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date: 26 March 2017

European Palaeolithic Rock Art and Spatial Structures

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the question of spatiality/spatial structure in rock art by focusing on European Upper Palaeolithic art, commonly known as cave art. More specifically, it considers the existence of structural principles, both physical and mental, important in understanding the artists’ ways of thinking. After discussing the role of the landscape in rock art, the chapter explains how Palaeolithic peoples of Europe dealt with a wide range of spatial choices and possibilities: for example, when a site was chosen as appropriate for artworks, or whether people developed one or more spatial models that they would apply or adapt to their chosen sites. It provides evidence showing that Upper Palaeolithic peoples held beliefs and customs that were reflected in the nature and structure of the paintings, engravings, and carvings that they created in hopes of establishing contact with the spirit world and deriving benefits from such connections.

Keywords: spatiality, spatial structure, rock art, Europe, Upper Palaeolithic, cave art, landscape, visual art, spatial choices, paintings

As soon as Palaeolithic people began to make visual art on rocks, they were confronted with all sorts of possible choices. Would they choose particular landscapes, or just leave their images anywhere in whatever places were easily available? Would the decorated sites be in the light, or in the dark, or both? When a site was chosen, how did they approach it in order to choose panels and surfaces on which to paint or to engrave, and how did they take into account the innumerable cracks and reliefs on those surfaces? Finally, was their art spatially structured: did it respond to a model that they would apply or adapt to the sites chosen, as has been postulated since André Leroi-Gourhan published his theories in the second half of the twentieth century? These are the main points that we shall examine herein, trying to find what the possible motives could have been for the choices made.

Rock Art Sites and Landscapes

The importance of landscape relating to rock art has been gradually recognized. ‘Arguably, landscape and place are as important as the paint or stone chisel which made the image’, and it may even have been ‘as important to the artist as the images she or he was painting or carving’ (Nash & Chippindale 2002: 1). The initial choices made are thus relevant to a study of spatial structure.

Even a quick survey of European Palaeolithic rock art reveals a distribution of the sites that appears far from random or only conditioned by the possibilities afforded by natural landscapes. For example, in Central Europe, even when caves abound (more than 2,000 in the Czech Republic) and were sometimes inhabited in the Ice Age (Mladec cave), we know hardly any painted sites (Coliboaia in Rumania) and only one possible engraved one (Hunsrück, Germany) (Welker 2015).

Even if some painted/engraved caves happen to be isolated (e.g., Creswell Crags in England, Gouy in Normandy, Cosquer near Marseilles in France), several big groups stand out, the most prominent being in the southwest of France and along the Cantabrian coast of Spain (Gonzalez Sainz et al. 2002). The Dordogne group, with more than 60 sites, is prolonged to the south with that of Quercy (more than 30 sites). Between the Atlantic Ocean and the long mountain ranges roughly parallel to it called the Cantabrian Mountains, more than 150 sites have been recorded, from the Basque country to Asturias. The French Pyrenees have more than 30 (mostly Magdalenian) whereas, strangely enough, painted caves are very rare on the Spanish side of the range (Fuente del Trucho in Aragón). Other smaller groups can be found in the Ardèche lower valley (about two dozen sites) or in the south of Andalucia in Spain (half a dozen, including some important ones like Nerja, Ardales, and El Parpalló).

The availability of suitable places (caves, shelters) is an obvious condition for the presence of Palaeolithic art, but the clusters just mentioned indicate that other parameters were prominent. The process might have been similar to what happens with cemeteries: first a place is chosen for the first tombs, for example near a sacred monument (a church); then, the place having thus been ‘sanctified’, other tombs are added and the cemetery exists and extends. Choosing a particular cave or shelter to draw on its walls might have had the same consequences (i.e., attributing a spiritual value or power to the place itself and then to its surroundings).

European Palaeolithic Rock Art and Spatial StructuresClick to view larger

Figure 1. Entrance to the Niaux cave (Ariège, France). The spectacular opening in the mountain was impressive enough to set it apart and attract people for their ceremonies.

European Palaeolithic Rock Art and Spatial StructuresClick to view larger

Figure 2. The Mas d’Azil cave (Ariège), here seen from inside, is huge. It is crossed over by a river and now by a road.

