General category of cave art
In Stone Age culture, the term 'parietal art' means art created on the walls or ceilings of caves. More commonly known as cave art, it comes from the Latin word parietalis, meaning 'relating to walls'.
The most common forms of parietal art are cave paintings, engravings and relief sculptures.
Parietal artworks are part of the fabric of the cave and cannot be moved. An example is the exquisite engraving known as the Drinking Reindeer at Les Combarelles.
In contrast, a work of art like an ivory carving, a decorated piece of bone, or a venus figurine, is referred to as 'mobiliary art', because it is moveable (portable).
A famous example of mobiliary art is the antler carving, known as the Swimming Reindeer, which was found at Montastruc rock shelter in southwest France.
What's the difference between parietal and rock art? Answer: rock art is a wider category which also includes images created on natural rock surfaces in the open air.
However, parietal artworks are only found in caves or rock shelters.
Stone Age cave art has been discovered in Africa, the Middle East, India, China, Siberia, SE Asia, Australia and the Americas, the main body of this type of prehistoric art has been found in the 350 or so paleolithic caves of southwestern France and northern Spain, and forms what is known as Franco-Cantabrian cave art.
In general, decorated caves were not inhabited. Instead, archaeologists believe they were used as sanctuaries or venues for religious or ceremonial activities.
Most parietal artworks were created during the era of Upper Paleolithic art, which spanned roughly 30,000 years, between 40,000 and 10,000 BC. The Upper Paleolithic is commonly divided into four stylistic periods:
Cave paintings and engravings are dated in one of four ways:
This type of paleolithic art includes:
Parietal art is dominated by animals. Almost all figurative pictures on cave walls are representations of animals.
To begin with, during the Aurignacian era, they featured numerous 'dangerous animals' (lions, bears, rhinoceroses, mammoths).
Later, during the Gravettian, Solutrean and Magdalenian eras, artists focused almost entirely on game animals, such as bison, horses, reindeer, ibex and red deer.
Humans also appear but only in a tiny percentage of caves. Also, they often take the form of anthropomorphs, like the Sorcerer at Trois Frères Cave.
Another unique humanoid image in parietal art is the Bird Man in the Shaft at Lascaux - see Lascaux cave paintings and layout.
For more about the type of paints used by cave artists during the Paleolithic era, see Stone Age Colour Palette.
Interpreting cave art twenty thousand years after the event, is fraught with difficulty. We have almost no idea of the cultural context of these pictographs and petroglyphs, or their association with the ceremonies held in the caves.
At present, the main theories revolve around shamanic or supernatural activities - due partly to the prevalence of the 'Sorcerer' motif at Trois Frères, Gabillou and elsewhere, and partly to the almost sacred role played by animals in human survival at the time.
That said, there is no general consensus among archaeologists and anthropologists as to the exact meaning of parietal art.
While some experts see it as evidence of shamanism or an attempt to contact the spirit world, others believe it to be linked to fertility or hunting ceremonies.
Then again, some experts point to possible connections with altered states of consciousness, while others focus on the connection between the art and the archaeoacoustics of the cave. For more, see: Meaning of Cave Art.
For more about the chronology of cave painting, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).
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(3) "Thinking about 'style' in the 'post-stylistic era': reconstructing the stylistic context of Chauvet." Moro Abadía O, and Morales MRG. 2007. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 26(2):109-125.
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(5) "A Question of Style: reconsidering the stylistic approach to dating Palaeolithic parietal art in France." von Petzinger G, and Nowell A. 2011. Antiquity 85(330):1165-1183.