LEFT The Palaeolithic paintings of Lascaux’s Great Hall of the Bulls recreated in the precise replica Lascaux IV.

The elusive cave writing of Lascaux

When Jean-Luc Champerret explored the Lascaux caves soon after their rediscovery, he saw not paintings but ancient writing. With the publication of his extraordinarily imaginative interpretation, Simon Coppock revisits the caves and their elusive, poetic markings.

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The way Simon Coencas told it, nearly eight decades later, it hinged on teenage boys trying to impress the girls. Those girls were refugees of the German occupation of France. From Lorraine, they had arrived in the early years of the Second World War near the village of Montignac in the Dordogne. And Coencas and his friends, Jacques Marsal and Georges Agnel, were on the hunt for a tunnel that, local myth insisted, was stuffed with treasure the boys could use in their wooing.

Instead, they stumbled across an older village boy, Marcel Ravidat, whose hunting dog, Robot, was stuck in a hole. When they fetched a lantern and candles and started to dig the dog out, they were astonished to discover a substantial shaft, running some 15 metres into the hill. The boys held back, too frightened to enter, until the 18-year-old Ravidat plucked up his courage, grabbed the lantern, and led them down.

LEFT The Palaeolithic paintings of Lascaux’s Great Hall of the Bulls recreated in the precise replica Lascaux IV.
The Palaeolithic paintings of Lascaux’s Great Hall of the Bulls recreated in the precise replica Lascaux IV. IMAGE: © Dan Courtice.

‘The smell!’ recalled Coencas in a BBC interview. ‘It smelt of earth and humidity.’ Past the limestone stalactites and stalagmites they entered a huge subterranean chamber, decorated with exquisite paintings of long-extinct aurochs. In was 12 September 1940 and the boys were standing in the Great Hall of the Bulls, the first humans to do so for 19,000 years. They had rediscovered the extraordinary Palaeolithic art of the Lascaux cave system.

Unlike the exceptional cave art that had been found in Altamira in Spain in the 1870s – and was routinely dismissed as a modern forgery – the pictures at Lascaux were immediately celebrated as a great and ancient expression of human artistry. Experts painstakingly recorded the paintings: not only aurochs, but horses, stags and big cats, a bison, a reindeer, abstracted birds, a rhinoceros, and even a bird-headed, ithyphallic man, all painted in red (haematite), yellow (goethite) and black (manganese oxide).

All told, some 6,000 figures – nearly a fifth of them animals – would be found in these caves, the largest of them an aurochs more than 5m long. No wonder Coencas said, ‘We knew the cave inside out – and yet, at every visit, we were struck with awe.’ Almost immediately, people wanted to visit, and guided tours proved lucrative for locals.

On 14 July 1948, Lascaux was formally opened to the public, with archaeological investigations beginning at around the same time. By the mid 1950s, there were 1,200 visitors a day. Picasso shook his head in wonder: ‘We have invented nothing new,’ the artistic innovator said. But the carbon dioxide from his breath and that of the other visitors, and the increased humidity and temperature changes they brought to the caves, damaged the paintings – in some cases beyond restoration, leaving only the drawings of the first visitors as a record of what had been there.

Above A deer in the Painted Gallery at Lascaux IV.
A deer in the Painted Gallery at Lascaux IV. IMAGE: © Dan Courtice.

The decision was made in 1963 to close the caves to everyone but the professionals – with restrictions on visits becoming ever more stringent since then. More than a million people had seen the paintings in the 20 years since their rediscovery.

In 1979, Lascaux’s significance was confirmed when it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, part of the Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley. The Vézère has some two dozen painted caves (as well as three type-sites: La Micoque, Le Moustier, and La Madeleine rock shelter), but the art at Lascaux is the most vivid and detailed, as well as being on the largest scale. How could the public see this historic place without simultaneously destroying it?

The Grand Palais in Paris had been displaying a precise facsimile of both the Great Hall of the Bulls and the Painted Gallery from Lascaux, and in 1983 the exhibits were moved to just a few hundred metres from the caves themselves. Soon, Lascaux II was welcoming 300,000 visitors a year. In 2012, five further reproductions were made, for international display as Lascaux III. Finally, in 2016 the Centre International de l’Art Pariétal (International Centre for Parietal Art) opened Lascaux IV, a complete reproduction of the Lascaux cave art, enhanced by digital technology. This Montignac museum, designed by the Norwegian architectural practice Snøhetta, allowed ordinary people to admire Lascaux’s art in vivid detail for the first time since 1963.

Most visitors – past and present – are drawn to the animated animal paintings, but back in 1940 one particular visitor to Lascaux was struck by something else. It is now known that abstract patterns and designs (scratches and dots, handprints made by spraying paint through hollow bones) are the earliest forms of human artistic expression, but even back in those war-ravaged days Jean-Luc Champerret was captivated by the caves’ simple abstract symbols: spots and lines, curves and hatching, semi-circles, and triangles.