As to the initial choices, there might have been a number of reasons that can sometimes add up and combine. Some cave openings, for example, are so vast and spectacular in the landscape that they could not fail to impress people. Niaux in the Vicdessos valley (Ariège, France) is one such (55 metres high and 50 metres wide) (Figure 1). A few hundred metres before it, another cave, called Petite Caougno has an also very visible porch (9 metres high and 11 metres wide): it probably was the entrance to what is called Le Réseau Clastres, another painted cave deep under the mountain. A few kilometres away in a different valley, Bédeilhac cave also has a majestic porch and galleries and was decorated. Still in the Ariège, Le Mas d’Azil not only is a cave of gigantic proportions but it is unique in so far as a river, the Arize, flows through it from end to end, more than 420 metres (Figure 2). Nowadays, a road follows the river and the cars drive all through the cave! In Le Mas D’Azil, a small gallery has been engraved. One would have expected much more in such an enormous cavern, which was inhabited from the Aurignacian onward, but it suffered so much damage over the past centuries that it is probable that much has been destroyed. Another impressive cave opening is that of Pindal (Asturias, Spain). Its vast porch opens quite close to the Atlantic Ocean, which it faces. Places like these were obvious choices in the landscape.

Another major painted cave is El Castillo (Puente Viesgo, Spain). Its porch has attracted people since the beginning of the Palaeolithic (excavations revealed a stratigraphy 18 metres thick), and its paintings cover the whole chronological range from the Aurignacian to the Magdalenian. Not only is it important in itself, but we know three other painted caves close to it, in the same hill (La Pasiega, Las Chimeneas, Las Monedas). This is thus a striking example of what can be called a ‘sacred mountain’. Perhaps the shape of the mountain itself, where one can see an animal crouching, played a part (Figure 3).

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Figure 3. El Castillo (Puente Viesgo, Cantabria, Spain). The mountain where one could see an animal crouching harbours four painted caves (El Castillo, La Pasiega, Las Monedas, Las Chimeneas).

Groups of painted caves are frequent. They may be in a particular hill, like the three caves of Isturitz-Oxocelhaya-Erberua in the French Basque country or the Ardales caves (Covalanas, La Haza, etc.) in Cantabria. Quite often they are in relation to rivers. Among the best known, 25 decorated caves were put in one lump on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1979 as belonging to the Vézère Valley (Dordogne). In Portugal, the Côa Valley rock art, with its thousands of petroglyphs, has also become a World Heritage site. The engravings are distributed all along the river and some ofits tributaries. On the other side of the border, in Spain, the Siega Verde petroglyphs follow the same pattern on a smaller scale. Several caves are scattered along the confluence of the rivers Célé and Lot, in the French southwest. Others are famous, like the three Volp caverns (Les Trois-Frères, Le Tuc d’Audoubert, Enlène) in the Ariège. In their case, the Magdalenians must have been struck by the stream getting lost inside the hill and reappearing hundreds of metres further through a large porch, that of Le Tuc d’Audoubert.

Perhaps the best example of a relation of painted caves to a natural spectacular feature is the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave in the Ardèche Valley and the other caves nearby. Le Pont d’Arc (The Arch Bridge) is a gigantic opening in a limestone cliff that barred the valley: eventually the river bored its way through, and the arch is now 59 metres wide and 54 metres high. From downstream, its shape may evoke a mammoth turned to the left, with its humped back, front leg, and belly (Figure 4). Whatever Aurignacians saw in it, they must have had stories about such an unusual feature, just as, all over the world, traditional people interpret and attach power to any geological marvel such as this one. The geologists who have studied it are certain that Le Pont d’Arc existed hundreds of thousands of years ago, long before modern humans came into the valley (Delannoy et al. 2010): they must have seen it basically as it is now. It cannot thus be a coincidence if that lower valley of the Ardèche habours not only a group of decorated caves (about two dozen in all), but that among those closer to Le Pont d’Arc, at about half an hour’s walk away, there should be one of the most important caves ever discovered in Europe, now called Chauvet-Pont d’Arc (Clottes 2014).

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Figure 4. Le Pont d’Arc (Ardèche, France). The Ardèche river slowly bored its way through this enormous shoulder of rock to create Le Pont d’Arc hundreds of thousands of years ago. Seen from downstream, one could interpret it as a mammoth turned to the left, with the knob of its head, the line of its back, the front leg, and the arch of the belly.

