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Rorschach Test

JOURNEY THROUGH THE ICE AGE. By Paul G. Bahn and Jean Vertut . University of California Press: 240 pp., $39.95

March 29, 1998|DONALD JOHANSON | Donald Johanson is the author of numerous books, including "From Lucy to Language" (with Blake Edgar) and "Ancestors: The Search for Our Human Origins."

For anyone, like myself, who has had the unforgettable privilege of visiting the stunning caves in southwestern Europe where our Upper Paleolithic ancestors created indelible images, Paul Bahn's most recent contribution is essential reading. This splendid volume is studded with superb photographs of Ice Age art by the late Jean Vertut and supported by a truly scholarly and remarkably informative text.

Bahn is a premier authority on rock art worldwide, especially the art that dazzles and provokes us to ponder our artistic roots in the last Ice Age. His firsthand study of much of the art and his thoughtful introspection combine to give us one of the most accessible bibles on Paleolithic imagery.

Unlike most treatments of the subject, Bahn's does not fall victim to the normal flights of fancy and hyperbole that so often characterize appreciations of Ice Age art. As he writes, most previous explanations of the meaning of the art have merely been reflections of personally held views and self-fulfillment of the investigators' own biases. Bahn believes this branch of archeology, like many others, is susceptible to "the knowledge and preoccupations of academicians in different decades."

An explanation of Paleolithic art as art for art's sake was an acceptable view of the last century, while the idea that the art represents some sort of sympathetic hunting magic is a projection into the past of ethnographic studies from the present. But the emphasis upon fertility, magic and sexual symbolism in the art was simply a reflection of the 1960s, and space exploration provoked views that certain engravings and other notations were a means of recording astronomical events such as lunar calendars. More recent interpretations of the art as resulting from self- or drug-induced altered states of mind are rooted in the current fascination with the origins of human consciousness and New Age psycho-babble. These interpretations, according to Bahn, tell "us more about its proponents' reaction to Paleolithic art than about the artists."

As is clear from the book's dedication, Bahn's heroes lie elsewhere. Alex Marshack epitomizes a new breed of investigators who are busily and carefully documenting the facts about Paleolithic art and developing advanced analytical techniques for studying the art, such as the use of scanning electronic microscopes and ultraviolet and infrared film and light. For these chroniclers, above all, it is vital to correct erroneous facts and scientifically document the occurrences of art well in advance of even attempting to articulate explanations. Bahn makes the stunning statement that although the cave art probably did contain a message, we cannot understand it clearly because it "was not aimed at us."

This is a pretty sobering idea for many of Bahn's colleagues, whose imaginations often in the total absence of solid data overwhelm the art with pure fantasy. Bahn is careful not to assassinate his colleagues, but inspection of the wonderfully detailed footnotes reveals the identify of those offending parties. When wrestling with the meaning of Paleolithic art, he is excruciatingly careful in making any sort of pronouncement with the proviso that "there are no absolute rules; there are always exceptions." His dedication to the study of Ice Age art has made him a world-renowned specialist, yet he has never embraced a traditional academic position, preferring to work out of his home in northern England. His role as a "Paleolithic art watchdog" has not always made him popular at international meetings, but his scholarly and objective approach is a constant reminder of his desire to accurately document Paleolithic art left by our ancestors tens of thousands of years ago.

Bahn makes a fervent plea for increased rigor and caution in studying Paleolithic art and aptly writes: "What it comes down to, basically, is whether one is content to work with the art as a body of markings that cannot be read, or whether one wants to have stories made up about it!" Bahn is not trying to discourage the profound stirrings and magic that we all sense when we walk into a cave like Lascaux but simply wants to remind us that before we translate those irrepressible emotions into an overarching explanation for the art, we must assemble, in a responsible way, all the facts we can about this irresistible expression of humanity.

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