The Paleolithic Cave Art of France


Dr Jean Clottes
Dr Jean Clottes
Obviously, rock art locations heavily depend upon the presence (or absence) of caves and shelters. However, areas which one might have thought favourable on that account, such as Languedoc, Roussillon, Provence or again the valleys and causses in the south of Quercy and Aveyron have few or no painted or engraved sites. Cultural choices were a determining factor. Differential preservation is another one, as many caves and shelters may have been destroyed by all sorts of phenomena. For example, at the end of the last glaciation, the 115 meters rise of the sea flooded dozens of caves in the Mediterranean. Several could have had wall art. Only one was partly preserved (Cosquer).
Four main areas with Paleolithic rock art stand out. The most important one is that of Perigord, with more than sixty sites, ranging over the twenty thousand years during which wall art was done and including some of the most spectacular caves ever discovered for paintings (Lascaux, Rouffignac, Font-de-Gaume), engravings (Les Combarelles, Cussac) or low-relief sculpture (Le Cap Blanc).
Quercy (especially the Lot but also the Tarn and Tarn-et-Garonne) is a group in itself, immediately east and south of that of Dordogne. It includes more than thirty painted caves.
Paleolithic Cave Art Paintings France
The major ones are Cougnac and Pech-Merle. The Pyrenees constitute a group equivalent to that of Quercy. Its thirty-odd painted or engraved caves are mostly Magdalenian, but a few are older (Gargas, some galleries in Les Trois-Freres and Portel). They are often to be found in small groupings, like the Basque caves in the Arbailles mountains in the west of the chain, the three Volp Caves, and the six caverns in the Tarascon-sur-Ariege Basin. Several are most important (Niaux, Les Trois-Freres, Le Tuc d’Audoubert, Le Portel, Gargas).
Ibex from the Niaux Cave
Ibex from the
Niaux Cave
The lower valley of the Ardeche used to be considered as a minor group - numbering about twenty caves - before the discovery of the Chauvet Cave, in itself a most exceptional site. The other caves and shelters with rock art are scattered in various places : the Cosquer Cave Provence by the Mediterranean, Pair-non-Pair in the Gironde, Le Placard, La Chaire-a-Calvin, Roc-de-Sers in the Charente, Le Roc-aux- Sorciers and its splendid sculptures in the Vienne, the two caves of Arcy-sur-Cure in Burgundy, the Mayenne Sciences cave in the Mayenne, one or two shelters in the Fontainebleau Forest and two other caves, including Gouy, in Normandy.
Great Black Bull from the Lascaux Cave
Great Black Bull from the Lascaux Cave
Photo N. Aujoulat (2003) © MCC-CNP
Contrary to a well-spread idea, Paleolithic rock art is not merely a 'cave art'. In fact, a recent study showed that if the art of 88 sites was to be found in the complete dark, in 65 other cases it was in the daylight (Clottes 1997). Three main cases can be distinguished : - the deep caves, for which an artificial light was necessary; - the shelters which were more or less lit up by natural light ; - the open air sites. The latter are essentially known in Spain and Portugal. Only one case has been discovered in France (the engraved rock at Campome in the Pyrenees-Orientales). The art in the light and the art in the dark: those two tendencies have coexisted for all the duration of the Paleolithic. The art in the dark was preferred in certain areas (the Pyrenees) and at certain periods (Middle and Late Magdalenian). The low-relief sculptures are only to be found in shelters. On the other hand, the paintings which used to exist in shelters have for the most part eroded away and only very faint traces remain, contrary to engravings which could in many cases be preserved in them.
In the shelters, there have most often been settlements next to the wall art. People lived there and went on with their daily pursuits close to the engravings, the paintings and low-relief sculptures. The case is quite different for the deep caves which usually remained uninhabited. This must mean that the art of the one and that of the other were probably not considered in the same way: in the deep caves the images were nearly never defaced, destroyed or erased, where as in the shelters the archaeological layers - i.e. the rubbish thrown away by the group - often ended up by covering up the art on the walls (Gourdan, Le Placard). The art inside the caves was respected, while the art in the shelters eventually lost its interest and protection.
The Paleolithic Cave Art of France
France Rock Art Archive
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