The pointillist techniques was used by famous 19th and 20th century artists such as Vincent Van Gogh, Georges Seurat, Roy Lichtenstein and Camille Pissarro. A trove of 16 engraved and otherwise modified limestone blocks that were created 38,000 years ago have recently been discovered, and these confirm the ancient origins of the technique.
Anthropologist Randall White from the New York University led the excavation in France’s Vézère Valley. He noted that although they are very familiar with the techniques of these modern artists, it can now be confirmed that this form of image making was already being practiced by the Aurignacian, Europe’s earliest human culture.
Pointillism is a painting technique in which the illusion of a larger image is created by using small dots. The technique was developed in the 1880s, but archaeologists have now found evidence of this technique dating back more than 38,000 years.
White and his colleagues have made some major discoveries, which include images of horses and mammoths. These discoveries confirm that the earliest modern human culture in Europe, the Aurignacian, used a form of pointillism. Earlier isolated discoveries include a rhinoceros from the Grotte Chauvet in France. This painting was created by paining dozens of dots on the palm of a hand, and then transferring these to the cave wall.
White and his team reported the uncovering of an aurochs, or wild cow, earlier this year. The aurochs is a pointillist image that is more than 38,000 years old. This finding offers insights into the nature of modern humans during this period, as it is some of the earliest known graphic imagery found in Western Eurasia.
Another pointillist image of a woolly mammoth was found shortly thereafter in a rock shelter of the same period. The previous site is known as Abri Blanchard, while the site where the new image was found nearby goes by the name Abri Cellier. Archeologists have long since included Abri Cellier on a short list of major sites containing art credited to the European Aurignacian.
Fifteen pierced and/or engraved limestone blocks were excavated in 1927. These have become a crucial point of reference for the study of Aurignacian art in the region.
White and his team returned to Abri Cellier in 2014 in search of intact deposits. Finding these would allow them to understand the site’s relationship to other Aurignacian sites and its archaeological sequence better. Although they were hoping that the new excavation would produce new engraved images in context, nothing prepared them for the discovery of the 16 stone blocks. The details of the find are described in a Quaternary International article. One of the blocks was broken in half prehistorically and it was radiocarbon dated to 38,000 years ago.
Curiously, the 1927 excavators left the remaining 15 blocks on site. These included the pointillist mammoth, one of three mammoth figures found during the latest work at Abri Cellier. The original excavators set many of the blocks aside just in case they might have something inscribed on them. The engraved traces on these pieces are rudimentary, which makes it difficult to interpret.
The article in the Quaternary International presents evidence that the 38,000-year date for the newly excavated engraving also applies to the new trove, as well as to the other blocks found in 1927. All the blocks are now kept in the French National Prehistory Museum.