book is college level and is academic in its organization and presentation of scientific and technical information. Its narrative style, however, is surprisingly readable, and although the content can be a bit dense, the writing is clear and understandable. In addition to its being current archaeologically, the author also poses valid art historical queries but addresses them in a thorough, yet understandable way. The novice can become educated quickly and thoroughly by following the author through this volume.
The quality of the illustrations and photographs are excellent. There are interesting maps and aids to help illustrate the points of the discussion. The contents are laid out in a direct manner and there is a helpful index at the end. This book covers more than the many books dedicated to European Ice Age, such as Paul G. Bahn’s, Cave Art: A Guide to the Decorated Ice Age Caves of Europe. The Thames and Hudson series is a must have for all libraries, and Cave Art by Bruno David is a great addition.