project . 2014 - 2017 . Closed

Dating the origins and development of Palaeolithic cave painting in Europe by U-series disequilibrium

UK Research and Innovation
Funder: UK Research and InnovationProject code: NE/K015184/1
Funded under: NERC Funder Contribution: 393,030 GBP
Status: Closed
30 Mar 2014 (Started) 29 Sep 2017 (Ended)
European Cave art is one of the most striking examples of Ice Age archaeology and one of the most important sources of information about the belief systems, symbolic behaviour and aesthetic abilities of the earliest known artists. While its specific meaning will probably always remain hotly debated, it is undoubtedly one of the most intimate windows to the cultural past. However, uncertainties about its exact age seriously hamper our understanding of nearly all aspects of cave art, particularly its relationship to the archaeology that is found below ground and which constitutes the majority of the record of Ice Age human behaviour and behavioural change. We will considerably redress this situation by producing one of the largest corpuses of radiometric dates for the core regions of Palaeolithic cave paintings and engravings; Spain, France and Italy. The results will allow us to determine whether Neanderthals created some of the earliest art, or whether it was a behaviour restricted to our own species; and how it evolved thematically and stylistically over time from place to place. Providing reliable dates for particular artistic themes and styles will allow us to relate the changing artistic traditions to the social and behavioural changes that are recorded in the below ground archaeological record. At present it is still not certain when cave art first appeared in Europe. Radiocarbon has been used to provide dates for the organic pigments used in cave paintings, but many of the results remain controversial. Organic pigments may become contaminated by the much older limestone of the walls of caves, or the charcoal used to make a black pigment could have been old at the time the art was made. Furthermore, radiocarbon can only date carbon based pigments, but the majority of early cave art is either engravings with no pigments, or use mineral pigments such as red ochre that is unsuitable for the radiocarbon method. Many engravings and paintings were created directly on, or became overlain by, calcium carbonate layers formed by the same process as stalagmites and stalactites. We can establish when these layers formed by uranium-series dating, a technique that measures the ratio of uranium to its radioactive decay product thorium. By so doing a minimum or maximum age can be calculated for the art, and by measuring enough examples a chronology for the emergence of the art and its subsequent development and spread of different styles can be constructed. In a pilot project we successfully dated 50 carbonate samples from 11 caves in northern Spain, showing that art in this region appeared 20,000 years earlier that was previously thought, and that it appeared in the period in which the last Neanderthals were disappearing and the first modern humans (Homo sapiens) were arriving. These results raised the possibility that Neanderthals created some of the earliest examples of cave art. If true, this would fit with the emerging picture of symbolic use of pigments by Neanderthals, and would raise our understanding of their behavioural and cognitive capacities significantly. To unravel this requires a far more ambitious project, proposed here, since the distribution of the earliest art may help us understand if it arrived in Europe with the first modern humans; whether it was developed by them only later; or indeed whether some of it can be attributed to the Neanderthals. To address these questions we will date cave art associated with datable carbonate layers in 49 caves in the regions where cave art is most abundant; Spain, France and Italy, and produce the largest database of reliably dated cave art so far produced.
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