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Chauvet Panel of Horses – Dax

On December 18th, 1994, the speleologists Jean-Marie Chauvet, Éliette Brunel, and

Christian Hillaire discovered Chauvet Cave, one of the most fascinating and controversial caves

known today. They had been investigating a slight breeze coming from the back of a shallow

rock shelter, which was covered in loose rocks and boulders. After clearing the rocks and finding

the proper equipment, they entered what would be known as the Brunel Chamber, full of cave art

impressive in both scale and detail. Animals were painted not only as individual creatures, but in

complete scenes. The painting shown is the far left side of the Panel of Horses, from the Hillaire

Chamber.

Before discussing this painting in detail, it is important to note the issue of dating at

Chauvet. Preliminary reports from carbon-dating suggested that the cave was as old as 33,000

BC, which would make it one of the oldest examples of cave art and by far the most complex for

its time.1 Before this discovery, our understanding of prehistoric artistic development said that

over the roughly 20,000 years of Paleolithic cave art, artists gradually became more skilled,

paintings became more detailed, and the art styles became more varied. Posting Chauvet at

33,000 BC forces a re-evaluation of this understanding. Recently, many scholars have taken

issue with this dating on scientific and archaeological grounds, and have proposed dates that are

more in line with our original understanding. Paul Bahn, for instance, argues that the paintings

date to two separate periods: The more rudimentary black and red outlines, such as the famous

Chauvet cave bear, may have been as early as 26,000 BC, but not earlier, while he argues that the

more complex charcoal drawings came from a second phase of human activity, between 23,000

and 17,000 BC.2 This debate is still ongoing and has sharply divided the archaeological world,

but to many the lack of clarity surrounding the date just adds to the attraction of the Chauvet art.
Chauvet is an amazingly diverse collection of Paleolithic art forms. The cave combines

broad painting with fine engravings and drawings,3 and naturalism with artistic interpretation.4

Charcoal was combined with white pigments from the cave walls to create ranges of color and

detail.5 The rhinoceros in the center-right of this painting, for example, is drawn incredibly

accurately for Paleolithic art, yet it has an abnormally large horn, no doubt some form of artistic

expression. The types of art varied as well: Animal art, kike the scene here, is common, but

symbols are often interspersed with the art,6 as well as negative hand stencils,7 and cave bear

bones in apparently meaningful arrangements. For example, two cave bear arm bones are stuck

into the ground about 30 feet apart near a cave bear skull.8 The meaning of this is unclear, but the

presence of such an extensive variety of art in Chauvet has attracted the attention of

archaeologists and the public alike.

The Panel of Horses itself has raised considerable interest among archaeologists. The

panel features 19 figures from six different species, with nine figures dominating: four horses, all

facing left side by side and superimposed on one another, consume the center of the painting and

give the panel its name; two rhinoceroses apparently charging at each other fill the lower right,

and three aurochs in a similar position to the horses dominate the left half of the painting, shown

here.9 The artist here used many of the techniques discussed above: The aurochs were shaded

with broad, charcoal-black lines smudged by an artist’s fingertips, but fine detail was used for

their horns, eyes, nostrils, and mouths.10 There are other figures in the paintings which were

either unfinished, like the horse-like outline at the bottom of this image, or are unclear, like the

figure on the left. However, all but two figures, one of the fighting rhinos and the figure on the

left half of this image, face left, a detail that is unusually consistent for Paleolithic art.
Some have seen this consistency in more than just the direction of the animals. Carole

Fritz and Gilles Tosello have done extensive artistic analysis on the Panel of Horses, publishing

data on the exact sequencing of the art’s production. By “locating where the mark of a tool (e.g.,

flint, pigment ‘crayon,’ brush, finger) begins and ends on the surface of the cave wall” and

combining that with overlays of the panel, they have created a sort of map, tracing the artist’s

movements as he or she painted the Panel of Horses.11 Fritz and Tosello have concluded that in

the Panel of Horses, the rhino scene was painted first, the aurochs second, and the horses third.

This motion apparently went in a clockwise circle, moving from the bottom-right edge, to the left

edge, and finally moving in to the center of the panel.12 They point out the peculiarity that the

major figures were organized and painted in sequence according to their species, something that

was rare in Paleolithic art.13 Fritz and Tosello speculate, based on this evidence, that the figures

were painted as part of a story, comparing them to “characters entering a scene in a movie”,

which could have been accompanied by a story.14 While it is difficult to draw any sweeping

conclusions based on this analysis, this is just one of the ways that careful research is yielding

results in Chauvet.

The Panel of Horses is one of the most well-known sights from Chauvet, because it

captures much of what makes the cave so unique. From peculiarities in sequencing to fascinating

variety within the art itself, the art shown here has been and will continue to be an excellent

piece of human history. The research of this art, when combined with research into the dating of

the art, allows us to produce intricate theories and important considerations on artistic trends as

they existed in the Paleolithic.


1. Vialou, Denis. 1998. Prehistoric Art and Civilization. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 139.
2. Bahn, Paul; Pettitt, Paul. 2015. “An Alternative Chronology for the Art of Chauvet Cave.”
Antiquity 89 (345). 542-553. 550.
3. Vialou. Prehistoric Art. 67.
4. Vialou. Prehistoric Art. 88.
5. Clottes, Jean. Martin, Oliver; Martin, Robert (Translators). 2016. What is Paleolithic Art?
Cave Paintings and the Dawn of Human Creativity. Chicago; London. University of Chicago
Press. 162.
6. Vialou. Prehistoric Art. 67.
7. Clottes. What is Paleolithic Art? 165.
8. Clottes. What is Paleolithic Art? 135.
9. Fritz, Carole; Tosello, Gilles. 2007. "The Hidden Meaning of Forms: Methods of Recording
Paleolithic Parietal Art." Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 14 (1). 48-80. 73.
10. Fritz. “Hidden Meaning of Forms.” 63.
11. Fritz. “Hidden Meaning of Forms.” 61.
12. Fritz. “Hidden Meaning of Forms.” 76.
13. Fritz. “Hidden Meaning of Forms.” 77.
14. Fritz. “Hidden Meaning of Forms.” 77.