The Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Drawings on cave wall

A frieze of horses and rhinos near the Chauvet cave’s Megaloceros Gallery, where artists may have gathered to make charcoal for drawing. Chauvet contains the earliest known paintings, from at least thirty-two thousand years ago.

I have become quite addicted to movie going of recent times.  Just this last week I have seen Oranges and Sunshine, Incendies a French film about twins searching for their father and brother (more on this movie in a later blog) and yesterday I saw The Cave of Forgotten Dreams.  Click here to see the trailer.

The International Film Festival is on at present and we are spoiled for choice.

But back to yesterday’s movie.  It is a documentary about the finding of the cave in 1994 by three spelunkers and it takes us into the cave to see the fantastic drawings made by primitive man; but drawings that are not at all primitive.

Directed and fronted by Werner Herzog. the acclaimed German film director and producer,  it is a powerful insight into a life so far removed from ours in time and distance.  On the subject of the art Herzog says “Art … as it bursts on the scene 32,000 years ago, is fully accomplished. It doesn’t start with ‘primitive scribblings’ and first attempts like children would make drawings,” Herzog says. “It’s absolutely and fully accomplished.”

Herzog was first alerted to these cave drawings by Judith Thurman who wrote about them in her Letter from Southern France in the New Yorker in June 2008.

The cave has been named the Chauvet after one of the three men who discovered it, and it  is in the Ardèche valley in Southern France.  We are told it is about 400 metres long with many huge  chambers. The floor of the cave is littered with archaeological and palaeontological remains, including the skulls and bones of cave bears, which hibernated there, along with the skulls of an ibex and two wolves. The cave bears also left innumerable scratches on the walls and footprints on the ground.

Of particular interest in the movie, is when Dominique Baffier, archaeologist and curator of Chauvet Cave, tours the drawings . Each one tells a story.  She points us to a hand print that clearly shows the owner has a bent little finger on his right hand.  Further into the cave she shows this same print at one of the drawings.

In another mystery, only one human form was drawn. On a rock pendant, the bottom half of a woman with Venus of Willendorf proportions appears. The team mounts its camera on a stick to reveal the upper half of the image for the first time. It is a bison head.

The cave is not open to view and Herzog considers himself particularly lucky to have been given this opportunity.

The 3-D camerawork brings viewers more deeply into the cave. Herzog’s offbeat narration and  metaphysical musings keep the film lively. A sacred feeling is evoked in kinship with the ancients.

Only a small camera and four small, portable panel lights were allowed. Filmed under strict limitations to protect the delicate ecology, the scenes inspire awe.

Pont d'arc Arch

Pont d'Arch Arch below the cav

I have spent all day so far, on the internet fining out more about this cave and the drawings and now I leave it to you to further research if you are interested.

More on the cave by Craig Packer and Jean Clottes – When Lions Ruled France. and here’s a link to the official Chauvet Cave site


13 responses to “The Cave of Forgotten Dreams

  1. How interesting! You are learning, and teaching a lot this summer, er, winter. 🙂


    • Yes Patti – opening this mind and learning new things. This was a particularly fascinating movie and I urge you to see it if it comes to your neighbourhood.


  2. Besides for whatever personal or contemporary use these drawings were made it shows several things. They knew something greater than themselves existed, perhaps a sense of human destiny. They left their story of themselves for us in an effort not to be forgotten. It also hints that precivilization cultures were more intelligent and sophisticated than we give credit. Esp with herbal medicines and astronomy. I always wanted to be a paleontologist.


    • Yes, particularly when we consider that Neanderthal man was around at that time. Interesting how they didn’t show any birds and only that one part drawing of a woman.
      It certainly was well worth going to see and if it comes back after the Festival i shall probably go back to see it again.
      Interesting that you wanted to be a paleontologist and then chose to teac history. There is a link there.


  3. So you’re one of those cultured people I keep hearing about but have never actually met.


  4. jacquelincangro

    I’ll have to look for this documentary when it comes to the US. I recently learned about Chauvet cave from a book called Being with Animals. The author wrote, “From the archaeological record, it is clear that these animals were rarely hunted; the images are thus not simple depictions of daily life at the time they were made. Why did people paint animals in such overwhelming abundance, yet choose to record their own images hardly at all?” The animals in the drawings are “symbolizing something more.”
    Very interesting indeed!


  5. Thanks Jacquelin. I spent a good part of yesterday on the internet finding out more about the cave and the people who lived then. What a lucky find for Chauvet and his companions. this could have gone unheralded and unseen for many more generations.


  6. Pingback: And Yet Another Movie | I choose how I will spend the rest of my life

  7. Really interesting post, Judith! I had not heard of the cave and the drawings. I’ll have to look for this documentary. Lucky you to be in the midst of a film festival. 🙂


  8. I am absolutely fascinated by the drawings and how new they appear. Obviously, because they have been closed away for so many centuries. Oh and the festival finishes today but we are very lucky in that we have several bijou cinemas in Wellington and they show many movies that are not mainstream. 🙂


  9. This is fascinating and makes for even more interesting copy when we read that Werner Herzog directed it… One of my favorites. I will look and see if I can watch it somewhere. TY! 🙂


  10. It is most certainly something to watch out for. Since I wrote the post I have found many more items on this cave. I hope you do get the chance to see it. 🙂


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