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La Gravette

Type-site of Gravettian culture
Stone tools, sculpture, cave art

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Entrance to La Gravette rock shelter in the Dordogne
Entrance to the archaeological site of Abri de la Gravette, type-site of the Gravettian culture. Image by Père Igor. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

What is La Gravette?

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

The culture was created by Cro-Magnons - the dominant species of modern humans in Europe. It is noted above all for its stone tools ('Gravettian points'), as well as its prehistoric art: notably the small carvings known as venus figurines, which were made throughout Europe.

In France the Gravettian is also known as the Upper Périgordian.

Where is the Site Located?

La Gravette is situated in the valley of the River Couze, in the French Dordogne. It is one of many paleolithic caves found in the region of Franco-Cantabrian art, which was an area of great cultural activity during the Ice Age of the Upper Paleolithic.

Discovery and Excavation

La Gravette was first discovered by Monseigneur Chastaing in the spring of 1880. Excavations began almost immediately.

La Gravette was investigated by two researchers, Costes and Tababou, who duly sold off the artifacts found, to the Musée de Périgueux, the Musée de Bordeaux, and to some American collectors.

Afterwards, excavations were renewed by several other individuals, including Delugin, Féaux, Hardy, Landesque, and Testut.

Then, in 1930, the site was bought by archaeologist Fernand Lacorre - who had previously excavated Aurignac Cave, the type-site of the preceding Aurignacian culture.

Lacorre conducted numerous excavations between 1930 and 1954, and in 1958 donated the site to the French Musée d'Archéologie nationale. In 1960, he published a major monograph on the excavations.

Why is La Gravette Important?

La Gravette rock shelter is an important site of Stone Age culture because it is the type-site of the Gravettian culture, which is noted for its individual style of stone tools, as well as its mobiliary art and certain exceptional sites of cave art, notably in the French Lot.

Gravettian Culture

The Gravettian lasted from about 30,000 to 20,000 BC. It was preceded by the Aurignacian and succeeded by the Solutrean culture, named after the Rock of Solutré in eastern France.

The Gravettian led up to the Last Glacial Maximum, around 20,000 BC, when Ice Age temperatures reached their lowest point.

During this time, northern Europe was almost uninhabitable, while southern France and northern Spain saw their populations rise as climate refugees migrated south.

Fortunately, the French southwest, with its network of river valleys was also home to large herds of reindeer and other game animals, which provided a good supply of food, hides and other materials.

Curiously, Gravettian people proved to be much more mobile than their Neanderthal predecessors. They managed to develop the organizational skills that enabled them to follow the migrating animal herds, killing, butchering and transporting the carcasses back to their base as they went - a routine that Neanderthals had never mastered.

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When was La Gravette Occupied?

The site was first occupied by modern humans about 35,000 BC, during the Aurignacian, and the occupation continued throughout the Gravettian.

Stone Tools

The Gravettian is best-known for its tanged projectile points - known as 'Gravettian points' - which were hafted onto darts, javelins and stabbing spears.

These stone tools are diagnostic markers for the Gravettian in Western Europe.

The Gravettian hunter-gatherer toolkit also included narrow flint knife blades, which were used as hafted butchering knives.

In addition to these backed blades, the culture also produced several types of scrapers, smoothers and, in some areas, burins.

All these basic tool types were present at La Gravette, which contained different layers of deposits relating to the Aurignacian, the Gravettian, and also a new, less widespread, tool culture that Lacorre named the Bayacian.

This new style included a range of retouched leaf-shaped dart-points known as flechettes. See also: History of Stone Tools.

Gravettian Art

In addition to its tools, the Gravettian culture was an important period of Upper Paleolithic art for both portable and parietal works.

Portable Art

Gravettian artists are best-known for their mobiliary art: in particular, a series of small-scale female figurines, typically carved out of mammoth ivory, limestone or other soft stone.

Most conformed to a specific body shape with several uniform features: they were nude and severely obese, with undefined or absent head, hands and feet, and with exaggerated female features.

Famous examples of venus figurines created in Western Europe include:

By comparison, Russian venuses were less obese and were sometimes clothed.

The Siberian Maltinsko-Buretskaya culture, for instance, whose figures are the most 'normal', is exemplified by the Malta Venuses and the Buret Venuses (both Irkutsk Oblast).

Parietal Art

Gravettian parietal art could also be spectacular. The Panel of the Spotted Horses at Pech Merle Cave in the Lot, is one of the most famous highlights, along with the hand stencils at Gargas Cave and the engravings at Roucadour Cave.

Abstract signs are another common feature of Gravettian cave art. Of particular interest are the strange aviform signs (Placard-type), found at Cosquer Cave (Marseilles), Cougnac and Pech Merle.

Other outstanding examples of Gravettian rock art include the salmon relief sculture at Abri du Poisson and the limestone relief known as the Venus of Laussel (Venus with Horn).

For more on the evolution of Upper Paleolithic culture, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

References

(1) "La Gravette, le Gravettien et le Bayacien." Fernand Lacorre. Laval, 1960.
(2) "Neandertals and Climate". Holden, C. (2004). Science. 303 (5659): 759.
(3) "The analysis of certain major classes of Upper Paleolithic tools." Movius H.L. Jr, David N., Bricker H., Clay B. 1968: American School of Prehistoric Research, Peabody Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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