Shamanistic zoomorphs, lithic graffiti, hallucinogenic tableaux, territory markings, knife-sharpeners … rock art – l'art rupestre – is so far beyond our traditional 'linguistic' history, it does not have an interpretative alphabet or a single line of confirmed meaning. There are many interpretations of the 'gravures' (carvings) and 'abris ornés' (decorated caves) in the hidden bivouacs throughout the forest of Fontainebleau. The sandstone marks easily under the nib of a hard flint from the deeper calcareous geology and this soft stone canvas has allowed our European ancestors to carve the stylised and modernistic strokes we might note as remarkable in a Picasso painting. Most of the carvings involve complex hash-marks and grids, overlaying each other, occasionally with mandala-like boxes. Sometimes there have been carved astonishingly beautiful anthropomorphs, (stylised human-like figures), or zoomorphs, (deities or humans manifesting in animal form) or arguably figurative transitions in either direction. Some of the carvings manage to encompass these transitionary states of being in palimpsest. They suggest a 3D world of perception, imagination, and forced perspectives such as the beginnings of trompe l'oeil art. Whatever label we give it, this rock art is intrinsically human.
On the vast sandstone plains south and west of the Seine, encompassing the whole forest of Fontainebleau, there are thousands of documented rock carvings and paintings ranging from the Palaeolithic through to the Mesolithic, Neolithic, and later Bronze and Iron Ages. This indigenous rock art is accompanied by modern 'graffiti' of the last few centuries, etched or painted or sprayed by tourists, visitors and bivouackers. The forest of Fontainebleau, lying on the raised plateau of laid-down sands and gravels etched into by the Seine, Essonne and Loing rivers, was in Palaeolithic times a rich ground for hunting, settlement and early farming.
The earliest human presence in France is marked by the Upper Palaeolithic (-40,000 to -9500 BC), interrupted by various ice ages until the ice fully retreated in the Mesolithic (-9500 to -5500 BC). This period still marked a nomadic culture, but this would have been sustained by the good hunting and shelter around the plains of Fontainebleau. Many rock shelters would have been guarded jealously by families as territorial sites and perhaps eventually led to the more settled and warmer agricultural period of the Neolithic (-5500 to -1800 BC). The age of metals (bronze and iron) from -1800 to through the expansive presence of the Roman Empire (-52 to +476 BC) is reflected in a change of artistic temperament away from the filed-markings and shamanic zoomorphs to more individualistic war-like figures, with shields, spears and swords becoming more prevalent, suggesting a change from a balanced culture to an insecure anthropogenic one, calling on the protection of knight-like figures and the tropes of superstition. The modern-day markings of initials, from carved 19th-century tourist marks to the urban culture of tagging and colourful graffiti, are still leaving their mark on the rocks of the forest, if not with the same emotional resonance as the beautifully stylised early carvings.
One particular piece of graffiti struck me in a dolmen-like shelter cave at Rocher Cailleau. Entering the mystical cavern, I expect to see carvings but am greeted with an ugly blue paint scrawl announcing 'La Vie en Boze' (a play of 'la Vie en Rose') – this was more obviously the work of the artist 'Monsieur Boze'. However, the nomadic Monsieur Boze may have a different view of the forest. Perhaps he sees it as a home of the elite and monied, and therefore fair game for a hidden flurry of disaffection. The more accessible rocks in the forest are now covered in 'tags'. Whatever you think of their provenance, or however little respect you think it shows, no doubt they have territorial and political overtones, perhaps just like the original rock art. I wonder, in particular, who the Q8 crew are, as the A6 subway at La Haute du Borne seems to have been possessed by their colourful tags. I am aware of my own sensitivities and struggle with anger and confusion when I see modern graffiti, but at least it makes me think of what leaving our mark means. And sometimes it raises a smile.
