Jean Clottes

Jean Clottes, who began his career as a high school English teacher, spent most of his working life at the Ministère de la Culture.  His positions at the Ministère included: the Director of Prehistoric Antiquities for the Midi-Pyrénées region, Chargé de Mission d’Inspection Générale for Archaeology, and lastly, until his administrative retirement in July 1999, he was the Scientific Advisor for Prehistoric Art.   He also served as President of the International Committee for Rupestral Art at the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), and he is an Honorary President of the French Prehistoric Society.  He has received the following awards from the French government: Officier dans l’Ordre National du Mérite (1991); Officier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques (1998); and Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur (2000).  In his research, Mr. Clottes focuses on prehistoric art and, in particular, the issues related to preservation, methods of dating, the study of the archaeological context, epistemology, and the importance of art.  He directed the study of the Chauvet cave and has also excavated prehistoric sites in the Ariège, Charente, and Lot regions of France.  He has studied the ornate caves of Placard, Niaux, the Réseau Clastres, the Tuc d’Audoubert, Chauvet, Mayrière supérieure, the Travers de Janoye, and Cosquer.  Mr. Clottes has published over 300 scientific articles and twenty books.


1. The Chauvet Cave: Ancient Art Painting

The Chauvet Cave, discovered in December 1994 by three spelunkers, already ranks among the most important and original painted caves in Franco-Cantabrian art. More than 420 animal figures have been recorded by the scientific team, which makes it one of the most plentifully adorned cave in Europe. The techniques used there are remarkably sophisticated : frequent research of perspective ; use of stump-drawing for the inner shading and relief of the animals ; scraping of the outlines to make them stand out ; scraping of wall surfaces to prepare them for the drawings. All this is all the more striking as the art at Chauvet is much older than that at Lascaux, more than 30,000 BP, which changes a number of current conceptions about the evolution of art. From now on, it is no longer possible to think that art developed from crude beginnings to summits by following a linear evolution. It is far more likely that there occurred many ups dans downs, as well as the coexistence in different regions, and at different times, of very sophisticated forms of art with others that were far less developed. In a recent collective book by the scientific team the latest discoveries have been published (J. Clottes (ed.) 2003 : "Chauvet Cave: The Art of Earliest Times". Salt Lake City, The University of Utah Press.

2. The Cosquer Cave: An Ornate and Underwater cave

In July 1991, a deep sea diver called Henri Cosquer discovered paintings and engravings in a cave beneath the sea, near Marseille (France), on the Mediterranean. In 1991, 1992 and 1994, a number of dives were organized by the French Ministry of Culture, with the participation of Dr. Jean Courtin, both archaeologist and diver. Others took place in 2002 and 2003, together with Dr. Jean Clottes. The extraordinary location of the cave entrance is due to the rise of the sea level after the end of the last glaciation and the melting of the thick ice caps. At the time of the glacial maximum, about 20,000 years ago, the sea was 350 feet lower than now and the shore was 3 miles away. The walls of all the passages and chambers under the water have been corroded and no painting or engraving has been preserved. The rock art discovered is located in the upper chambers that have remained above the sea. About 180 animal figures have been registered, as well as many dozens of diverse geometric signs, 65 hand stencils and a strange image of a killed man. The ground is littered with charcoal from the wooden torches people used or from the fires they made in order to get charcoal to make drawings with. People did not live in the depths of those caves. The 24 radiocarbon dates obtained have shown that the cave had been frequented during two periods, first around 27,000 before present, then around 19,000 BP. The Cosquer Cave, even though most of its art was no doubt destroyed when it got flooded, is however a major discovery, because it is in the Provence where no such sites had been known before, because of its abundant animal figures and hand stencils, and also because sea animals rarely or never depicted (seals, auks) are present among its bestiary. Bibliography : J. Clottes et J. Courtin 1996. - The Cave beneath the Sea. Paleolithic Images at Cosquer. New-York, Harry Abrams, Inc.

Bibliographie : J. Clottes et J. Courtin 1994. La Grotte Cosquer. Peintures et gravures de la caverne engloutie. Paris, Le Seuil.

3. Caves, Shamanism, and the Last Ice Age

Since its discovery at the end of the XIXth century several explanations have been proposed to account for Palaeolithic cave art. Successively, various specialists suggested theories such as “ art for art’s sake ”, “ hunting magic ”, or again a structuralist type of explanation. The many new discoveries which were made in the course of this century have shown the shortcomings of all those explanatory theories. Modern research in various provinces have made it possible to propose a new explanatory framework for ice age art, rather than an all-encompassing global explanation. Those lines of research deal with neurophysiological phenomena, with the beliefs and cultural practices of traditional cultures that have created rock art until recent times, as well as with the study of deep painted caves and their archaeological context. This explanatory framework is shamanism. When considered from this point of view, painted and engraved caves can be seen as part of a coherent system and many of their remaining mysteries start making new sense.


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