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Abri du Poisson

Salmon Fish Relief Sculpture
Gorge d'Enfer, 23,000 BC

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Relief carving of a salmon on the roof of Abri du Poisson, Gorge d'Enfer, Dordogne
A rare relief sculpture of a salmon on the ceiling of Abri du Poisson, Gorge d'Enfer, Dordogne. Image by Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0)

Abri du Poisson Cave

L'Abri du Poisson is a small rock shelter in the Vézère Valley of the French Dordogne, which is best known for a particular item of prehistoric sculpture - namely, a salmon fish carved in low relief on the ceiling of the cave.

In 1979, l'Abri du Poisson - along with 15 other Vézère Valley caves - was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Franco-Cantabrian Fish

What makes Abri du Poisson's salmon sculpture so important, is that fish rarely appear in Franco-Cantabrian art - in fact, only a dozen examples are known.

They include a red pike at Pech Merle Cave, several pike at Grande Grotte Arcy-sur-Cure, a trout at Niaux Cave, a halibut at La Pileta, and a salmon at Ekain Cave.

To understand how the Stone Age sculpture at the Abri du Poisson fits into the chronology of the Upper Paleolithic, see: Timeline of Prehistoric Art (from 540,000 BC).

Location

The Abri du Poisson rock shelter is situated in the Gorge d'Enfer - part of the Vézère Valley - close to Les Eyzies in the Dordogne. It measures 8 metres in width and 7 metres in depth.

Neighbouring rock shelters in the valley of Gorge d'Enfer, include: (upstream) the shelters of Laugerie-Haute and Laugerie-Basse, as well as Abri Lartet and the smaller Abri Oreille d'Enfer; and (downstream) the Cro-Magnon rock shelter, Abri Pasquet and the Abri Galou.

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Discovery

Abri du Poisson was discovered and examined in 1892 by Paul Girod and Elie Massénat. But the fish sculpture wasn't found until much later, when Jean Marsan spotted it, covered in algae, in 1912.

The following year, after being excavated by the eminent archaeologist Denis Peyrony (1869-1954), l'Abri du Poission was made an Historic Monument of France.

In his guidebook to Les Eyzies, Peyrony describes an attempt by the local mayor of Manauri to dismantle the stone carving of the salmon and sell it to the Berlin Anthropological Museum.

He writes that the plot was only foiled by the last-minute intervention of the French Minister for Fine Arts.

Abri du Poisson: Salmon Relief Sculpture

Abri du Poisson's fish art consists of a life-size sculpture of a male 'Becquart' salmon with its jaw turned up, a pose typical of the male of the species exhausted from the spawning season.

It measures just over a metre in length and was originally embellished with red ochre pigment. The salmon was originally the centrepiece of a large painted composition on the ceiling.

As noted above, images of fish are rarely seen in Upper Paleolithic art, either as paintings or engravings.

This is rather inconsistent with life on the ground, in view of the importance of fish as a source of food during the Ice Age - a fact supported by the many pictures of fish carved on items of mobiliary art and other domestic artifacts.

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Dating

Human occupation at l'Abri du Poisson dates back to the Aurignacian era, but the salmon sculpture has been radiocarbon dated to the Gravettian culture, around 23,000 BC.

This is supported by a comparison of its stylistic similarities with the relief sculpture known as the Venus of Laussel (also 23,000 BC).

Other Artworks

Other images discovered at Abri du Poisson, include a black hand stencil on the ceiling - not made by the normal blowing technique using a bowl of ochre and a hollow reed, but by tracing the outline of the hand with a painting implement of some kind.

The remains of a bison drawing are also visible, close to the salmon sculpture.

In addition, there are faint traces of hundreds of animal figures on fragments of wall and ceiling deposits, along with a large quantity of abstract signs, including straight lines and copious red and black dots.

Some of the works recovered from L'Abri du Poisson are now in the paleolithic art collection at the Museum of Prehistoric Culture at Les Eyzies, in the Dordogne.

Prehistoric Relief Sculpture

For more details about Stone Age carvings, see the following:

References

(1) "The Fish Shelter Affair." Randall White. 'Homeland and Prehistory, Périgueux.' ed. Pierre Fanlac, 2007, p.237.
(2) "L'Abri de Lartet et l'Abri du Poisson a Gorge-d'Enfer (Dordogne)." (Abri de Lartet and Abri du Poisson in the Gorge-d'Enfer) D. Peyrony. (1932) Masson et Cie.

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