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Charcoal Drawings: Stone Age

Black pigments in Stone Age
Chauvet, Niaux, Trois Freres

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Charcoal drawings of rhinos in the Hillaire Chamber at Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave
Charcoal drawings of fighting rhinos in the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave. Chauvet's charcoal pictures were of such high quality, that it took archaeologists more than a decade to accept they were created during the Aurignacian. Image is a screenshot from the film "Cave of Forgotten Dreams". (Public Domain).

What is Charcoal?

Charcoal is the black carbon residue left behind after partially burning wood in a minimal oxygen environment.

If you burn wood, or a combination of organic matter (like wood, animal bone, nutshells etc.), with a limited supply of air, you get charcoal, which is essentially carbon mixed with mineral ash.

The burning process removes all the volatile components, along with a large amount of water, leaving only black pieces of impure charcoal.

Early humans made charcoal in a fire pit, by gathering a large quantity of wood and covering it with soil to minimize the amount of oxygen fuelling the fire. Along with stone tools, charcoal ranks as one of the key inventions of the Paleolithic.

Charcoal drawing of the head of a deer, from the Salon Noir at Niaux Cave
Charcoal painting of a deer's head in the Salon Noir Copyright Wendel Collection. (CC BY-NC 4.0)

When was Charcoal Invented?

Archaeologists believe that charcoal was invented around one million years ago, by Homo erectus, not long after humans succeeded in controlling fire.

Uses of Stone Age Charcoal

Charcoal's main value during the Stone Age was that it burned hotter, and for longer, than wood. And because it had concentrated power, it was easier for hunter-gatherers to carry when on hunting trips.

Charcoal was also used in cave art to create black drawings. Modern humans - known as Cro-Magnons - arriving in Europe around 50,000 BC, were the first to use charcoal in this manner, and their drawings can be seen in paleolithic caves throughout Europe.

Note: Because charcoal is organic, it can be more easily dated than mineral-based ochre paintings. For more about dating, see: Dating Methods in Archaeology.

Smelting in the Bronze Age

Charcoal played an important role during the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. It was burned to create the high temperatures necessary to extract molten metals, like copper and iron, from their ores.

Point is, very few metals are found naturally in a pure form. Usually they occur in the form of a mixture (ore) with other compounds. To separate the metal from the surrounding rock, intense heat must usually be applied.

But wood, when burned in an open fire, can only generate temperatures between 350 and 500 degrees Celsius.

By contrast, charcoal, can generate temperatures up to 800 degrees Celsius.

What's more, inside the confined space of a kiln or furnace, with air forced into the fire, it is easy to generate temperatures above 1000 degrees Celsius.

The first recorded use of charcoal for extracting metal ores dates to 3,750 BC., when it was used by the Egyptians for smelting copper and tin ores to make bronze.

Most Common Black Pigments

Paleolithic cave painters obtained their black paint pigments from two main sources.

The other colours in the typical Stone Age colour palette were as follows:

Charcoal Drawings in Caves

Charcoal was widely used in cave painting throughout the region of Franco-Cantabrian art, and across Central and Eastern Europe as far as the Urals.

It was also used across Asia and Australia, as well as Africa and the Americas. Only in areas where manganite was especially abundant - such as the French Périgord - was charcoal not used.

Here is an abbreviated list of famous paleolithic caves that contain charcoal drawings.

Altamira Cave

The Suite Noire in the side chamber known as 'Sala de la Hoya' (Chamber of the Hole), at Altamira, consists of several charcoal paintings of animals (female deer, bison, and ibex).

In terms of style and artistic technique, these works comprise a very homogeneous group, suggesting that they were painted at the same time.

In addition, abstract signs drawn in charcoal, occur in 74 different locations in the cave.

Apollo 11 Cave

The famous Apollo 11 Cave Stones - painted in charcoal and ochre - in Namibia, are still the oldest figurative art in Africa.

Based on radiocarbon dating of ash taken from the immediate proximity of the painted slabs, they were painted about 25,500 BC.

El Castillo Cave

The cave of El Castillo, in Cantabria, Spain, contains a number of outstanding charcoal images of horses, bison, goats, and deer, painted during the Solutrean culture between 20,000 and 15,000 BC.

Chauvet Cave

Chauvet contains probably the greatest of all charcoal drawings of animals. Examples include the Panel of the Lions, the Panel of the Horses and the Panel of the Rhinos.

Painted mainly in the deep chambers of the cave, the charcoal in the cave drawings came from burnt pine wood.

Other decorated caves near Chauvet reveal a pattern of animal imagery created almost exclusively in charcoal. This shows the importance placed upon charcoal by early cave painters.

The oldest art at Chauvet is a black charcoal painting which dates to the Aurignacian culture, about 34,500 BC.

