Henri Edouard Prosper Breuil was born in Mortain France in 1877. He was educated at the Sorbonne and also the Catholic Institute in Paris. He had a strong desire to enter into the religious order of the Roman Catholic Church and was ordained as an abbe (religious father) in 1897. He became interested in the palaeontological side of archaeology with special association given to primitive rock art. His ecclesiastical vocation coupled with his archaeological pre-occupation earned him such delightful titles as ‘the priest of palaeontology’ and ‘the pope of prehistory’.
The Abbe of Art
After his ordination, he devoted more time to his serious interest of Palaeolithic art than to his religious commitments. Fortunately for Henri, his priesthood was mostly ceremonial yet it provided a small income to maintain his habit of conducting archaeological research in the French valley of Dordogne.
He was a pioneer in the study of Palaeolithic cave art. In 1901 his profound passion led to the discovery of painted caves at Combarelles and Font de Gaume. He became widely admired for his thorough approach and eloquent documentation of the images in newly discovered caves. So elaborate, in fact, that many archaeological professionals felt that his reports contained more colour than the artworks that they were describing.
Abbe Henri Breuil did tend to romanticise his conclusions. After studying a set of cave pictures he would then set about to re-paint a literal interpretation that often included his own hardships that he had endured while struggling to reach a difficult cavern or retell the stories of the personalities involved with its discovery and describe to the reader all of the breathtaking landscapes that surrounded the journey to the cave site.
Professor and Teacher
Despite his poetic injection into palaeontology he was so respected for his work that he was offered a position at the Institute of Human Palaeontology in Paris in 1910 and as professor at College de France where he taught from 1929 to 1947. He was generally regarded as an authority in his academic field although the dramatisation of his findings upset mainstream and stimulated accusations of recklessness with his theories and his drawings. Some went as far as to add that Abbe Henri Breuil was responsible for many of the gross errors that are still being overcome in rock art theory today.
Breuil drew and published hundreds of rock carvings and cave paintings from across Europe and North Africa. His most notable published work is a giant book called ‘Four Hundred Centuries of Cave Art’ released in 1952.
European Rock Art
About 350 well documented cave art sites have been discovered in Europe and are attributed to the European Ice Age period. Most are of extremely high quality considering the age of the images. Nearly half of them are located in France. Across Europe there are ten spectacular cave art sites, six of which Breuil called ‘The Six Giants’. The ten major caves are:
- Font de Gaume
- Les Trois Freres
- Les Combarelles
Preservation and Restoration
The preservation of rock art and even the very caves themselves have become a major undertaking in archaeological reclamation work. Many caves were shelters for previous cultures but have been destroyed by the actions of natural erosion or cataclysmic phenomena. For example, as the water level rose due to the fluctuating temperatures of the earth after the last great ice age, the sea flooded scores of coastal Mediterranean caves. Many of these possibly contained valuable cave art specimens that would have shed an illuminating light on the cave dwelling inhabitants of that era.
The Evolution of Cave Rock Art
Breuil’s investigations and study of French rock art revealed that an important thematic change occurred in the art of southern France. He noted that at some point the subject of the art altered from being fearsome animals to animals that were hunted by the cave dwellers. Some human representations have been located but these are far fewer than the animal pictures and engravings.
One interesting observation is that all human representations are incomplete, some being only a portion of the human body, while all animal images are naturalistic and complete.