The Lascaux Notebooks by Jean-Luc Champerret (Edited and translated from French by Philip Terry) - review by Hilary Davies

Hilary Davies

Poems of the Underground

The Lascaux Notebooks


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Who are we? Where do we come from? Who or what were the people, the land, the gods who made us? These questions have perplexed and haunted us ever since human beings evolved.

One of the heartlands of our understanding of Upper Palaeolithic man is the southwest of France – more precisely, the courses of the Vézère, Dordogne, Lot and Aveyron and their tributaries. There are several reasons for the density of ancient sites in this region: the plentiful supply of water, which attracted both humans and game animals between thirty thousand and ten thousand years ago; the high plains through which these rivers run, which at that time formed steppe, providing grassland for the untold numbers of reindeer and other migratory animals that moved across them seasonally; and the limestone bedrock through which over millennia the waters have carved enormous and complex underground cave systems. It is this last fact that has impressed itself most firmly on the public imagination, in large part because of the spectacular discoveries of cave art that have been made in this region over the last 160 years.

Of these cave networks, Lascaux is the best known. The story of its discovery is in many ways typical: it was stumbled upon by non-specialists who spotted an unusual hole and decided to explore further. What made this case different is what the individuals encountered. In the very dark days of September 1940, a group of adolescent boys found themselves standing in the great Axial Gallery, surrounded by depictions of wild horses and now-extinct aurochs, depictions so remarkable that this space has been dubbed ‘The Sistine Chapel of Prehistory’.

Within a week, two of France’s most distinguished cave art experts, Henri Breuil and Denis Peyrony, had arrived and embarked on a systematic investigation of the complex. It is in this very short timeframe that The Lascaux Notebooks also has its origin. Jean-Luc Champerret was a local poet who managed to get into the cave almost before the archaeologists, apparently while carrying out reconnaissance for the regional Resistance group (at least according to a now-elderly housemaid who was working in a chateau nearby and whom Philip Terry, the editor of these texts, was able to interview). Champerret, like so many before and after him, was not only impressed by the astonishing artistic achievements at Lascaux but also fascinated by the signs that accompany the paintings. These take many forms: aligned dots, crosses, harpoons, parallel straight and curved lines, tridents, spear throwers, so-called ‘tectiforms’ (hut shapes) and, especially, square grids or lattices.

Subsequent researchers have established definite patterns of distribution of these signs, both in Lascaux and elsewhere, but learned arguments have gone back and forth ever since as to what they signify. That they signify something is not in question. Yet how to interpret the symbols of a long-vanished society? What would the inhabitants of the 50th century make of the ubiquity of crosses in Europe, erected over thousands of years, with no texts or oral tradition handed down to explain them?

The impossibility of the task has not deterred people from trying. We are, after all, a species that specialises in meaning. Champerret was convinced that the signs he saw were a primitive form of writing, and started assigning meanings to the shapes, creating his own personal dictionary of ideogrammatic vocabulary. Intrigued by one of the commonest signs, a grid with nine spaces, he suggested that these might have acted as frameworks for the other symbols, a filled grid being used to convey messages. Acting on this hypothesis, he began devising grids of his own, peopling them with symbols suggestive of how he envisaged Palaeolithic society and beliefs.

It is these grids that are the basis for the poems, notes and prose poems that make up this book. Terry was serendipitously given them in 2006 in a moth-eaten state when visiting a friend near Lascaux. It has been a labour of love to decipher, transcribe and translate them. What emerges is at once idiosyncratic and evocative.

Champerret worked with little or no knowledge of the archaeological research already done in the region and elsewhere – at least, Terry gives us no indication that he had any, though he does give us the dismissive response of Paul Rivet, director of the Musée de l’Homme at the time of the caves’ discovery, to whom Champerret sent his thoughts: ‘Your work is pure fantasy.’ Champerret was of course working without the benefit of all the developments in scientific stratigraphy, ethnoarchaeology, palaeobotany, palaeozoology, field archaeology and radiocarbon, thermoluminescence and uranium-thorium dating that have taken place since the 1940s. Each of these has helped to give a fuller idea of what the world of the hunter-gatherers in southwest France was like.

That’s true also for the signs. For a long time they were, understandably, regarded as incidental to the depictions of fauna, which so astonish us with their beauty and accomplishment. Yet over the last thirty years, extensive, though in some circles controversial, work has been done by leading archaeologists, such as Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams, comparing these signs to similar ones in other parietal art traditions among hunter-gatherers in South Africa, the Americas and Australia, and even interviewing those who still practise wall art. They have concluded that the signs have symbolic shamanic significance. They are not writing exactly, but are certainly pregnant with meaning.

By contrast, Champerret was working alone, relying on intuition and creativity. His method for the most part consisted of choosing nine signs, for instance:

deer deer river
antlers water trees
eyes bush spears

He then worked them up into two short poems:

A herd of deer
are crossing
the river
their antlers
above the water
like trees
we watch
from the bushes
spears raised


A herd of deer
are swimming over
the river crossing
their black antlers
rise above the water
like a moving forest
we watch in silence
from amidst the bushes
our tall spears raised

This example is clearly inspired by the famous frieze of reindeer in Lascaux, which do indeed have the appearance of swimming across a river, though the presence of the hunters is Champerret’s own invention.

Elsewhere, Champerret conjures up the day-to-day activities of the hunter-gatherers – cooking, scouting, trapping, making huts and tents, sewing – and, of course, their sacred rituals, dances and the entry into the dark, the underworld, the otherworld of the caves. The cumulative effect of the poems is slowly to build an atmosphere that evokes both the strangeness and the familiarity of the Palaeolithic world:

We sit with our needles
round the fire
making necklaces

has fallen

a single mammoth
by the crossing
as night falls

Champerret may indeed have been fantasising when he thought he saw early writing systems, but, surrounded by the hell of occupied France, he succeeded in entering into another reality, another way of being human, led by the extraordinary, leaping, living signs of Lascaux.

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