Coliboaia Cave

Coliboaia's cave art - the oldest parietal art in Romania - consists of eight black paintings of animals (horses, bison, bears, rhinos and a feline), executed in charcoal in a style very close to that used by French artists in the decoration of Chauvet Cave in the Ardèche Valley.

Cougnac Cave

The Cougnac Cave in the French Lot contains three charcoal drawings of 'wounded men', similar to the speared figures at Pech Merle Cave, also in the Lot. The drawings were created during the Magdalenian culture (14,000-12,000 BC).

Cougnac also contains a number of charcoal dot signs, which are believed to date to the Gravettian culture, between 23,000 and 20,000 BC.

Ekain Cave

The Ekain Cave in the Basque region of Spain is noted for its Great Panel of Horses, described by the prehistorian André Leroi-Gourhan as "the most perfect group of horses in Quaternary art".

The panel consists of 18 figures of which 11 are horses. All the animals are given their own space. Most are executed using charcoal. Some of them are only outlined in charcoal. Others are also modelled in black.

In addition, in the Auntzei Gallery, there is a black picture of a salmon in silhouette, with a mouth, lateral line, and dorsal fins. The charcoal drawing, about 55 centimetres in length, is carefully placed to exploit the natural contours of the cave wall.

Grand Grotte d'Arcy-sur-Cure

The Grande Grotte at Arcy-sur-Cure in Burgundy contains a wide range of charcoal drawings, featuring woolly mammoths, bears, lions and ibexes, filled in with red ochre. The earliest of these date to roughly 26,700 BC.

Kapova Cave

This limestone karst rock shelter, situated in the western foothills of the Southern Ural Mountains in Russia, contains several black charcoal drawings. They date to the Magdalenian culture, after 14,500 BC.

La Pileta Cave

La Pileta is best known for its "Fish Chamber", located in the remotest part of the cave, which contains a large black drawing of a halibut fish, some 1.5 metres in length, with what appears to be a baby fish or seal inside it.

In addition, in a small chamber, called 'the Sanctuary', researchers discovered several charcoal drawings of aurochs and horses, marked with pairs of red and black lines, which strongly resemble the pictographs found at Cougnac Cave in France.

Lascaux Cave

At Lascaux, charcoal was used by artists as a means of enhancing paintings, by creating contours and shading. It was not used for drawing outlines. See also: Lascaux Cave Paintings and Layout.

This is because in the Périgord/Dordogne there was an abundance of available manganese oxide.

In other regions, like the Lot, the Ardèche and Ariège, charcoal from wood or bones was used in place of, or alongside, manganese oxide.

Le Portel Cave

The massive black bison in the famous 'Three Bison Scene' in the Breuil Gallery at Le Portel Cave in the Ariège, is drawn using charcoal.

Nawarla Gabarnmang

Nawarla Gabarnmang, a remote rock shelter in Jawoyn Country, Arnhem Land, in the Northern Territory, has charcoal drawings that have been radiocarbon-dated to 26,000 BC, making it the oldest Aboriginal rock art in Australia.

Niaux Cave

Niaux Cave, which overlooks the Ariège River in the northern foothills of the French Pyrénées, is noted above all for two outstanding charcoal drawings.

The first is an extraordinary sketch of a weasel - the only known depiction of such a creature in prehistoric art - which was executed in ten flawless brushstrokes. The second is a beautiful painting of an ibex. Both are dated to the mid-Magdalenian, around 12,500 BC.

Santimamiñe Cave

The Basque Cave of Santimamiñe is noted for its magnificent charcoal drawings of horses, ibex, bison, and deer, dating to about 12,000 BC.

Tito Bustillo

Tito Bustillo Cave in the Asturias region of northern Spain, contains black charcoal paintings and red ochre paintings, as well as compositions with a mixture of red, black and violet, similar to those on Altamira's 'Bison Ceiling'.

Archaeologists are unsure as to the date of these works, which could belong to the Magdalenian, Solutrean or Gravettian periods.

Trois-Frères Cave

Trois-Frères Cave in French Ariège is best known for its powerful anthropomorphic image - drawn in charcoal and engraved - known as 'The Sorcerer'.

Located in a remote chamber known as the 'Sanctuary', the figure's meaning is not known, but it is usually interpreted as some kind of shaman.

NEXT: See Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC onwards).

References

(1) Berna, Francesco (2012). "Microstratigraphic evidence of in situ fire in the Acheulean strata of Wonderwerk Cave, Northern Cape province, South Africa". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 109 (20): E1215-20.
(2) "Illuminating the cave, drawing in black: wood charcoal analysis at Chauvet-Pont d'Arc." Isabelle Théry-Parisot, et al. Antiquity, Volume 92, Issue 362, April 2018, pp.320-333.

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