For many traditional cultures, like the Saami in northern Europe, ‘the cultural landscape is in people’s minds as well as “out there” in nature’ (Mulk & Bayliss-Smith 2006: 114). From the distribution of Palaeolithic painted sites in Europe we can infer that, in addition to the presence of spectacular cave openings, what structured their cultural landscape were some hills/mountains, chosen streams, and particular geological features to which many beliefs and stories must have been attached.

Deep caves also played an important part in structuring their mental landscape. From the number of painted/engraved sites in the dark—about half the total of known sites—the others being shelters or rocks out in the open like those at Foz Côa (Clottes 1997)—we can be certain that people were on the lookout for caves to be used. In a majority of places in the world where rock art was made and at all times, the dark is generally avoided. In Africa, in India, and in many other areas, examples abound of painted shelters that are prolonged by a deep cave: in which case, the images stop with the light. It is because of its stupendously long tradition in that respect that European Palaeolithic art often goes by the name of Cave Art. André Leroi-Gourhan rightly stressed that deep and/or difficult caves were more often frequented and decorated at the time of the Middle Magdalenian than ever before. However, the same can be said of the Final Magdalenian as well (Clottes 1997), and the discoveries of the past decades, such as that of Chauvet-Pont d’Arc, have revealed that going into the depths of the earth for their ceremonies (i.e., attributing a special value to the dark), probably seen as another powerful world, started with the Aurignacians.

Structuring the Sites by Choosing Places and Surfaces on Which to Draw

In extensive caves such as Niaux, Le Réseau Clastres or Le Tuc d’Audoubert (Ariège), Rouffignac (Dordogne), and Chauvet-Pont d’Arc (Ardèche), the artists were at the same time constrained by the layout of the cavern while having a nearly unlimited set of options due to the numerous wall surfaces available. It is thus enlightening to examine why they should have elected certain locations and not others to accumulate images there, turning them into some sorts of sanctuaries.

In Niaux, Le Salon Noir that holds more than 90% of the drawings is at the top end of a wide and impressive sloping gallery where the walls offer a number of panels in deep concavities well separated from each other (six panels in all). Their availability at this location may have been a powerful incentive. In Le Tuc d’Audoubert, the major works of art (the ‘Clay Bison’) are also right at the end of the cavern.

The determining reason for the choice of Le Salon Noir, though, was probably related to sound. From there, as in no other place in Niaux, one’s voice reverberates and resounds in a most impressive way. For people who believed that the subterranean world was full of supernatural spirits, the cave responding to their voices, their songs, and their music indicated a liminal place where ceremonies would be most effective. Sound may have played a part in other caves, as several researchers, like Michel Dauvois, Steven Waller, and Iegor Reznikoff have been arguing for years: ‘As we consider as a fact in painted Palaeolithic caves a significant correlation between images (paintings, engravings, signs) and the sonorous acoustical value of those places, we aim at studying the diverse significations of that correlation’ (Reznikoff 2012: 300).1

Another striking example of a choice determined by the particular topography of the cave is Rouffignac, where the most important painted surface, called Le Grand Plafond—both the main sanctuary and the center of the whole subterranean ensemble—(Barrière 1982: 194), is around a deep well reaching down to another extensive gallery below (Clottes 1997).

European Palaeolithic Rock Art and Spatial StructuresClick to view larger

Figure 5. Le Réseau Clastres, near Niaux. On either side of the big crack that is the only passage, in the main chamber, animals were drawn on each side. To the left, one can see a horse and to the right a bison.

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Figure 6. Le Réseau Clastres. The horse, followed by a weasel, on the left wall.

European Palaeolithic Rock Art and Spatial StructuresClick to view larger

Figure 7. Le Réseau Clastres. Two of the three bison on the right wall.

In Le Réseau Clastres, close to Niaux, in the most impressive chamber of the whole network, five animal images face each other (three bison on one wall, a horse and a weasel on the other) on each side of the narrow opening that leads into the depths of the cave (Figures 5, 6, 7).

