Art that Transcends Time / by Jeannine Cook

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Springtime on the Georgia coast, and already the woods are melodious with the calls of the Painted Bunting scouts. How lovely - it is time to put out the white millet to greet them at the feeders.

 Painted Bunting, photo courtesy of Joe Kingley

Painted Bunting, photo courtesy of Joe Kingley

At the same time, the House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) are already here and delighting with their sweet calls. It is their typical flight and movements that rivet me at the moment, just as the flight and attitudes of those gaudy little Buntings (Passerina ciris).

 House Finch, photo courtesy of Ken Thomas

House Finch, photo courtesy of Ken Thomas

Why? Well, because of a fascinating discovery announced last month by French and Spanish archaeologists; an Aurignacian "object", dating from 35,000-31,000 years ago, It was a small stone engraving, found in the open-air excavations at Cantaloulette being carried out before the construction of the eastern Bergerac bypass route (Dordogne) in France. The digs found remains of prehistoric human occupation from the Middle Paleolithic and Neolithic periods, times when modern man arrived in Europe.

Among the finds was this wonderful small depiction of a bird, most likely a 35,000 year old engraving of a passerine, a wryneck or a perdix, three types of bird then living in Europe. The New World buntings, among many others, are, for instance, in the passerine genus, hence my identification and excitement about the Painted Buntings. Compare this engraving with a 2008 photograph at the top of this blog, of courting buntings, taken by Kim Hosen at Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina.

 Pajarito, The Little Bird © Iluminada Ortega, Joseba Rios-Garaizar, Diego Garate Maidagan, Juan Arizaga, Laurence Bourguignon. Denis Gliksman, Inrap.

Pajarito, The Little Bird © Iluminada Ortega, Joseba Rios-Garaizar, Diego Garate Maidagan, Juan Arizaga, Laurence Bourguignon. Denis Gliksman, Inrap.

This work of art is most unusual in its degree of naturalism, its support (the cortex or limestone coating of a flint flake) and the engraving technique used. This “sunk relief” technique was identified through microscopic and 3D analyses realized at Cenieh (Burgos, Spain). The artist used different levels of depth to render this bird, a technique infrequently found in Paleolithic art and most skillfully used in this instance. Carving in flint is very difficult in the first place, using differential indentations even harder... and then capturing the bird, perhaps drinking, courting or taking off so precisely and vividly. It is amazing work. Watching the buntings or the finches, I can recognise the similar positions readily.

35,000 years ago. No camera of course, no way to still the motion of that bird to ensure such accuracy and liberty of depiction - astonishing! This is considered a work of art that was done for the sheer artistic joy of creation, found discarded in a flint knapping workshop. It was not done in the spirit of the Aurignacian artists who worked in the caves like Grotte Chauvet, where the paintings were intended to last, according to experts' opinions.

This delicious little rock engraving was done to celebrate life, to record a wonderful little bird that caught the eye of this amazing artist. How astonishing that some 35,000 years later, this art can make me identify so easily with a little Painting Bunting flitting through the live oaks in Coastal Georgia!