Prehistoric Art

By Keith Kloor | May 15, 2011 9:10 am

What are the chances that someone could make a compelling movie about 30,000-year old rock art?

Incredibly, Werner Herzog pulls it off with Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which I saw this weekend on the big screen.

The archaeologists in the movie are terrific, and Herzog does a nice job answering all the basic questions a general audience are likely to have about this extraordinary cave in the south of France.

Like some reviewers, I found the musical score distracting at times. Also, the ending (which has nothing to do with the cave) is bizzare and factually incorrect.

But these are two minor qualms that don’t detract from the movie’s excellence. Here’s an excerpt from a recent interview that Herzog did with Archaeology magazine:

ARCHAEOLOGY: You’ve talked about how culture conditions the way we interpret images. Have we lost something between the modern day and the time of Chauvet?

HERZOG: No, not lost. We simply have changed. We are fundamentally changed and yet there is something about humanness, there is something about the modern human soul, which awakened during the time of Chauvet, or maybe a little bit earlier, we don’t know.

ARCHAEOLOGY: What is your definition of humanness?

HERZOG: I think as Jean-Michel Geneste says, it is an adaptation to the world, language, symbolic representations, including rituals like burial, like probably cannibalism, initiation rites. There is a point where we shift away from a purely material culture.

ARCHAEOLOGY: Do you feel the story that science is telling of Chauvet Cave is inadequate in some way?

HERZOG: No, its not inadequate, and I’m glad that it does not proclaim to have a full explanation. There is a younger generation of archaeologists at work who are very much into declaring the findings as they are and not over-interpreting them. Everything in the previous generations was declared ritualistic and part of ceremonies and the young generation says “maybe, but we do not know.” I find it a healthy attitude. It will certainly be the school of archaeology that will prevail in the foreseeable future.

MORE ABOUT: Archaeology
  • Tom Fuller

    I occasionally wonder what future archaeologists will think about the number, placement and ritual importance of British garden gnomes…

  • Pascvaks

    “It will certainly be the school of archaeology that will prevail in the foreseeable future.”

    Let us hope that it remains a “science” and does not devolve and become a modern “art”.  The comment by the young of archaeology, “maybe, but we do not know” gives me hope.  Those who put all others in terms that describe only themselves are blinder than blind.  Archaeology must remain a science first and foremost!  Life is not easy.  Nothing of value is gained by making it so.  Indeed, everything crumbles and becomes dust if you even try.

  • Jim Allison

    I saw the movie last weekend, and I’m not sure I agree with the assessment that it was “compelling”. I saw it more as a missed opportunity. There was a great movie waiting to be made, and I for one would have thought a compelling movie would be relatively easy to make in this case (although as an archaeologist I’m naturally inclined to find archaeology interesting). I thought there were some great things in the movie that actually was made, but with better editing the movie could have been much, much better. I agree that the French archaeologists did a great job, and I the cinematography inside the cave was great, really conveying a sense of place.
    But… I can’t remember ever coming out of a movie with such strong opinions about the way it was edited. The music wasn’t just distracting, at times it was unbearable. Also Herzog’s decision to narrate the movie himself just seemed self-indulgent, especially since he consistently mispronounced the name of the cave (It’s not “Chauvee”). And couldn’t we have had subtitles when the archaeologists spoke in French, instead of a few seconds of their French interrupted by overly an overly loud English translation? I found that extremely distracting, although that might be because I speak French and would have liked to hear what they actually said.
    I saw the movie with my wife and my eleven-year-old, who both disliked it (mostly because of the music and the length [although it might not have seemed so long if some of the music had been more tolerable]). My impression was that Herzog needed better advice.
    On the whole, I’m glad I saw the movie, but I was disappointed because it would have been so easy to make it much better. Overall, I would say the movie was (mostly) good, but lose the bizarre ending, lose the worst of the music, replace the English voice overs with subtitles, and get a different narrator (or just have someone help Herzog learn to pronounce the name of the cave properly), and the movie would have been great.

  • Keith Kloor


    I agree with you. I was a little over-exuberant. Here’s a review (I’m just getting around to) from one of your peers that echoes your assessment.


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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.


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