As to Chauvet-Pont d’Arc, the main two panels (Panel of the Horses, Great Panel in the End Chamber) are constructed in exactly the same way; that is, with a number of animal representations on each side and on the entire surface of the walls bordering a central recess (Figures 8, 9). The animals represented differ in the proportions of the various species and in the emphasis given to particular subjects (the four horses’ heads for the Panel of the Horses; the group of 18 rhinos, and the scene where lions are hunting bison in the End Chamber), but the spatial structure is the same.

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Figure 8. Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave. The main panel in the End Chamber is also built on either side of a central recess occupied by the image of a horse drawn to its right.

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Figure 9. Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave. Bottom of the Recess of the Horses when the small opening is dry.

In the first case, we may have a clue to the initial reason for that choice. Right at the bottom of the recess, there is a small natural opening (Figure 9). After a long period of heavy rains, one sometimes hears a strange gurgle from inside the walls when the water pours down into and accumulates in hidden cavities. Then, the water overflows and starts running first into the recess before spreading into the Chamber of the Skull and covering its floor (Figure 10). If, as is probable, the Aurignacians witnessed the phenomenon, they must have been extremely impressed by the cave thus releasing its water.

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Figure 10. Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave. The Skull Chamber flooded after a period of heavy rains.

Nothing comparable exists in the End Chamber. There, it was the availability of the two panels on each side of the recess and their spectacular appearance which must have been determinant. The importance of the recess is stressed by the diverse animals that surround its entrance on both sides and on top and also by the way a lone horse was drawn right inside it, as though it were coming out of the wall on its right (Figure 8). This was done on purpose because the wall had been first scraped right in the middle of the recess to facilitate the drawing of the horse, which in fact was finally made in the extreme right to achieve the effect required.

In Chauvet-Pont d’Arc, we know a number of such examples. On the left side and at the top of the recess with the lone horse, the front part of the body of a bison was drawn exactly for the same purpose, taking advantage of a natural relief where the rest of its body seems to be hidden. In the cave, the very same process was also used for an ibex and for an aurochs.

The walls, their shapes, and irregularities were not just a support for the images. They played a fundamental part in their conception and realization. We have incontrovertible proof of the mental processes at work. When people went into a deep cave, from the Aurignacian (Chauvet-Pont d’Arc) onward, they devoted their closest attention to the rock surfaces to see whether they could descry animal shapes in the cracks and reliefs. They must have believed that the animal spirits were there, half emerging from the walls. The lighting techniques used at the time—torches or grease lamps that would cast a dim and fluctuating light—would help, as the walls seemed to come alive with the moving shadows cast by the flickering flames. Projecting their mental images onto the rock surfaces, they would find here the back of a bison or there the head of an ibex that they would complete. As with some modern hunter-gatherers, shapes seen in this way were probably taken for real, and drawing the rest of the animals would bring them to life or gain their protection and good will.

The spatial structure of the art in caves would thus at least partly depend on the natural reliefs visible on the walls and on the interpretations they were given by the Palaeolithic visitors who looked for them. This is somewhat in contradiction with the structuralist theories that knew a great success in the second part of the twentieth century.

Structuring the Art

After cave art was officially acknowledged as being Palaeolithic at the very beginning of the twentieth century (Cartailhac 1902), the first explanatory theories (art for art’s sake, totemism) did not consider that the art might be structured. Even with the hunting magic theory that ruled for most than half a century, mostly under the influence of the Abbé Henri Breuil and Count Henri Bégouën, eventual structures were quite secondary. People were supposed to go inside the deep caves for magical ceremonies. The art was then made more or less at random, through a series of disconnected actions. The act of painting or engraving (i.e., creating an image of an animal that one would hunt in order to facilitate/permit its hunting) was then more important than the work itself, its visibility, or its particular location inside the cave. This would explain the superimpositioning of images throughout the sites, as the first images had already enhanced the power of the chosen panel. The art was to ensure successful hunting of the animals they ate (horses, bison, reindeer, ibex), but also to destroy noxious animals (lions, bear) and to help the game multiply. In addition to the animal imagery, the geometric signs represented weapons, wounds, or traps. From that perspective, images were not created within a structured ensemble but individually in the course of special ceremonies, and they would add up through time.

