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La Madeleine

Dordogne Rock Shelter
Type-Site of Magdalenian culture

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Creeping Hyena, mammoth ivory carving on a spear-thrower
The famous 'Creeping Hyena', found at Abri de La Madeleine rock shelter. Now in the National Prehistory Museum in Les Eyzies, France. Image by Klaus D. Peter, Wiehl, Germany. (CC BY 3.0)

Magdalenian Type-Site

La Madeleine is a Stone Age rock-shelter in southwestern France. It was the first archaeological site to provide comprehensive evidence of the Magdalenian culture, for which it now serves as the type site.

Among the works of paleolithic art discovered at La Madeleine, is an exquisite antler carving known as Bison Licking its Side, which dates to 13,000 BC, and a mammoth ivory spear-thrower decorated with a 'Creeping Hyena' carving (see above).

Magdalenian culture was introduced by modern humans (Cro-Magnons), during the years 15,000-10,000 BC - a period known as the Age of the Reindeer, 'L'âge du renne'.

The culture is noted for its specialized, sophisticated toolkit, but above all for its remarkable prehistoric art, notably its multi-coloured cave painting, exemplified by the bison in the Altamira Cave (Cantabria), the bulls at Lascaux Cave (Dordogne) and the horses at Ekain Cave (Basque Country).

In 1956, the La Madeleine was classified as a Monument historique, and in 1979 - along with other Vézère Valley Caves - it was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Tools and other Stone Age artifacts found at the site are now divided between the National Museum of Prehistory at Les Eyzies, the National Museum of Antiquities at St. Germain-en-Laye, and the British Museum, London.

Location

The Abri de la Madeleine is located underneath an overhanging cliff, on the bank of the Vézère river, close to Tursac in the French Dordogne.

The Vézère Valley is central to our understanding of Upper Paleolithic art in Europe (40,000-10,000 BC).

It is home to more than 150 paleolithic caves and shelters including: Lascaux Cave (19,000 BC), Font de Gaume (17,000 BC), Cap Blanc (13,000 BC), Les Combarelles Cave (11,700 BC), and Rouffignac Cave (11,000 BC).

It is also home to the oldest archaeological site in the Dordogne, namely La Micoque, an open-air deposit dating from 400,000 BC.

As a result, the Dordogne plays an important part in Franco-Cantabrian art, along with other areas such as the Lot, the French Pyrenees, Cantabria and the Spanish Basque country.

Why is it Called La Madeleine?

L'Abri de la Madeleine was named after the chapel of Sainte Madeleine, which was built directly above the rock shelter, during The Hundred Years War, around 1350, by Lord Beynac, a local aristocrat. The chapel is now part of the village of Madeleine.

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Discovery and Excavation

La Madeleine was discovered in 1863 by paleontologist Édouard Lartet (1801-71) and the wealthy ethnologist Henry Christy (1810-65), as they returned from their excavation of Le Moustier, the type-site of the Mousterian culture (c.160,000-40,000 BC), which was later made famous by the discovery of a complete Neanderthal skeleton in 1908.

The pair began excavations in 1864, unearthing thousands of tools made from bone and antler, as well as flints of all sizes. Other artifacts included a wealth of portable sculpture, mostly carved from animal bones and antlers, including a range of decorated tools.

Later in the same year, Christy documented some of their findings in the Review of the French Academy and Transactions of the Ethnological Society of London.

A fuller account appeared in a half-finished book left by Christy, entitled 'Reliquiae Aquitanicae', which was published in 1875.

In 1872, Gabriel de Mortillet (1821-98), curator of the Musée des Antiquités Nationales at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, used his material to name the period the Magdalenian, after the Madeleine rock shelter.

Lartet, who in 1860 had excavated Aurignac Cave - the type-site for the Aurignacian culture - went on to discover five human skeletons at the Cro-Magnon rock shelter, in 1868, which duly became the type-site for the Cro-Magnon species of H. sapiens.

Later Excavations

The site of La Madeleine was also explored by the prehistorian Paul Girod (1856-1911) and, afterwards, by the archaeologist Denis Peyrony (1869-1954).

It was Peyrony who, in 1926, discovered the buried corpse of a Cro-Magnon child in the shelter, dating to 8,000 BC.

The child - aged 2-4 years - had been painted with red ochre pigment and covered with more than 1,500 pieces of jewellery, made from pierced animal teeth and marine shells.

All this raises the question: was the the corpse honoured in this way because of the child's hereditary or social status within the hunter-gatherer community? If so, it would signal a change in the usual equality practised by such communities.

In 1968, after a gap of more than a decade, excavations at La Madeleine were resumed by French archaeologist Jean-Marc Bouvier.

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Tools at La Madeleine

A large number of Mode 5 technology stone tools were recovered from La Madeleine, as well as a wide range of specialist implements made out of antler and animal bone.

Art at La Madeleine

Mobiliary Art

Prehistoric Masterpieces

The site contained two carvings (dated to around 13,000 BC), all originally created for separate spearthrowers, which are regarded as masterpieces of Stone Age culture in France.

Bison Licking Insect Bite

La Madeleine's exquisite bison spearthrower carving is made out of reindeer antler. It represents a bison with head turned, licking its flank.

The treatment of the head is incredibly detailed: the arched nostril covered with hair, the small ear, the large eye, one horn carved in relief, the other recessed, the dewlap and mane defined by long striations, the tongue protruding from the mouth.

Creeping Hyena Spearthrower

La Madeleine's 'creeping hyena' spearthrower, made out of ivory, was found at the base of a wall, in a pitiful condition.

Fortunately, it was cleaned and ably reconstituted at the Musée de Saint-Germain.

Notice the short, thick muzzle, the rounded forehead, the small nostril, the hyena head and the long powerful neck. The artist has cleverly incorporated the ground surface, over which the hyena is creeping up on its prey.

Cave Art

There is little parietal art in the rock shelter, except for some rock engravings of animals.

References

(1) "Reliquiae Aquitanicae, being contributions to the Archaeology and Paleontology of Périgord and the adjacent provinces of Southern France." Lartet, E., Christy H. London: Williams, 1875.
(2) "La Madeleine: son gisement, son industrie, ses oeuvres d’art." (La Madeleine rock shelter: its archaeological site, tools and works of art) Capitan L., Peyrony D., 1928: Paris, Librairie Emile Nourry, 1928.
(3) "Oeuvres d'art mobilier inédites de la Madeleine (Tursac-Dordogne)." (Unpublished Works of Art from La Madeleine) Crémades M., 1994: (Fouilles J.M. Bouvier). In: Paléo, N. 6, 1994. pp. 233-246.
(4) "Un gisement préhistorique: La Madeleine" (Prehistoric archaeological site of La Madeleine). Jean-Marc Bouvier, Pierre Fanlac. Getty Research Institute LIBRARY ANNEX GN772.2.M3 B68 1977.

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