Dr. Jean Clottes comments on this in his publication 'Cave Art' - from the cave mouth to the furthest decorated chamber, it takes 45 minutes to walk; with reduced oxygen and under flickering torch light, this fact is significant. It contains over 250 engravings and cave paintings and drawings, dating back to the Upper Paleolithic. Rouffignac Cave, also known as The Cave of the Hundred Mammoths, has the most extensive cave system of the Périgord with more than 8 kilometers of underground passage ways.
It was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979.
It is an impressive cave - vast and slowly descending, and in the ambient light it appears to be the size of a motorway tunnel, smoothly sculpted by water over time. Impressive intermittent panels of black drawings and engravings gradually move from the walls to the ceiling as the cave ceiling lowers, whilst on the floor there are tessellating hollows of cave bear pits once used for hibernation, until the end of the cave is finally reached, where a dizzying display of drawings including woolly rhinoceroses, mammoths, horses, bison and ibex adorns the ceiling; a prehistoric Sistine Chapel. Like Michelangelo, these would have been drawn by the Palaeolithic artists lying down.
The French cave of Rouffignac cave is located in the Dordogne near Rouffignac-Saint-Cernin-de-Reillac and Les Eyzies-de-Tayac. This extensive cave network is situated on a forested limestone plateau, with its three entrances in the Labinche valley. The entrance today is almost certainly the one used during the Palaeolithic.
At the end of the 1940's, a group of cavers explored the galleries and noticed several images, but they didn’t realise these images were Palaeolithic. On 26th June 1956, Romain Robert, Louis-René Nougier, with Charles and Louis Plassard visited the cave and realised the archaeological value of the site.
Then abbé Henri Breuil authenticated the images as Palaeolithic works on 17th July 1956. The authenticity of the parietal works was then challenged by the prehistorian Severin Blanc - 'pale copies, made to smoke' - but an international commission dismissed this, so ending 'The War of the Mammoths' and a full inventory and excavations were undertaken. In 1957 Rouffignac became a listed site.
The Rouffignac cave network is the largest limestone karst system of Périgord, with roughly 10 km of cavities spread over 3 levels. The limestone mass is from the late Cretaceous, between 90-100 million years ago. The formation of the galleries occurred during the Tertiary, and the cave was then dry for two to three millions years. There has been little change since the Palaeolithic. The floor of the cave is covered with clay, with rock fragments from the ceiling. The walls are inlaid with flint nodules randomly protruding and often defining the decorated areas.
Several species of bears have occupied the cave of Rouffignac prior to human activity. They left three types of visible traces: vertical streaks of bear scratches on the walls, hollows for hibernation on the floors, and fossil bones.
The rock art of Rouffignac is 13,000 years old, from the Magdalenian culture. The painted and engraved drawings are distributed in most of the galleries of the upper floor, but their density varies across sectors. Today, the public visiting areas are where their concentration is greatest.
Two methods were used by the Magdalenian artists to adorn the walls, according to the rock texture. For the drawings, pieces of manganese dioxide were used, forming black figures on the clear rock. For the engravings, they have used flint chisels, bone or wood tools. If the rock was soft, they simply used their fingers.
Most of the figures are located on the top level. The Henri Breuil gallery is dominated by the Frieze of Three Woolly Rhinos and the Frieze of Ten Mammoths. The Sacred Way to the Great Ceiling is most complex, with engravings on the walls at the beginning and then drawings on the ceiling. The Great ceiling hangs above a large shaft which allows access to the lower levels. The Great Ceiling demonstrates the greatest diversity of fauna; 65 animals intertwine.
|Representation % of the total number :|
No direct dating has been done on the rock art. Based on similarities of style with nearby caves such as Combarelles, Bernifal and Fond de Gaume, researchers have assigned the representations of Rouffignac to the Magdalenian culture, roughly 13,000 years old. The dating by stylistic criteria in this instance includes the sequences of more or less oblique parallel lines that suggest anatomical details and the spatial perspective indicated by the animal’s horns and legs; these characteristics are typical of the Magdalenian period.
Visits in Rouffignac cave by the public began in 1959. Today, visitors are taken on an electric train through the silent subterranean labyrinth for a one hour tour. Such an installation makes the site accessible to all, but more importantly provides an essential asset for the preservation of the art; numbers are controlled, as is the lighting.