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A Virtual Visit to the “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”

Every blockbuster seems to come out in 3D these days.  The only one I actually saw this summer didn’t have superheroes, but was actually a documentary about prehistoric art.  In “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”, Werner Herzog and a 3D film crew were allowed to shoot the recently discovered Chauvet Caves in the South of France which contains animal drawings over 30,000 years old.  Realizing that a few decades of tourist traffic has severely damaged the Lascaux Caves, the French government has limited access to Chauvet meaning that this movie may be your only way of seeing the cave art.

Grouping of horses from Chauvet (Image from Bradshaw Foundation)

I know Herzog is famous and an “artist” but this documentary would have been better if the History Channel had complete control and not just acted as a producer.  Herzog tried to be reflective about what it means to be human and our ability as modern people to understand Upper Paleolithic humans but it came off shallow – like he was just throwing out some rhetorical questions.  He tried to add historical context through an atlatl demonstration and a trip to see early female stone figurines, but it wasn’t quite enough.

What I was looking for was more analysis of the cave.  In one of the best scenes, an archaeologist describes a series of painted hand imprints and what this teaches us about the artist.  (Spoiler Alert!  He was six feet tall and had a broken pinky finger!)  There is also cool digital fly-through of the cave but the narration doesn’t clearly enough establish the lay-out of the cave, the locations of the art within it, and the possible cultural meaning of the art’s placement.  I hate to say it, but National Geographic or NOVA would have done this in the first 15 minutes.

Crowd of elegant lions (Image from the Bradshaw Foundation)

As much additional history as I would have liked, the art in Chauvet is absolutely amazing and the film does a good job of capturing its beauty.  I could have watched 20 more minutes of slow pans over the cave paintings.  The horses and lions seemed more realistic than other similarly dated cave drawings.  The composition of the animal groupings is also very sophisticated placing layer on layer of figures.

To explore Chauvet cave on-line, see the French Ministry of Culture or the Bradshaw Foundation which is dedicated to the preservation of rock art.  And by all means, watch “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”.

*UPDATE* – As of June 22, 2014, the Cauvet Caves have been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site!  You definitely need to see this film now since visitors are still not allowed within the real cave.

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