The older rock-carving artwork is complex and often overlaid with the work of many hands through time. It presents similarities, echoes, suggestions, and patterns that we must take as embedded in an earlier landscape of settlement. Often imagined as a golden era of bounty and peace, the reality was likely much harder and more complicated. The works have a transformative effect on the viewer, erasing time and bringing forth the meaning of rock art as something unique in itself, beyond the everyday, archetypical of us all. The older carvings in the forest have stood the test of time in terms of representation and habitat. They may have their own long-superseded boundary interpretations ('this is my land'), but you cannot deny the sweeping draughtsmanship of some of the images, especially the earlier ones.
The typical style of Fontainebleau rock art is based on lines: simple grooves and chevrons carved into the sandstone with a flint, which may have polished or sharpened the implement at the same time as suggesting to the user the idea of figuring a concept or thought. The grid (quadrillage) appears to be the next layer, with lines overlaid with new lines to form matrices and grids. Often caves are covered wall-to-wall with these ancient hashtags, attributed to Mesolithic or Neolithic settlement. However, this is in no way a linear starting point, but styling in a long tradition – much earlier Palaeolithic art show elegantly carved horses and arguably more 'advanced' artwork. There are thousands of natural caves and shelters amongst the rocky plateaus and boulders of Fontainebleau. Some are tunnels into roomy caves; others are flat-roofed shelters with convenient walls for marking; others are mere holes in a rock. The darkness invites entry into an 'underworld' interpretation, but there is little evidence of the shelters being used as funerary centres or cemeteries. They are very much nomadic in feel, visitational, shelters from a storm, when an idle lifting of a flint to score a signature mark on a wall might have led to more complex thoughts and impulses.
But what do they mean, to what understanding do the images lead us? Are they code or shorthand? A definition of our modern digital hashtag # which these petroglyphs accidentally resemble, states: 'A hashtag is a type of metadata tag used on social networks such as Twitter and other microblogging services, allowing users to apply dynamic, user-generated tagging which makes it possible for others to easily find messages with a specific theme or content.' Could this codified marking, despite being a visual coincidence to our metadata age, bring a perspective on the markings as a form of communication, or referral to other powers and stories? If we consider ancient rock art as discoverable 'metadata' for others, what sort of shorthand or message is implied in the image? Is it territorial? Is it spiritual? Is it an inventory or record? Is it a warning or direction? Are they stories? The interpretations are various, fluid and dynamic, but it is undeniable that they are impactful and induce curiosity and awe. But the more stylised images suggest an elite culture of painter/shaman, which allows us to interpret some of the petroglyphs as bearing meaning.
At the very least, they are interpretations of the local environment and fauna, of living on the plains, rivers, gorges and forests. Coming across a gravure involves a little hunting and intuition. Finding natural bivouacs and shelters in the roofed boulders, perhaps after as a sudden storm approaches, will eventually lead you to one of the many marked caves or roofs. The effect is hypnotic and transcendent, as millennia appear to wash away before your eyes. The carvings are so fresh and instant to the senses. It is as though the artist has just left the cave for a moment. Often the cave structures themselves are involved in the artistic renditions, with their natural curves and features integrated into the art, or the rocks have a uniqueness from others that mark them out for the special attention of the artist.
The forest is also home to another art form – that of the modern rock climber. Climbing, more accurately called 'bouldering' in this forest of large stones, is a kind of physical performance art, sketching brief bodily shapes on the rock, then moving on. The climbers emulate the shape of the geology in movements upon the stone in real-time, echoing the smooth, stone-led contours of the gravures under their feet. Thousands of boulderers arrive each season to climb on Fontainebleau's sandstone 'blocs', unearthing the athletic delights of 'king lines' on attractively featured rocks. That climbers also talk in terms of 'lines' is no mere coincidence. Both the rock artists and the climbers are drawing shapes in a landscape, engaging with it, embedding themselves in the spirit of place, sketching something impressionistic.
