Understanding Cave Script: Two

Picturing a Mammoth

The Chinese term for pictographs is xiàngxíng 象形. It comprises xiàng , meaning elephant, kāi , meaning to open or bloom, and shān , meaning to rise. In other words, if you have one of these stood in front of you, you can’t miss it. A good picture should be easy to decipher.

The details of a picture varied with the artist, and with the purpose. In the Rouffignac flood panel, we see lifelike images of mammoths, but elsewhere in the cave there are apparently much simpler images, including one that looks something like this. It is the body of an animal combined with a mammoth’s trunk.

Image: Capitan, L. et al., 1903
Image: Capitan, L. et al., 1903
Image: Lynn Fawcett
Image: Lynn Fawcett

Borrowed Features

Image: Lynn Fawcett
Image: Lynn Fawcett

Those interested in Chinese or Japanese gardens may be familiar with the concept of ‘borrowing from the landscape’. Gardens are often designed, so that external features appear to be part of the garden. In the picture on the left, Fuhai Lake in Yuanmingyuan, Beijing ‘borrows’ the distant hills.

For Cave Script, the artists sometimes used the natural shapes in the cave walls, and incorporated those shapes into the images.


At this point, it is worth considering light. Light may also provide additional (‘borrowed’) information, such as at the Abri du Poisson, where sunlight entering the shelter tells us at what time of year the feast was celebrated. Does light add to the image in the form of shadows or reflections? Was the image meant to be viewed at a specific time of day?


I believe that there may be examples of colour coding, for example red for danger (perhaps from its association with blood), and purple for caution (from its association with bruising).


Image Credits:

Mammoth: Capitan, L., Breuil H., Peyrony D., 1903, Les figures gravées à l'époque paléolithique sur les parois de la grotte de Bernifal (Dordogne). Comptes-rendus des séances de l'année.. - Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres, 47e année, No. 3, 1903, p. 219. Digital version from Don's Maps: http://donsmaps.com/images17/bernifalart4.jpg: Accessed: 18 December 2012.

Mammoth symbol: Drawing: Lynn Fawcett, April 2013: After Kevin Sharpe, 2003: Report II from Grotte de Rouffignac, figure 6. A motif with spiral ends: Source: http://www.ksharpe.com/word/AR43.htm: Accessed: 20 April 2013

Fuhai Lake: Photo: Lynn Fawcett, July 2012