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Baume-Latrone Cave

Prehistoric figure paintings
Dated: 35,500 BC

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Baume Latrone Cave in the Gardon River Valley is best known for its clay finger paintings
Location of Baume Latrone Cave in the Gardon Gorge. Image by Stéphane Batigne. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Cave Art in the Gard

The Stone Age cave of Baume-Latrone (Grotte de la Trône) is an archaeological site situated in the Gard department of Southern France, in the region of Occitanie.

Baume-Latrone is best known for its remarkable style of cave painting - achieved with the tips of fingers coated in wet clay - a technique which is unique in paleolithic art in Europe.

The clay painting at Baume-Latrone coincided with the decorations at Abri Cellier (36,000 BC), Abri Blanchard (36,000 BC) and Abri Castanet (35,000 BC) in the Dordogne.

All these sites lie within the zone of Franco-Cantabrian art, which is noted for the similarity of its themes and style.

The cave of Baume-Latrone (Grotte de la Trône) has been classified as a prehistoric monument ever since May 10, 1941.

Black drawing of woolly mammoth at Baume-Latrone Cave
Stylized charcoal drawing of mammoth from the Salle Bégouen. Copyright Wendel Collection. (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Location

Baume-Latrone Cave sits about 3 kilometres downstream from the village of Russan on the north bank of the Gardon River, in the commune of Sainte-Anastasie.

It is one of five paleolithic caves in the department of Gard, the other four being: Bayol Cave, Cave d'Oulen, Chabot Cave and Points Cave.

Baume-Latrone itself has been known to archaeologists for more than a century, but mostly for the Neolithic deposits and artifacts around the entrance.

The full depth of its underground network was only discovered in 1940, following the removal of an obstruction preventing access to a final chamber, about 240 metres inside the cave.

It was in this final section that a group of students from Nimes discovered the hand-drawn rock paintings of mammoths, and other animals, from the first period of Upper Paleolithic art.

Cave Painting at Baume-Latrone

Baume-Latrone's cave art consists of more than 30 images. They include clay paintings of 10 mammoths, a large feline, a cave bear, a rhinoceros, a horse, two ibex, two deer and an aurochs, plus at least 6 handprints, as well as a quantity of finger-fluting, and numerous abstract signs, such as claviforms and lines.

In addition, there are a small number of engraved drawings of animal figures.

Most are found on the west walls of the Bégouën Chamber, where the most spectacular drawings appear on the Grand Ceiling.

A large picture of a feline (3 metres in length) occupies the centre. She is surrounded by several mammoths and an animal originally thought to be a horse, but now identified as a rhinoceros after comparisons with the way artists painted ears on rhinoceroses in the Aldene and Chauvet caves.

The scene depicts the attack on a group of mammoths by a feline, probably a cave lion.

Nearly all the cave's figurative images are drawn in a minimalist style - sometimes in silhouette or profile, using only a few stylized strokes.

Some mammoths, for instance, are evoked by their horseshoe-shaped silhouette, plus added wavy lines for their tusks and trunk. Despite this, most animals are readily identifiable.

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Dating

The cave painting at the Grotte de la Trône (Baume-Latrone) was attributed initially to the Aurignacian, the Gravettian, or the Solutrean. But after stylistic comparisons with other sites, it was assigned to the era of Aurignacian art (40,000-30,000 BC).

This stylistic comparision was validated in 2012, when a piece of charcoal collected at the foot of the drawings provided a carbon-14 dating of around 35,500 BC.

Why is Baume-Latrone Cave Important?

Because its artists used a unique method of clay painting.

They used their fingers to create all the drawings: they dipped them in semi-liquid clay and smeared them on the rock surface to produce a thickish red or brown line.

The technique works best with minimalist designs, before painting became more sophisticated.

For a great example of similar clay finger-drawings, see the La Roche-Cotard Cave engravings in the Loire Valley.

This clumsy painting method does not compare well with the more sophisticated paintings at Chauvet Cave, which was why the latter was originally seen as a much younger cave: archaeologists refused to believe such advanced art was possible in the Aurignacian.

They saw painting as evolutionary. They thought it developed from the rough to the simple, and from the simple to the complex, culminating in the great naturalistic art created at Lascaux, during the Magdalenian culture (15,000-10,000 BC).

But Chauvet changed everything and showed us that great art was being made much earlier than believed.

To understand how Baume-Latrone Cave fits into the evolution of Aurignacian art and culture, see: Timeline of Prehistoric Art (from 540,000 BC).

References

(1) "The Paleolithic Art of Baume-Latrone Cave." Archéologia, No 508, March 2013.
(2) "The Palaeolithic Art of Baume Latrone (France, Gard): New Dating Elements", Marc Azéma , B. Gély, R. Bourrillon, Ph. Galant: Inora (International Newsletter on Rock Art) No 64, November 2012.

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