Studies of Paleolithic Art

Distinctive features of the Upper Paleolithic art, both cave paintings and portable art are highlighted in a new way by contemporary methods of analytical science and imaging techniques.

The study of the Upper Paleolithic cave art paintings has been carried out in the Kapova Cave (Shulgan-Tash) in the South Urals under cooperation with the Southern Urals archaeological expedition of Lomonosov Moscow State University. It is a most eastern site of cave art located 4,000 km away from the main concentration of painted caves in Europe; the total number of painted caves discovered from the southernmost end of the Iberian Peninsula to the Urals is almost 300. The radiocarbon dates from the Kapova Paleolithic cultural layers fall between 13,900 and 16,710 B.P.; fragments of the host rock with paintings were previously detected in the occupation layer, which, along with the stylistic features typical for the Upper Paleolithic cave art, enable the researchers to link the painted scenes to the cave exploitation periods. The paintings are located at two levels of the cave, i.e. its middle level (the Dome Chamber, the Chamber of Signs, and the Chamber of Chaos) and the upper level (the Chamber of Drawings). The Kapova paintings are mostly made with the use of red pigment; diversity of its hues, specific features of exploiting natural relief of the walls in different chambers, presence of hiding places with pigments provide an opportunity to clarify the formulations for pigments, their variants used in different time periods, identify raw material sources and address other issues regarding technical and technological traits of the paintings.

Hematite is the main ingredient of the pigments examined, but the size of its grains varies, the composition and the structure of the substrate, on which the paintings are made, differ as well. It has been established that natural relief of the walls in the Chamber of Drawings was incorporated in the design of some paintings; light red pigment with tiny grains (less than 1 micron) was predominantly applied to the rock surface directly. Paintings made with the pigment of cherry hues that has large hematite crystals appeared alongside with the paintings made with bright red colors at the middle level. In the painting of the ‘lattice’ both colors are found to form a superposition. Analysis of the sequence in which these pigments were placed to form the bichromatic palimpsest may be important for clarification of relative chronology of the Kapova paintings. One more formulation for the pigment used to paint the ‘trapeze’ on the Horses and Signs Panel in the Chamber of Chaos has been identified; it is a specific mixture of large hematite crystals with coal. Many paintings in this chamber were made on deposits; preference was given to lighter sections covered by calcite deposits that are quite conspicuous against the greyish and brownish surface of the wall.

Several concentrations of pigments of various compositions and hues, which correspond to the colors of the pigments used to make paintings of the walls, were discovered in the cave. They were predominantly revealed between the stones in the Chamber of Chaos that has an intricate relief of the floor due to a collapse of a part of the ceiling. Such concentrations were also found in the Dome Chamber and in the Chamber of Drawings.

Iron-containing mineral concretions in immediate proximity to the cave could be a source of raw materials for pigment making, which was confirmed experimentally. By using Raman spectroscopy and scanning electron microscopy, the composition of brownish nodules containing goethite, anatase, lepidocrocite and clay matter was determined. The possibility of pigment production by annealing with subsequent grinding of ore samples was demonstrated experimentally. The determination of the phase composition of the samples before and after treatment with heat as well as the study of the sample characteristics during heating with the use of thermogravimetric analysis demonstrated that the main process taking place during treatment is transformation from goethite to hematite. This process has been applied to produce red pigment since ancient times.

Some Paleolithic masterpieces of portable art were characterized by using different imaging techniques – gigapixel imaging, UV and IR photography and reflection transformation imaging. The comparison of normals maps of different fragments on the bison sculpture from Zaraysk made from mammoth ivory, which has red and black spots with different textures, helped confirm the postdepositional origin of the black matter traces. The study of portable and parietal art provides an opportunity to evaluate its place in the prehistoric culture more precisely as well as identify technical and technological characteristics of production techniques.

A.S. Pakhunov,

V.S. Zhitenev,

E.G. Devlet

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