Monday, January 17, 2011

In the Beginning There Was... Ochre!

French Ochre? In honour of the caves of Lasceaux, perhaps?

"To reach the farthest chamber of Lascaux, it's likely a man had to snuff out his light, lower himself down a shaft with a rope made of twisted fibers, and then rekindle his lamp in the dark so as to draw the woolly rhinoceros, the half horse, and the raging bison there. A long spear transfixes that bison, and entrails pour from its side. Beneath its front hooves lies the one painted man in all of Lascaux: prone, spindly wounded, disguised behind a bird mask. And below him, until its discovery in 196o, lay a spoon-shaped lamp carved of red sandstone ... Hold it again as it once was held, and the animals will emerge out of darkness as you pass. Nothing stays still. Shadows nestle in the cavities; a flicker of light across pale protruding rock turns a hoof or raises a head. One shape recedes as another emerges, and everything lingers in the imagination."
Jane Brox (Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light)

The Indian Painting on the side of the Highway, three km from our house in Naramata, BC.

I am sure the first artistic markings in the entire history of Earth were probably created by drawing in dirt with sticks. And I imagine the second artistic markings were drawn with tiny pieces of charcoal fished out of a cold fire and applied to a cave wall. But without a doubt, the first colour used on those caves walls in combination with charcoal was most undoubtedly a coloured clay we now know as ochre.

Beautiful cave paintings, Sigiriya, Sri Lanka.

Yellow ochre is a deep yellow or brown clay found and used on every continent on this planet. If you heat it in a fire, you can turn that yellow into red ochre. Black ochre also exists, but so does charcoal, so we don't hear so much about black ochre. White (creamy) ochre also exists. (More on white at a later date!)

Modern Temple Painting, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.

The Australian Aboriginees still use ochre in tribal ceremonies, some so secret if anyone other than the male participant sees them well, you just might find you go missing, buried in an ochre deposit somewhere in the outback. Red ochre can symbolise blood, so a good red ochre is extremely valuable. Aboriginal art and dijeridoos are still painted in the ochre dots so easily recognised by the rest of the world, and ochre deposits in Oz are highly sacred protected places.
Ochre coloured Statue, Madurai, Southern India

Reading about Australian Aboriginal uses of ochre made me think about the Natives who used to roam British Columbia decades, even centuries ago, painting on rocks with ochre. About three kilometres from my house there is a Native Indian Painting on a rock next to the highway. It's been there for as long as I can remember. My father recently told me of another painting, only accessibly by boat, in a tiny cave like rock formation along the cliffs past Indian Rock on Okanagan Lake. I've never seen it, but if I'm in the Okanagan this summer it will be one of my missions to find this painting.

Ochre coloured landscape, Hangzhou, China.

But it leads me to the question, How come these paintings are still with us? They should have washed off the rocks long ago in spring rain, the harsh rays of summer and cold snowy winters if they were painted on there with simple clay. The caves of Lasceaux had been closed in fear that the visitors breath was adding to the decaying of the the paintings. So much, that the original caves were sealed up and replicas built for tourists. (Bravo, I say. But you don't have to go to France at all, if you don't want. You can have yourself a virtual tour right in your own living room if you click the link at the bottom of this page.) So what did the Natives use to adhere the clay to the cliff surfaces?

Ochre Umbrella, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

So I emailed the Enowkin Centre in Penticton to ask them what Natives used to paint the paintings littered around cliff surfaces in the Okanagan, but I didn't get any replies. However, over Christmas dinner at our neighbour's house, I got to chatting with one of my childhood friends Shaun and his girlfriend Linnette- Two avid Okanagan hikers who knew a little about ochre in the Okanagan from their travels.

Ochre coloured statues at Dawn, Mount Nemrut, Eastern Turkey.

They'd been hiking around Princeton, and gave me some convoluted directions to Vermillion Bluffs. (You know where the Tim Horton's is? Well, down below that is a really long tunnel go through that, and hike up the trail about a kilometre and a half. Or something like that.) I've never been, but they promised to take me anytime they decide to go for a day hike. I did find this information on the Website about the History of Princeton:

Yak-Tulamn (the place where red earth was sold) was home to First Nations for many millennia prior to the arrival of the first settlers. Known today as the Upper Similkameen Indian Band, the original inhabitants were industrious miners and traders of ochre and chert. People from as far away as the prairies and Oregon coast brought buffalo hides, eagle feathers and other goods to the Similkameen to trade for the sacred ochre, which is used to make ceremonial paint. The earliest scientific evidence places the Similkameen People in the area at least 7,500 years ago; according to the First Nations people their inhabitance has been since the beginning of time. The many villages, campgrounds and trail routes of the Similkameen people are evidenced in the numerous archaeological sites in and around Princeton.

Ochre coloured Camels and some green lips. Al Ain, United Arab Emirates.

But it still didn't explain how the natives made the ochre adhere to the rock for so long out in the open. Simple clay would have washed off long ago!

But lucky for me, Shaun and Linnette were on it! They went hiking again in a different spot and found this sign:
The sign Linnette and Shaun found which answered my burning question, Kelowna, BC.

Bear grease, Fish oil, lichen, tree bark, charcoal, time and patience. All natural substances that would dwindle in the elements alone but together they are a force to be reckoned with year after year, decade after decade. (Thanks Shaun and Linnette!)

Tiles on the roof of the Forbidden City buildings, Beijing China.

One last interesting little tidbit of Ochre history: The Beothuk tribe The Newfoundland area use to paint their bodies, implements and corpses for ceremonial purposes. If you were a disgraced member of the tribe, you had to wash off your red ochre. For this reason, when the Europeans landed in New Foundland and met the Natives, they nicknamed them the Red Indians. Because of our favourite natural clay pigment!
New Foundland Coat of Arms featuring Beothuk First Nations people as drawn by the Europeans.

For your own personal 3D tour of the Caves of Lasceaux, Click here.


1 comment:

  1. I was glad to learn something here about the beautiful ochre colours. Funny though that I never wondered how they lasted in rock paintings.