I spy a rocky corridor disappearing behind an oak tree, with one wall glowing orange in the sun – a particularly striking wall of ochre patina quartzite. I know the orange colouring results from dissolved mineral iron in the silica and that the shapes and lines in the patina are of geological provenance only. Still, the human imagination sees shapes in clouds, so the wall naturally draws me closer, and the hand naturally reaches out to touch. It is only then I see the low flat stone under the overhang below. The low light brings out the hashtag marks in stark relief, and I drop down for a closer look, carefully blowing away dry sand and leaf litter to reveal the astonishing artefact. Like many carvings, the picture at first appears to our 'sophisticated' sensibilities as crude and cartoonish. A box with a cross in it, with many square grids, sits at the base. Is this a field system or a territory divided? Above this is a simplified anthropomorphic figure, its eyes asymmetric under a triangle or helmeted head. The body appears to be garbed in a cross-marked kimono or cloak. A long sash runs down the sternum, and a bizarre dangling bulb hangs by a thread on one side of the chest. The arms are spread-eagled as if in supplication or worship, fingers splayed (only four, why four?). As though Picasso came sketching here, the perspectives squashed into 2-D, and the lines so effortlessly and confidently carved. The figure is flanked by long lines and curves, one hand intertwined amongst them deliberately, as though a hand is brushing through wheat. Is this a shaman figure, a matriarch? It's impossible to tell if it's male or female, but a cross-mark above one shoulder looks for all the world like a shimmering star, and I feel instantly that a story is being told by an elder under dark skies. The audience is the viewer, always, and I sit down to listen with my eyes.
Then a bizarre 'Necker cube' moment of dis-association happens. Or forced perspective. I see another image overlying the human figure. The whole image flips, and the close skein of lines become the mane of a horse, the anthropomorph is the head of the horse (a kind of rhomboid with cross-marks for eyes), and the longer lines are the legs of the horse. It is ineluctable once you see the double image. The person who carved here intended the shift to happen, like hallucination shifts and the subtlety of our ancestors' vision becomes much sharper and much, much cleverer than we give them credit. Even if this is 'graffiti' in its most basic tagging sense, this trompe l'oeil or necker-cube effect is deliberately conflating visions of land, nature, and perspective.
Higher on the hill, I find another similar cave with another carved plinth, this time representing a dog, if my eyes aren't over-imagining by now. This is the Neolithic, so horses, stars, dogs, fields, territories – these are the everyday, and of course, good artists paint what they know. The image is 'signed' with another lone cross or star, just like the star/woman/horse carving. Was this the home of a talented artist, a shaman, a farmer, or all three?
Some of the best sites for viewing carvings are found around the escarpment paths so readily marked by Claude-Francois Denecourt, though he rarely draws attention to these, but rather his particular sylvan imaginings of the rocks. The association which safeguards the provenance, interpretation and upkeep of the carvings is called GERSAR (Groupe d’Étude, de Recherche et de Sauvegarde de l' Art Rupestre), and it keeps an inventory of all recorded sites. There are now over 2,000 recorded pieces of art, ranging from simple carved lines and matrices to beautiful figurative carvings, with unusual trompe l'oeil effects and overlays, as well as paintings with ochre and charcoal.
The geology has been described earlier, but the nature of the 'rock chaos' in Fontainebleau has led to a vast amount of cave shelters where humans would have at least sheltered from the weather and considered marking the walls. Some take this to extreme lengths and could be considered individual artists, showing style and repetition, as well as possible signature-marks. This artistic precision, or culture, is reflected in the fussiness of a particular surface or canvas, or even ambience, for their art. It has to be in natural light for the best effect, not too deep in a cave, nor out in the open where it will be easily erased by the weather. Also, some geology is too hard to mark – particularly the patina shields of quartzite – so it has to be a softer sandstone receptive to scoring with a flint tool. Also, the marking of only certain surfaces, sometimes near other distinctive rock features and coloured walls, is maybe a nod to the spirit of place, that site's aura and magic as understood by the artist and re-interpreted through their own imagery nearby. As much as personal imagination, a generous and holistic approach brings these stunning rock carvings to life. These days, it is what we might call the metadata of being human.
Copyright John S Watson 2021. This is an unedited extract from an unpublished book on the Forest of Fontainebleau. To contact the author, please email firstname.lastname@example.org