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Abri Blanchard

Aurignacian cave art
Engraved drawing of aurochs

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Entrance to Abri Blanchard rock shelter at Castel Merle, Dordogne, France
Entrance to Abri Blanchard, Dordogne, France. Image by Père Igor. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Gathering Place

Abri Blanchard is a partially collapsed rock shelter located in the narrow valley of Castel-Merle, a tributary of the Vézère Valley in the French Dordogne.

The region was a major centre of paleolithic culture, and during the Aurignacian period (40,000-30,000 BC), the district of Castel-Merle was occupied by a large number of Cro-Magnons, the first European sub-species of modern Homo sapiens.

By this time, modern humans had almost supplanted Neanderthals, and Abri Blanchard served as a regular winter gathering place for these new hunter-gatherers and their families.

It became a venue for the purpose of finding mates, organizing barter and trade, group hunting, seasonal rituals, and the like.

This is confirmed by the thousands of artifacts recovered over the years from Abri Blanchard and the neighbouring shelter of Abri Castanet, including stone tools, lithic implements and debitage, bone and antler implements (e.g. eyed needles), beads made from ivory, soapstone, shells and animal teeth, as well as other decorative items, which would have been bartered, exchanged and traded by the shelter's occupants.

In addition, a number of decorated limestone blocks from the collapsed ceiling have been recovered. These blocks have yielded various types of cave art, such as engraved images of male and female genitalia, as well as paintings and engravings of horses and wild oxen, and some abstract symbols.

Abri Blanchard is one of a trio of paleolithic caves in the Vézère Valley to be excavated by Randall White, a professor of anthropology at New York University, and an expert in microstratigraphy - the tiny-scale study of sedimentary deposits.

His meticulous methods have breathed new life into all three caves. The two others are Abri Castanet and Abri Cellier.

Scholars believe less than 15,000 years may have elapsed between the formation of the Castel-Merle rock shelters, and the collapse of their overhanging roofs.

As a result, their archaeological remains are largely uncontaminated by later occupations, and offer us a unique glimpse into the Stone Age culture of the time.

Location

The site of Castel-Merle is located close to the town of Sergeac on the Vézère River between Lascaux Cave and the rock shelter of Le Moustier, northeast of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac in the Dordogne.

It sits in a narrow valley or gorge (Vallon des Roches) between high parallel cliffs and comprises six rock shelters along a 400-metre stretch of cliff face. They include:

Abri Blanchard was originally quite a wide but shallow shelter, measuring around two metres high, 30 metres wide, and 60 metres deep. It was kept warm by hanging a curtain of hides across its mouth.

During the Stone Age, around 35,000 BC, the area likely consisted of wide-open grassland with about 10 percent forest cover, and the temperature would have been anywhere between minus one degree Celsius and seven degrees Celsius, compared to the 18 degrees Celsius it is today.

Discovery & Excavation

Abri Blanchard was excavated from 1910 to 1912 by amateur archaeologist Louis Didon, who unearthed several limestone blocks decorated with engraved gender motifs and animal images of uncertain antiquity.

Unfortunately, the excavations were marred by the crude archaeological methods of the time, causing the loss or accidental disposal of many valuable remains.

In 2011-12, following his successful excavation of Abri Castanet in 2007, Randall White turned his attention to Abri Blanchard.

Within 12 months, his team's microstratigraphic investigations found unique animal engravings, which they dated to 36,000 BC. White's findings were published in 2018, in the journal Quaternary International.

According to White, Abri Blanchard constitutes the richest Aurignacian site ever excavated in Europe.

For example, in the Périgord/Dordogne region, there are nine rock shelters from which archaelogists have recovered 147 images of animals and other decorative motifs, created on limestone rock. Abri Blanchard is responsible for more than a quarter of these artworks.

Cave Art at Abri Blanchard

In 2012, after sorting through waste heaps left behind by previous excavations, White discovered a fragment of limestone buried in the midst of day-to-day occupational debris, which was engraved with a complex collection of images.

The fragment featured a rock engraving, of an aurochs (a wild ox: Bos primigenius) as well as dozens of small aligned cupules, or dot-like hollows.

It was dated by molecular filtration and Hydroxyproline 14C technology, to 36,000 BC: a finding consistent with similar rock art found at Abri Castanet (35,000 BC) and Abri Cellier (36,000 BC).

Interestingly, the engraved image also shows important similarities to contemporary imagery at Chauvet Cave, some 360 kilometres away in the French Ardèche, and to Swabian sites, like Vogelherd Cave, more than 900 kilometres away in southwestern Germany.

The same Swabian sites may have been the source of the ivory used in Abri Blanchard's bead making, since mammoths were extinct in southwestern France, at the time.

The limestone carving represents one of the earliest examples of figurative imagery ever found in Europe. Researchers believe the Aurignacian culture, to which it belongs, may have revered the aurochs for its virility, as an earlier excavation discovered a phallus made out of an aurochs horn.

The symmetrical rows of cupule signs that appear on the limestone along with the animal carving, required enormous effort to produce and preceded the engraving of the animal itself.

The meaning of these markings remains a mystery.

In comparison, at Chauvet Cave, similar sized dots of ochre pigments, made with the palm of the hand, are used to create images of animals, in a rudimentary form of pointillism.

Cro-Magnon Culture

The history of stone tools teaches us that similar tool-making was practiced by all Cro-Magnons across Europe.

Abri Blanchard shows us that the same can be said about their parietal art, as well as their bead-making.

Based on archaelogical evidence, bead manufacture at Abri Blanchard and Abri Castanet far exceeded anything seen at other contemporary sites, like the Grotte du Pape, at Brassempouy.

A great deal of the material used was sourced from distant sites up to 1,000 kilometres away. Soapstone, for instance, came from the Pyrenees; seashells came from the Mediterranean as well as the Atlantic Ocean; and, as mentioned, ivory probably came from southern Germany.

All these arrangements shed light on the extensive networks built up by modern humans, of which Abri Blanchard was a part.

The Vézère Valley

The Vézère Valley is one of Europe's most important hotspots of Stone Age culture, which has yielded significant collections of Upper Paleolithic art from 40,000 BC to 10,000 BC.

The area has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, since 1979. See Vézère Valley Caves for details.

In addition to the local shelters mentioned above, it is home to several famous Stone Age caves, including:

NEXT: Timeline of Prehistoric Art.

References

(1) "L’Abri Blanchard des Roches (commune de Sergeac). Gisement aurignacien moyen." Didon L., 1911: Bulletin de la Société Historique et Archéologique du Périgord, 87, 246–61 & 321–45.
(2) "Which Aurignacians were at Abri Blanchard (Sergeac, Dordogne, France)? Data from bone and antler artefacts in American collections and from new field operations." Tartar É., White R., Chiotti L., Cretin C., Mensan R. 2014: PALEO, 25 | 2014, 309-331.
(3) Chiotti, R., Cretin C., Morala A., 2015: "The Lithic Industries from Blanchard and Castanet Rock Shelters (Dordogne, France): Data from the 2005-2012 Excavations." Conference: Aurignacian Genius: Art, Technology and Society of the First Modern Humans in Europe, New York 2015.
(4) "A new Aurignacian engraving from Abri Blanchard, France: Implications for understanding Aurignacian graphic expression in Western and Central Europe." Bourrillon, R., White, R., Tartar, E., Chiotti, L., Mensan, R., Clark, A., Castel, J. C., Cretin, C., Higham, T., Morala, A., Ranlett, S., Sisk, M., Devièse, T., & Comeskey, D. J. (2018). Quaternary International, 491, 46-64.

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