During the 1960s and later, Annette Laming-Emperaire (1962) and André Leroi-Gourhan (1965) proposed structuralist interpretations of the art. Leroi-Gourhan was the more influential of the two. In fact, their structuralism still persists under various guises in contemporary research, even if their explanatory theories themselves are no longer considered valid. Leroi-Gourhan exposed the flaws of Henri Breuil’s scheme while favouring a similarly all-embracing explanation for the 25,000 years of Palaeolithic art. His was based on a sexual division of symbols—some animals (e.g., horses) and signs (according to their shapes) were male symbols, whereas others were female (e.g., bison, aurochs). Such symbols would be combined together and with the topography of the cave in a number of complex, deliberately thought-out compositions.

Leroi-Gourhan had come to the conclusion that there existed a formal organization of the subterranean sanctuaries, with a structure which was roughly the same in all caves: signs would mark the beginning and the end of the sanctuaries, whereas the prominent symbols (animals and signs) were represented in complex conjunctions on the main panels. Max Raphaël, a less well-known precursor of Leroi-Gourhan, propounded a structured art in the caves as early as 1945 but without the success of his followers (Raphaël 1945). After him, Laming-Emperaire and Leroi-Gourhan convincingly argued that the caves were not a random assemblage of images but that an ordered composition could be looked for and discovered in them. They believed that they had one broad form of organization that lasted for the whole Upper Palaeolithic and that was applied to all the decorated caves, with local variations.

Their theories created quite a stir but were eventually rejected because of their numerous errors, exceptions, and omissions and also, and perhaps above all, because when many new caves such as Chauvet-Pont d’Arc were later discovered they did not fit the proposed scheme (Clottes, ed. 2010). However, the basic idea that the art in a cave was structured one way or the other has inspired much modern work and has become a must in all Palaeolithic rock art research. ‘In the present state of our knowledge, looking for the overall composition of a panel or a series of panels is the best way to advance towards meaning’2 (Sauvet 1993: 306).

Denis Vialou, in his study of the Ariège Magdalenian caves (Vialou 1986), made use of a structuralist model like Leroi-Gourhan’s but, instead of finding one type of composition that all would strive to adapt to the caves, he argued that the art in each cave had its own original structure, a contention that can neither be proved nor disproved in most cases, except rarely and very broadly, as in Niaux and Chauvet.

In Niaux, we can be certain of a will to structure its vast space because the same pattern is repeated several times. The first 400 metres of the cave are devoid of art except for two red dots. Then, just when coming out of a narrow passage to the left of a huge pile of enormous rocks fallen from the ceiling, four other dots and one red line mark the place. A few metres further, one claviform and one bar on the right face four long parallel lines on the opposite wall. In many caves, entrance and bottom areas are marked with signs. In Niaux, claviforms played a special role in that respect because we also find them very far inside the cave near the end of the galleries. Most of all, they play an obvious ‘framing’ role twice. Just before Le Grand Carrefour (the Big Crossroads), where a wide gallery branches off to the right and ends with Le Salon Noir, is a cluster of signs (mostly dots and bars) with claviforms. We find a similar if not identical cluster right across Le Grand Carrefour on the first available panel in the Galerie Profonde (Deep Gallery). The same structure is visible at the Salon Noir itself. There, a claviform and a parallel bar were made on the first panel to the right, at the entrance. Right across and in front of it, in a deep cleft of the wall, are two claviforms and a double column of dots, but none on any of the six extensive painted panels of Le Salon Noir. Claviforms in Niaux thus had a definite role in symbolically marking and defining spaces in the cavern (Clottes 2010: 129).

All those claviforms are red. Was colour a significant space marker, too? This is what Denis Vialou (1986: 321) postulated in his comparison between Le Salon Noir, where black animals are prominent, and the other galleries in Niaux where red signs abound. In the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave, the choice of colour in relation to the topography is undeniable. The first part of the cave was named Les Salles Rouges (the Red Chambers), both because the calcited ground surface is often reddish due to an abundance of iron oxide and because nearly all the paintings are red. One may in fact wonder whether the reason of that choice of colour to represent the animals and signs could be due to the striking original red colour of the ground. After an intermediary middle chamber (La Salle du Cierge) with a lone crude mammoth engraving and marked at its entrance and exit by a short red bar, in the rest of the cave the representations were made with engravings—that stand out in white—and black drawings, whereas red paintings are much rarer.

