Aurignacian engravings 36,000 BC
Pointillist image of mammoth
The prehistoric site of Abri Cellier is a collapsed rock shelter in the French Dordogne, overlooking the River Vézère, close to the Neanderthal site of Le Moustier. This places Abri Cellier within the zone of Franco-Cantabrian art, which is noted for its similarity of style.
Recent excavations show that the rock shelter contains some of the oldest cave art in France.
A sister archaeological site, by the name of Abri Blanchard, is located around the bend of the Vézère, some 5 kilometres to the east, in the Vallon de Castel-Merle.
The Castel-Merle archaeological area also includes Abri Castanet, as well as lesser-known paleolithic caves including: Abri Labattut, Abri des Merveilles, Abri Reverdit, Abri du Roc de l'Acier and Abri de la Souquette.
The area has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, since 1979.
It is home to several important sites of prehistoric art from the Mousterian to the Magdalenian, including: La Mouthe Cave and Abri du Poisson (23,000 BC), Lascaux Cave (19,000 BC), Font de Gaume (17,000 BC), La Madeleine (15,000 BC), Cap Blanc (13,000 BC), Les Combarelles Cave (11,700 BC), and Rouffignac Cave (11,000 BC).
Abri Cellier (like the Blanchard and Castanet shelters) was investigated, excavated and re-excavated numerous times during the 20th century.
Two major excavations were conducted in 1927 and 1945, by Professor George Lucius Collie of the Logan Museum, Wisconsin, and the famous French archaeologist Denis Peyrony, respectively.
In addition to a large quantity of tools and artifacts, some 15 engraved limestone blocks were recovered, featuring a number of rock engravings (of horses, ibex, and female representations) and abstract markings, including cupules.
Also unearthed, was a venus figurine carved out of mammoth ivory.
For several reasons, all the rock art was attributed to the early Aurignacian culture. The animal figures were oversimplified and archaic in design. In addition, several engravings were comparable with those found at the Neanderthal shelter of La Ferrassie, also in the Dordogne.
However, although Abri Cellier, Abri Blanchard and Abri Castanet all yielded a quantity of paleolithic art, the scientific findings - as to chronology and cultural context - were hampered by the crude archaeological methods used.
Following the sensational discoveries at Chauvet Cave, a team of archaeologists led by anthropologist Randall White, arrived at Abri Castanet to re-examine the site using modern theoretical and methodological techniques.
In 2007, they discovered a number of engravings at the site, dating to 35,000 BC.
White's team followed this up with a second archaeological expedition in 2011-2012, this time to the nearby collapsed rock shelter of Abri Blanchard, where early excavations during the period 1910-1912 more or less emptied the site.
In 2012, after sorting through the waste heaps left behind by previous researchers, White's team found a fragmented slab of limestone decorated with the engraving of an aurochs (the extinct wild ox of Europe).
The engraving was partially covered in small cupules, and dated by molecular filtration and Hydroxyproline 14C to 36,000 BC.
The aurochs engraving represents one of the earliest instances of figurative imagery found in western Eurasia.
It was created by modern man, probably belonging to one of the first groups of Homo sapiens to arrive in Europe.
Researchers also recovered hundreds of stone tools, decorated reindeer bones and examples of primitive jewellery.
According to White, the "abundance of personal ornaments, many from exotic raw materials from the Pyrenees, the Atlantic shore and the Mediterranean coast" indicates that Abri Blanchard might have served as a meeting place for trade and cultural ceremonies.
But what was the purpose of the cupule signs - the rows of cup-shaped hollows that were hammered out of the limestone along with the animal carving? White had no conclusive answer.
"These took considerable effort to produce and they preceded the engraving of the animal itself," he explained, but their meaning remains a mystery.
In 2014, White oversaw a series of new excavations at Abri Cellier. The team examined several areas within the rock shelter to determine the chronology and stratigraphy of the site.
This led to the discovery of 16 limestone slabs covered in markings chiseled into the surface.
One of the slabs contained a pattern of Pointillist cupules that formed a picture of a woolly mammoth.
Microscopic analysis confirmed the patterns were man-made markings rather than something formed by nature. They were dated to 36,000 BC.
According to White, the prehistoric pointillist technique was extremely labour-intensive.
The artists first smoothed out the surface of the stone slab with a harder stone, like quartzite.
Then they used a hammerstone (a very hard pebble or rock) to pound out a cupule, a cup-like mark, on the surface of the slab.
The mammoth image was made up of a series of parallel alignments of cupules (from 0.5 to 1 cm in diameter).
In total, there were 12 vertical lines with 5 cupules on each line. Two elongated cupules were carefully positioned to deepen a natural hollow on the upper edge of the limestone slab, which deepened the hollow of the animal's neck.
A third cupule was positioned to create the impression of an animal head. Other cupules are less easy to decipher but with only a little imagination it is possible to identify a mammoth's trunk and tusks.
The style is broadly comparable with a pointillist rhinoceros painted on the walls of the Chauvet cave, some 250 miles distant, although the Chauvet artist used paint to make his pattern of dots, rather than holes created by a hammerstone.
For more about cupules in caves, see: Auditorium Cave, Bhimbetka.
(1) "Newly discovered Aurignacian engraved blocks from Abri Cellier: History, context and dating." Randall White et al. Quaternary International, Volume 498, 30 December 2018, Pages 99-125.
(2) "A new Aurignacian engraving from Abri Blanchard, France: Implications for understanding Aurignacian graphic expression in Western and Central Europe." R. Bourrillon et al. Quaternary International, Volume 491, 20 October 2018, Pages 46-64.
(3) "Early Aurignacian Graphic Arts in the Vézère Valley: In Search of an Identity?" Bourrillon R., White R., 2015: Art, Technology and Society of the First Modern Humans in Europe, Proceedings of the International Symposium, April 08-10 2013, New York University, Palethnology, 7, 118-137.