Parietal art is a term in archaeology for artwork done on cave walls or large blocks of stone. Generally these are either painted or engraved, essentially meaning scratched, or some combination of the two. One of the most famous examples of parietal art is the Grotte Chauvet in France. Also called "cave art", it refers to cave paintings, drawings, etchings, carvings, and pecked artwork on the interior of rock shelters and caves. The purpose of these remains of the Paleolithic and other periods of prehistoric art is not known. However, some theories suggest that these paintings were not solely for decoration as many of them were located in parts of caves that were not easily accessed.
Over 300 caves have been discovered in Spain and France that house parietal art from prehistoric times. Spectacular decorated caves have also been found in Africa (e.g. Namibia), Argentina, India, China, Australia and other locations. Cave art was discovered in the 19th century, long before absolute dating was possible, and the antiquity of the art was much debated. Some scholars at the time developed a typology that was overthrown when AMS radiocarbon dating became available.
Initial interpretations of the art at Lascaux and in other related grottoes suggested that the paintings and engravings were decorative, or just art for art’s sake. Further analysis at the tail-end of the 20th century suggested that the cave art had deep links to prehistoric rituals promoting fertility and successful hunting. Recent studies have found a systematic sequencing in the renditions of horses, aurochs (an extinct ancestor of domestic cattle), and stags, which corresponds to seasonal characteristics of each species representing Spring, Summer, and Autumn respectively.
Famous Upper Paleolithic sites containing parietal artwork
Chauvet Cave, Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, France — Discovered in 1994 and dating from 30,000 BCE, Chauvet cave comprises two main parts. In the first, most pictures are red, while in the second, the animals are mostly black. The most spectacular images are the Horse Panel and the Panel of Lions and Rhinoceroses.
Caves of Arcy-sur-Cure, Arcy-sur-Cure, Burgundy, France — Known of old for the cave itself, its parietal art has only been discovered in 1990. It is the second oldest after that of the Chauvet cave, dating from 28,000 BCE.
Cosquer Cave, near Marseille, France — Discovered by the deep-sea diver Henri Cosquer in 1985, and dating from 25,000 BCE, the entrance to Cosquer cave is more than 100 feet below sea level. It contains hand stencils, charcoal drawings and about 100 polychrome paintings of horses and other animals.
Pech Merle Cave, Cabrerets, Midi-Pyrénées, France — Discovered in 1922, and dating from 25,000 BCE, Pech-Merle is famous for its dappled horses painted in charcoal and ochre on limestone. For details and photos, please see: Pech-Merle Cave Paintings.
Lascaux Cave, Montignac, Dordogne, France — Discovered in 1940 and dating from 17,000 BCE, Lascaux contains seven decorated chambers with over 2000 painted images, including the extraordinary Hall of the Bulls which, despite its name, features mostly horses as well as the male aurochs (wild cattle) from which its name derives.
Font de Gaume, in the Dordogne Valley in France — Discovered in 1901 and dating from 17,000 BCE, Font de Gaume cave contains over 200 polychrome paintings from the Solutrean-Magdalenian culture—second only in France to Lascaux in quality—featuring some 80 bison, 40 horses and 20 mammoths.
Cueva de La Pasiega, Cuevas de El Castillo, Cantabria, Spain — Discovered in 1911 and dating from 16,000 BCE, the cave of La Pasiega consists of one main gallery, some 80 yards in length, with openings to several secondary galleries. Its cave art consists of over 700 painted images (roughly 100 deer, 80 horses, 30 ibex, 30 cattle, along with reindeer, mammoth, birds and fish) including numerous abstract symbols (ideomorphs) and engravings.
Cave of Altamira, near Santillana del Mar, Cantabria, Spain — Discovered in 1879 and dating from 15,000 BCE, Altamira's ceiling is regarded as the crowning artistic achievement of the Magdalenian period. The cave, along with that of Chauvet and those of Lascaux, has been regarded by archaeologists and art historians as "the Sistine Chapel of Paleolithic art", due to its high quality large scale wall paintings. The so-called polychrome chamber houses some 30 large animal pictures, mostly bison, vividly executed in red and black pigment. For details and photos, please see: Altamira Cave Paintings.
After its discovery, Lascaux quickly became a major tourist attraction. Its caretakers realized that the equilibrium in the cave’s climate, which had kept the images intact for tens of thousands of years, was being disrupted by so many people visiting the cave, and it was closed in 1963. Around 2000, the cave became filled with a fungus that many blamed on air conditioning, the use of high-powered lights, and too many visitors. The fungus had to be painstakingly removed by hand; currently only a few scientific experts are allowed to work inside the cave, and just for a few days a month. The most representative bacterium (Pseudonocardia sp.) and fungus (Fusarium sp.) from the microbial communities of a cave containing paleolithic paintings were isolated and their growth on natural substrates assessed. Development was analyzed with and without supplemented nutrients (glucose, ammonium, phosphate, peptone). Results showed that the assayed bacterium on natural substrate was able to develop best at in situ temperature and that the addition of organic nutrients and/or phosphate enhanced its growth. The growth of the assayed fungus, however, was limited by low temperature and the availability of ammonium. These results confirm a differential behavior of microorganisms between the laboratory and the natural environments and could explain previous invasion of fungi reported for some caves with prehistoric paintings.
^Stomeo, F.; Portillo, M. C.; Gonzalez, J. M. (2009). "Assessment of Bacterial and Fungal Growth on Natural Substrates: Consequences for Preserving Caves with Prehistoric Paintings". Current Microbiology. 59 (3): 321–325. doi:10.1007/s00284-009-9437-4. PMID19536596.