Champerret was born in Le Moustier on 11 September 1910 – one of those prehistoric type-sites, close to Montignac – but after that, until his rather romantic, locally published collection of poems, Chants de la Dordogne, appeared in 1941, nothing much is known of him. In Paris at the time of the Occupation, he joined the Resistance, working as a codebreaker, before fleeing to a château near his childhood home in the Dordogne. He was there when news broke of the rediscovery of Lascaux.

BELOW The black cow in the Nave, replicated at Lascaux IV. Beneath it are grids of coloured squares.
The black cow in the Nave, replicated at Lascaux IV. Beneath it are grids of coloured squares. IMAGE: © Dan Courtice.

The Resistance sent Champerret to investigate the caves with a view to their use as a hiding place from the Germans, but this was rendered impossible by Lascaux’s almost instant fame: it is reported that in the week from 21 September 1940, 1,500 people visited the caves. (Intriguingly, the novelist André Malraux – the Ministre d’État Chargé des Affaires Culturelles, who ordered the 1963 closure of Lascaux – mentions in his fictionalised autobiography of 1967, Antimémoires, that Lascaux was used by Resistance fighters as a weapons cache.) Nonetheless, the visits gave Champerret a perfect opportunity to see the cave art in its pristine state.

The effect was electrifying. He began to fill notebook after notebook with careful copies of the symbols he had seen, showing precious little interest in the more elaborate paintings. He quickly developed the idea that the symbols were (or might have been) logographic: a form of writing in which each character represents an object or objects, rather than either a word or the sound from a word. He decided he would crack the code.

In February 1942, the Gestapo arrived at the château. Perhaps tipped off, Champerret was gone, and might have vanished from history completely had it not been for poet and translator Philip Terry. Returning from a holiday in France in 2006, Terry dropped in on an architect friend who was hard at work on a château conversion when he found a crate of notes and poem drafts. And so it was that Terry received the archive – mouse-chewed and filthy – of Champerret’s Lascaux experiments.

It was a few years later that Terry finally had a proper look through the contents of the box, and realised they were quite remarkable. He is clear that many experts eschew any possibility of making sense of cave symbols (he quotes Mario Ruspoli: ‘the signs are unfathomably mysterious’), but he saw the value of Champerret’s painstaking work and set about editing and translating his notebooks into English. The Lascaux Notebooks, handsomely published by Carcanet earlier this year, is the fruit of Terry and Champerret’s trans-historical collaboration.

Charcoal drawings from Champerret’s notebooks, reproduced in facsimile by Lou Terry in collaboration with the Art Department of the Pôle de la Préhistoire. Champerret interpreted the marks on the left as meaning mountains, mine, or village (top) and people, silhouettes, henge, hunters (bottom); the symbol in the middle as tree, leaf, bush, grass; and the lines on the right as mist, night, shade, water, black, fog, smoke, shadow, death, darkness. IMAGES: courtesy of Carcanet Press / photography by Paul Anderson.

Terry’s introduction details Champerret’s method. First, Champerret suggested meanings that might be attached to particular repeated symbols: a cluster of horizontal lines might represent the night, a pair of acute accents perhaps indicated a hut… or a mountain. Then he began to wonder about groups of symbols: ‘The sign for mountains in conjunction with the sign for journey would convey, for example, that a hunting party had crossed the mountains.’ But he had also seen in the caves – especially in the Nave – that the painters liked to gather symbols into grids of nine, divided into three lines of three. What if, as Terry puts it, these grids ‘originally… used for practical purposes… evolved to form the basis of the first written poetry… an astonishing, almost unbelievable proposition, in effect announcing the discovery of Ice Age poetry.’ The Lascaux Notebooks offer English readers a privileged view of just such a possibility – through dozens of redrawn grids, Champerret’s notional glossary of the symbols, and hundreds of translations of Champerret’s sequential interpretations and prose myths.

It is hard to imagine many academics will be convinced. Indeed, one of Terry’s many intriguing finds among the papers was a tart reply in June 1941 to Champerret from Paul Rivet, at that time Director of the Musée de L’Homme: ‘Thank you for your essay on the caves… The study of Upper Palaeolithic parietal art is a science, and should be left in the hands of specialists… . Your work is pure fantasy.’ Rivet continues: ‘I sincerely discourage you from pursuing your speculations…’

Reading Terry’s book, however, Champerret’s ‘fantasy’ is seductive. His method, no matter that it should lack ‘science’, has created a poetry that is endlessly fascinating.

above The grid from Boîte Noir: Carnet Noir 33, with signs reproduced in ink by Lee Shearman in collaboration with archivists at the Pôle de la Préhistoire.
The grid from Boîte Noir: Carnet Noir 33, with signs reproduced in ink by Lee Shearman in collaboration with archivists at the Pôle de la Préhistoire. IMAGE: courtesy of Carcanet Press.

