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from the trenches
Books: The Cave Painters Volume 60 Number 2, March/April 2007
The Cave Painters

Journalist Gregory Curtis's last book on archaeology, Disarmed, was about the Venus de Milo. The title of his introduction to Paleolithic art, The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World's First Artists (Knopf, $25), isn't quite as fun, but it is entertaining and sharply written.

Curtis excels at descriptions of masterpieces such as Lascaux Cave's falling cow, but the journalist in him gravitates to the "dark academic gossip" that has permeated the field since 1879, when the first cave painting was recognized at the Spanish site of Altamira. Much of the book deals with the "intrigue, jealousy, mendacity, and paranoia [that] contaminated the world of prehistorians."

But at heart, this is a celebration of the ancient masters and the modern lives they changed (including Robot, the dog who discovered Lascaux Cave in 1940). The book reminds us that cave art is far from a series of solemn scenes. "Visual puns, comic monsters, [and] playfulness" were all significant. The cave painters probably didn't take themselves nearly as seriously as we do.

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© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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