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Cussac Cave

Gravettian animal engravings
finger flutings: 26,500 BC

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Engraving of a mammoth, Cussac Cave, Dordogne
Engraving of a mammoth from Cussac Cave, whose collection of petroglyphs numbers more than 150 animal figures. Image by PALEO Revue d'archéologie préhistorique/CNP, Ministère de la Culture (Fig 2). (CC BY 4.0)

Cussac Cave: A Summary

Cussac Cave is a major site of Stone age culture in the French Périgord, and is protected as a National Heritage site.

It is noted, in particular, for its spectacular rock engravings of bison, mammoths and horses, such as those on the Grand Panel (Le Grand Panneau).

The two most impressive aspects of Cussac's petroglyphs are their monumental size - a single bison measures 4 metres in length - and their depth of incision.

The figurative themes of Cussac's prehistoric art are typical of the Gravettian period, and resemble those at other sites in the region, including Pech Merle Cave (27,000 BC), Roucadour Cave (24,000 BC), Cougnac Cave (23,000 BC) and Gargas Cave (25,000 BC).

Location

The Cussac Cave is set in limestone terrain on the right bank of the Bélingou, a tributary of the Dordogne River, near the town of Le Buisson-de-Cadouin, in the French Périgord.

It is close to the rock-shelter of La Gravette à Bayac, the type-site of Gravettian culture, and about 20 kms from Font-de-Gaume Cave in the Beune Valley.

The entrance is located in a hillside at an altitude of 118 metres above sea level. It opens inwards to a small tunnel some 10 metres in length which leads into the cave.

Discovery

The Grotte de Cussac was originally discovered in 1950, by the eminent archaeologist Denis Peyrony (1869-1954), but his examination of the cave was cut short by a rockfall near the entrance, which prevented any further investigation.

It was only rediscovered in September 2000, by the persistent efforts of an amateur speleologist, named Marc Delluc.

In May 2001, archaeologists from France's National Centre for Prehistory, began a thorough exploration of the cave interior.

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Cave Layout

The entry tunnel opens out into the Main Gallery (Grand Salle) which is 10-15 metres wide and about 12 metres tall.

Its floors and ceiling are covered in concretions such as stalagmites and stalactites.

There are two other exits from the Main Gallery: one leads northwest to the "downstream area", which contains the bulk of Cussac's paleolithic art, while the other leads southeast to the "upstream area".

In all, the cave stretches for about one kilometre. The walls are about 12 metres in height and the floors are relatively level, although there are numerous large chunks of rock, which must be bypassed or clambered over.

The cave is not likely to be opened to the public, due to the high concentration of carbon dioxide in certain passages. Scientists working in the cave, for instance, are allowed to remain for no more than three hours at a time, before returning to the surface.

Cussac Cave Art

Cussac's cave art consists of some 150 engravings of animals and birds.

These engraved drawings are often large and are made either with stone tools or (on softer surfaces) with fingers.

They include characteristic Gravettian assemblages of woolly mammoths, bison and horses, along with some rhinoceroses, deer and ibex, plus a few unidentified creatures with long snouts, as well as a number of geese.

In addition, Cussac contains four silhouettes of female figures - including a figure known as the "Cussac Venus" - as well as a few schematic sexual representations of females and males, à la Pech-Merle.

Cussac's rock art is not evenly distributed. To begin with, there are many more figures in the downstream segment. And most of these are found on nine evenly spaced panels.

The most famous panels include: the "Great Panel" (Le Grand Panneau), the "Panel of the Bisons" (Panneau des Bisons) and the "Panel of the Discovery" (Panneau de la Découverte).

The edges of the panels are often decorated with finger tracings (also called finger flutings, or "macaroni").

These markings typically have a random indecipherable shape, and are often done by children, as at Rouffignac Cave in the Dordogne.

There is no cave painting at Cussac, although there are a quantity of abstract signs including red ochre dots. These are the only known examples of pigment use in the cave.

In general, the iconography of Cussac's parietal art is similar - in both theme and style - to other Quercy caves of the Mid-Gravettian.

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Engravings

The Cussac engravings are among the most impressive carvings in Franco-Cantabrian art, ranking alongside similar works at Trois Frères (Ariège) and Gabillou Cave (Valley of l'Isle).

The Great Panel is particularly impressive.

About 15 metres long, it depicts more than 20 animal and human figures, including several large scale bison and horses, including one huge 4-metre bison. It is one of the greatest examples of rock carving from the late Stone Age.

One reason for the exceptional quality of Cussac's petroglyphs, is the nature of the rock surface.

Its hardness is perfect for the purpose of preservation, but soft enough to be cut with a sharpened flint or bone tool, or even a piece of wood.

Also, the walls are covered with an ochre film or patina. As a result, when the rock is incised, differing colours are exposed, which help to accentuate the lines of the drawing.

How Old is the Cussac Cave Art?

According to a 2017 study in the Quaternary International journal, the rock engravings at Cussac were produced exclusively during the Mid-Gravettian period of Upper Paleolithic art, approximately 27,000–26,000 BC.

This conclusion is not based on direct dating methods because none of the cave art contains charcoal or other organic elements that can be “directly” dated.

Instead, scientists used thematic, technical, and iconographic comparative analysis to calculate a likely chronology.

The style of Gravettian engraving at Cussac is similar to that found in the Aitzbitarte Caves (25,000 BC), in northern Spain.

Human Burials

At least five humans - four adults and a teenager - were found deliberately buried in the cave, with bones carbon-dated to about 23,000 BC.

The remains were found in three sectors of the downstream branch network, at the bottom of bear wallows in clay soil.

There is no specific evidence connecting any of these remains with the cave art.

For another rare instance of a human burial inside a decorated cave, see the "Magdalenian Girl" (12,000 BC) at the Cap Blanc Rock Shelter, close to Eyzies-de-Tayac, in the Dordogne.

More Paleolithic Engravings

Other well-known prehistoric engravings include the following:

For more about the chronology of Ice Age rock carvings, see: Timeline of Prehistoric Art (from 540,000 BC).

References

(1) "La grotte ornée de Cussac - Le Buisson-de-Cadouin (Dordogne): premières observations." (Decorated Cave of Cussac: Early Observations.) Aujoulat, N., et al. (2002) Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française. 2002, tome 99, N. 1. pp. 129-137.
(2) "The chronology of human and animal presence in the decorated and sepulchral cave of Cussac (France)." Jacques Jaubert et al. Quaternary International. Volume 432, Part B, 8 March 2017, Pages 5-24.

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