Perhaps it is best to have a look at how the work is presented. First the grid is reprinted. Let’s look at Boîte Noir: Carnet Noir 33 (see the grid of symbols below left). The signs are given these word meanings:

night journey mountains
woman track hut
song rain trees

Then worked into increasingly sophisticated poems. First:

At night
I came down
from the mountains
a woman
led me
to her hut
we sang
as rain fell
among trees

Then:

At dusk
I came down
from blue mountains
you
led me to
your busy hut
we sang and drank
as the rain fell
on the pines

And finally:

As dusk fell
I came down from the mountains
blue below [?] the skyline
you took my hand
and led me to your hut
full of the voices of children
we sang and drank
rejoicing as the rain came down
over the dark pines

This is a poetry oddly out of time, neither quite modern nor entirely ancient, yet inextricably entwining both epochs. Terry calls Champerret’s work ‘a threefold victory for poetry: it is poetry, here utilised as a sacred methodology, that cracks the code; it is the poetic corpus of Homo sapiens fossilis that is thereby restored to us; and in his own poems, Champerret presents us with some of the most revolutionary post-Mallarméan poetry to have been written in the twentieth century.’

Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) was a French poet whose influence on the history of 20th-century writing far exceeded his contemporary impact. Notable among his innovations were the typographical experiments of his long poem ‘Un coup de dés’ (‘A Throw of the Dice’, 1897), an especially radical exploration of how the arrangement of words across a page might loosen up meanings by exploiting almost musical effects.

One fine example from Champerret of his Mallarméan approach takes from the cave symbols this sentence: ‘The cascading hair of a woman at sunset is like the glimmer of a waterfall in the forest glade’. That line is then written across an entire double-page spread, as if the words themselves are cascading – like hair, like waterfalls – all down the left margin and across the bottom of both pages, to beautiful and evocative effect.

Another key presence in this book from modern French poetry is Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), a pioneer of what became known as concrete poetry – another form of writing that depends on the visual arrangement of words as much as on their aural or literal meanings. His relevance to Champerret’s approach to the cave symbols is self-evident.

Without the original French, we see Champerret’s work, of course, through blurred reading glasses. But Terry’s English versions, with their dependence on solid nouns and simple verbs, their tone of sincerity, directness, and clarity, are intriguingly close to the Objectivist poetry of the 1930s. Two poems recall work by the American modernist – and major Objectivist – William Carlos Williams (1883-1963). One of Terry’s versions reads:

To say I have eaten
the fruit that
you were keeping in the hut
you will have to
make do with
roots when you break fast
eating the fruit
I thought
how delicious how cold

This bears close comparison with Williams’ ‘This is just to say’ of 1934 (‘I have eaten/the plums/that were in/the icebox//and which/you were probably/saving/for breakfast//Forgive me/they were delicious/so sweet). Later in The Lascaux Notebooks, there is a strong echo of Williams’ most famous poem (‘so much depends/upon/a red wheel/barrow’, 1923):

So much depends
upon the red bison
from the hills

Did Champerret know Williams’ poetry? The dates make it possible, though it seems unlikely, and our ignorance of Champerret’s life means that we can never know. And what are we to make of hints of even more remote cultures, such as Chinese poetry of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907): for example, ‘Awake/at night/I play the flute//the night/is filled/with stars’. Is this in Champerret’s original French – and, beyond that, the cave symbols themselves – or are we reading from Terry’s cultural matrix? Either way, the sensation of reading poetry that may predate better mapped, more recent cultures is delicious.

What are we celebrating here? An act simply of Champerret and Terry’s imagination, or the idea of a possibility, the possibility that we might be able to understand our remote ancestors? Even more than that, this book celebrates the idea that, even when stuck in a French villa with the Gestapo combing the countryside outside, it might be worth the effort to attempt to reach back through the millennia and talk to a people we can never really know.

In Rod Mengham’s interesting little book Language (1993), he says of logographic writing that ‘it promotes a legibility that can be achieved without any knowledge of the particular language for which it is used’. The dream is that, though we can never know the language the people who left their mark on Lascaux spoke, through their complex symbols we somehow come to understand what they meant to say.

Jean-Luc Champerret’s The Lascaux Notebooks is edited and translated by Philip Terry and published by Carcanet Press (ISBN 978-1800171725; £19.99)
For more information about visiting Lascaux IV, the complete replica of the cave at the Centre International de l’Art Pariétal, visit www.lascaux.fr/en