Cave Art May Have Been Painted By Mostly Women, Scientists Say

cave art
Hand stencil in Pech Merle Cave. Courtesy French MInistry of Culture

The prehistoric cave art of Europe may have been painted mostly by women, a new study covered by National Geographic suggests.

Archaeologist Dr. Dean Snow of Pennsylvania State University came to this conclusion through studying one of the most enigmatic icons of prehistoric European cave art–hand stencils. In many European caves, there are negative images of hands produced by placing the hand against the cave wall and blowing paint all around it. They range from 12,000 to 40,000 years old, an astonishingly long artistic tradition.

Men’s and women’s hands are different, especially in the relative length of the fingers, so Snow examined 32 of these these stencils from caves in Spain and France. He found that 75 percent of the hands were female.

It’s long been assumed that most cave art was done by men, since so many of the subjects have to do with hunting, generally a male activity in hunter-gather societies. Of course, what Snow’s data really show is that the majority of hand stencils in the sample are of women, which doesn’t say anything about the rest of the art. It could be that there was a separation in the sexes as to who painted what, or perhaps the majority of prehistoric artists were indeed women.

The biggest contributor to the study was the cave of El Castillo in Cantabria, northern Spain, where 16 stencils were measured. This cave is open to the public, so you can take a look at the hands yourself and come to your own conclusions. Gargas and Pech Merle in France were also in the study and open to the public.

Hand stencils have been found in areas as far apart as Argentina, Africa, Australia, and Borneo. It would be interesting to see what results Snow’s study would have on these artistic traditions.

Museum Asks For Your Help Reassembling Medieval Cross

medieval
Replica of the stone, image courtesy WIkimedia Commons

The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh is asking for your help in reassembling an early medieval carved stone.

The Hilton of Cadboll Stone was carved in Scotland around 800 AD by the Picts, a mysterious people who have left little in the way of a written record but created some incredible art. The stone was carved shortly after the Picts converted to Christianity and includes one of Scotland’s earliest representations of Jesus.

This particular stone has had a rough time in the past 1200 years. At some unrecorded date it was snapped off from its base, then later defaced by Protestant reformers. In 1676, the Christian cross on one side of the stone was chipped off and replaced with an inscription commemorating a local man, Alexander Duff, and his three wives.

While one side is still impressive, as you can see here, it seemed the rest of the stone had been defaced beyond all hope of restoration until a recent excavation at the original site uncovered the stones’ base.Unfortunately it’s smashed into some 3,000 pieces, and that’s where you come in. The museum has put every piece through a 3D scanner and is launching a website where you can try your hand at reassembling it.

The project is part of the museum’s upcoming exhibition Creative Spirit Revealing Early Medieval Scotland, which will open October 25. It focuses on the Early Medieval period (around 300-900 AD), an time between Scottish and Viking influence and marking the arrival of Christianity and emerging powerful elites. The online reassembly will begin on that date at the special website Pictish Puzzle.

The museum is especially calling for gamers to help out because, they say, gamers are better at manipulating 3D images and finding patterns.

Might be a fun break from killing zombies.

Spanish Cave Paintings Discovered to be Some of the Oldest in Europe

cave paintings
Image courtesy GipuzkoaKultura

Cave paintings at the Altxerri cave system in the Basque region of northern Spain are about 39,000 years old, making them some of the oldest in Europe, Popular Archaeology reports.

A team of French and Spanish scientists analyzed the paintings, which include images such as the bison shown here, as well as finger marks, a feline, a bear, an unidentified animal head and more abstract markings. This early dating of these images puts them in the Aurignacian Period, believed by most archaeologists to be the first flowering of modern humans in the region, although whether or not there were still Neanderthals in the area at this time is an open question.

A later set of paintings in another part of the cave system, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, date from “only” 29,000-35,000 years ago.

By comparison, the art at Cauvet Cave in France is about 31,000 years old, although it is of a much higher quality. The beautiful paintings there were the subject of Herzog’s breathtaking 3D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

A full report on the cave paintings can be found in the latest issue of the Journal of Human Evolution.

Mysterious Rosslyn Chapel Gets Facelift

Rosslyn Chapel
Sean McLachlan

Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland has been the center of conspiracy theories for at least a century before Dan Brown wrote it up in The Da Vinci Code. This private chapel less than an hour’s drive from Edinburgh has an interior filled with carvings that many believe have symbolism linked to the Masons and the Templars.

In recent years the 15th century chapel has suffered from damp that has been corroding the sculptures and undermining the integrity of some of the windows. The BBC reports that the owners of the chapel — the very same family that built it — have now finished a 16-year conservation project.

In 1997 a steel roof was put over the entire chapel in order to shelter it from rain and let it dry out. It stayed in place until 2010. Workmen also repaired the stonework and windows and made the roof watertight. Now all scaffolding has been removed and visitors can see the chapel unobstructed for the first time in 16 years.

I visited Rosslyn Chapel earlier this week and was impressed by the quality of the restoration. The chapel itself, however, left me underwhelmed. While attractive and filled with detail, it doesn’t contain any more symbolism than any other heavily ornamented medieval church. Go to Notre Dame in Segovia or the Romanesque churches of Segovia and you’ll see what I mean. The 9 pound ($14) entry fee and the rule against taking photos inside also rubbed me the wrong way.

I left with the impression that conspiracy theorists had decided this place was special and have spent generations overanalyzing it. More enjoyable for me and my family was a country walk to the nearby ruins of Rosslyn Castle set above a glittering Scottish stream. Much more picturesque and with far fewer people.

Was This The Real Mona Lisa?

Mona Lisa
Wikimedia Commons

Scientists in Florence are examining the bones of a 16th century nun they think served as the model for the Mona Lisa.

Lisa Gherardini Del Giocondo was the wife of a wealthy merchant and is rumored to have been the model for Leonardo da Vinci’s famous portrait. She was a famed beauty in her time and lived across the street from the famous artist and inventor. When her husband died she became a nun at the convent of San Orsula in Florence, where she died and was buried in 1542.

A team of scientists went looking for her in a crypt under the convent. DNA in the bones they found is now being compared with samples taken from the Gherardini family tomb in hopes of finding a match. The next step will be facial reconstruction to see what the woman looked like in life. Perhaps they’ll find the mystery to her enigmatic smile.

Facial reconstruction and DNA analysis have already been done for the remains of King Richard III, found last year under an English parking lot. Researchers are also examining the possible remains of King Alfred the Great.