Whenever you hear the word ‘cave art’ or ‘pre-historic art’ your mind instantly wanders to those great wonders like Lascaux or Altamira. And no one can blame you. Those two sites are the Sistine Chapel of Paleolithic art. But sometimes, the more subtle, more humble examples of art can be more numinous. Just as, say, a small, intimate wayside chapel can feel more spiritual than the Sistine Chapel, so a lot of cave paintings can be more inspiring than their better-known cousins.
So here are, for your pleasure and inspiration, four locations and their unique pre-historic rock art, which you’ve very probably never heard of, but will definitely want to experience.
We tend to forget Iran’s long, inestimable history when we hear about it. We just tend to think insane Ayatollahs and nuclear deals and, you know, cranes. But Iran, let’s not forget, is the heir of one of history’s oldest, proudest and most civilizing of all ancient empires: Iran is the daughter of Persia. But even before Persia was ever born, human beings lived in Iran and witnessed the very dawn of agriculture. In Iran and the Middle-East mankind made the transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer. So it’s no surprise there are so many cave sites embellished with rock art there. Sites like the Warwasi rock shelter in Western Iran, or the impressive engravings outside the village of Khomeyn, believed to be the oldest known rock engravings ever found. Interestingly, 90% of all rock art found in Iran includes a depiction of the ibex deer. It is to Iran what the eland is to South Africa.
I couldn’t help but be blown away when I discovered these, in a part of the Sahara desert known as the Tenere – literally ‘the place where there is nothing’ – but this unremarkable, hostile, Martian landscape hides an other-worldly secret. The largest known rock engravings anywhere in the world. Created over 10,000 years ago when, scientists think, the Sahara was far greener it is than today. The two rock engravings depict a pair of giant giraffes. And I do mean giant – the larger figure is over 18 feet tall. They are engraved in the sandstone using a variety of techniques including scraping,smoothing and deep engraving of the outlines. This masterpiece of pre-historic art deserves as much recognition as a Guernica or the Fate of the Animals. And we should be far more in awe of this wonder created in such harsh climes rather than the blood-churningly arrogant works of a spoiled Damien Hirst.
From the over-heated dunes of the Sahara to the frigid Nordic landscape of Norway; one of my favourite places on earth. The Alta petroglyphs are perhaps among my personal favourites. A great lover of anything Arctic, these engravings depict scenes which I’ve long been depicting in my own paintings. Engravings of bear and cub. Elk. Northern lights – yes, even the northern lights were depicted, faintly, but it’s no surprise that such a miracle of nature would have captured the imagination of those Neolithic painters. Hunting scenes. Reindeer. It’s all there. And, as a painter, it’s interesting to see these rock engravings on a different colour background – away from the usual yellows and browns of caves, here they are depicted on a greyish-blue canvas!
The ‘cave of hands’ of Cueva de los Manos in Argentina is an almost Baroque piece of pre-historic art. A cave system with, as the name suggests, a great amount of painted, red ochre hands, the hand-prints of people who lived well over 9,000 years ago. Alongside them there are depictions of felines, rheas, guanacos and abstract patterns. You wouldn’t normally associate Argentina with pre-historic art, but maybe we should, that country of gauchos, barbecues and strong liqueurs has been inhabited by artistic minded people for thousands of years – and they’ve left us souvenirs to die for!
These are just a few of the little snippets of inspiration that made, and continue to make me a painter. What is it that inspires you most as an artist? In my next blogs I’ll be sharing some of my smaller Palaeolithic inspired paintings, and talking about their making.