Cultural structures in the art can also be investigated at a wider geographical level. Once more, Leroi-Gourhan (1981) showed the way by postulating that some geometrical signs, like Magdalenian claviforms, whatever their deeper meanings, could be ethnic markers (i.e., belonging to related groups over a limited territory). This meant that geographically different groups could have symbolic systems that were time- and/or place-specific, so that each could eventually be determined and compared with others. In time, this might lead to the identification of distinct social groups that would have culturally structured the landscape. Problems arise with this hypothesis when such characteristic signs are found outside the area where they are most numerous. For example, what is called Le Placard-type signs were first noticed and published in two caves in the Lot (Pech-Merle and Cougnac), and they seemed to correspond exactly to what Leroi-Gourhan had in mind. Then, identical signs were discovered to the west in greater numbers and with more variety (Le Placard, Charente) and even hundreds of miles to the east in the Cosquer cave near Marseilles (Clottes, Courtin, & Vanrell 2005) (Figure 11). In such cases, they are more likely to reveal contacts and influences over long distances rather than the structuring of local groups.

European Palaeolithic Rock Art and Spatial StructuresClick to view larger

Figure 11. Cosquer Cave (Marseille, Bouche-du-Rhône). Placard-type sign engraved on a wall covered with finger tracings.


European Palaeolithic art, commonly called ‘Cave Art’, presents characteristics that single it out as an ideal case study for determining structures, both physical and mental, that are important if we are to approach the authors of the art’s ways of thinking. With basically the same features, it lasted for more than 25,000 years. It spread over all of Europe from the tip of the Iberian Peninsula in Andalucia to the southern Urals in Russia (Ignatievskaia, Kapovaia). It was varied with its combination of animals, geometric signs, and rare human figures. Most of all, its huge cave component ensured its persistence and often excellent conservation in situ up to the present (i.e., it permitted in-depth studies with a scientific basis).

The results, even if by now specialists are used to them, are fairly impressive. It has been possible to determine geographical groups of varying importance and to propose likely hypotheses for the original choices which were determinant in starting the groups, such as the relationship between the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave and the Pont d’Arc itself for the Ardèche lower valley painted caves. Often (but not always), the fact that they chose to draw in the complete dark and did so all over Europe offers us perspectives about their ways of appreciating the subterranean world, which they probably believed to be another world distinct from ours, a world of the spirits, full of supernatural power.

We have seen that when they were inside the deep caves, they made all sorts of choices in relation to what they found and to their fundamental approach. The way a place resounded (Salon Noir in Niaux) might have been significant. The availability of cracks and bumps on the walls, the presence of recesses and their role—in a word, whatever the cave suggested to them as to the presence and dim visibility of the powers that inhabited it—provided the basic structure of their art.

As to the art itself, even if we shall never know the exact meaning(s) of the images they created so profusely, some preferences give us clues as to the relative importance they attached to certain animals (animal spirits?). Those preferences can be assessed over time, like the prominence of the most formidable animal species in the Aurignacian and not later. They are also apparent in space, for example, with the great number of does painted in the Cantabrian caves or with the prominence of bison drawn on the Niaux walls, even though the painters were ibex hunters, as can be seen from the excavations in the La Vache cave right in front of Niaux across the valley.

The art of Palaeolithic people is neither simple nor primitive (Clottes 2008). Among them were great artists and others not so great. All shared the same beliefs and customs that found their way in the nature and the structure of the paintings, engravings, and carvings that they created. They did so not to embellish the places where they lived but, as in all religions, to establish a contact with their spirits or their gods and to derive benefits from their help.


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(1) ‘Considérant ici comme acquise, dans les grottes paléolithiques à peintures, la corrélation significative entre l’emplacement des images (peintures, gravures, signes) et la valeur sonore, acoustique, de ces emplacements dans la grotte, nous nous proposons d’étudier les significations multiples de cette corrélation’ (Reznikoff 2012: 300).

(2) ‘Dans l’état actuel de nos connaissances, la recherche de la composition d’ensemble d’un panneau ou d’un groupe de panneaux représente le pas le plus avancé que l’on puisse faire dans la direction de la signification’ (Sauvet 1993: 306).