How easy is it to see original work and to what extent are parietal works now blocked off and exhibited through the medium of copies?
PB: There are still about 50 original Ice Age decorated caves and rock shelters that can be visited, primarily in France and Spain, as well as some of the open-air engravings in Portugal and Spain. The caves open to the public still include some of the finest, plus there are outstandingly good facsimiles of others.
ML: The basic aim of the facsimiles is good, but they have industrialised cave art tourism, leading many thousands of visitors to believe that [famous caves such as] Chauvet and Lascaux deliver everything that needs to be known about rock art. They should understand that the original caves are the first sanctuaries of mankind and that it is a privilege to be allowed to visit them.
What is your own favourite site of early art, and why?
ML: My favorite site of early art is Gum Tree Valley in Dampier, Western Australia, with thousands of carved rocks associated with tools of old stone tradition and shell middens. My excavation and study of the carvings show long continuous occupation of the site, first by Pleistocene kangaroo hunters some 22,000 years, then by tribes living off the sea. Many carvings were often reengraved through thousands of years.
PB: This used to be an impossible question to answer, but since 2003 I can say Creswell Crags, not far from Sheffield. That is where I found Britain’s only Ice Age cave art, and it too is open to the public. The cave of Church Hole contains two or three world-class figures (engravings and bas-reliefs) including the only ibis in cave art.
Do you believe that the early artists have something to teach artists of today?
ML: Many current artistic developments have their analogues in prehistory. The ways prehistoric people played with natural forms, colours and odd stones have equivalents in today’s art. Prehistoric art is not only naturalistic, it’s also schematic, symbolic and abstract. It is a complete art, the art of the volume and the art of the surface as well. In some French caves I discovered geometric signs which Picasso used without knowing that he was symbolising woman in the same manner as his ancestors did 30,000 years ago.
PB: They mastered every technique they tried, and produced some of the greatest masterpieces ever seen. Yet, tragically, prehistoric art is generally ignored in art history courses. They may begin with a token image of Lascaux or Altamira, but then they are off to the classical world. This needs to change, as there is fantastic rock art all over the world, from every period of prehistory.