Vézère Valley rock shelter
Venus Impudique, Engravings
Its most famous artwork is a small figurine known as the Venus Impudique.
All artworks date to the Magdalenian culture, between 14,000 and 10,000 BC.
In 1979, Laugerie-Basse was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List of 'Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley.'
Laugerie-Basse actually consists of two rock shelters (abris): the main one, known as Abri classique (or Abri Laugerie-Basse), and its neighbour (50 metres upstream) the Abri des Marseilles. Both are set in a steep limestone cliff.
The main abri was originally about fifteen metres deep and fifty metres long.
It was occupied by modern humans during the middle and upper Magdalenian from roughly 12,000 BC to 8,000 BC.
Many of its first occupants were hunter-gatherers from Laugerie-Haute, a neighbouring shelter located 350 metres upstream, after its sudden collapse. (Sometime after 8,000 BC, Laugerie-Basse itself suffered a catastrophic rockfall.)
The Abri des Marseilles was occupied for slightly longer, from roughly 15,000 BC to 5,000 BC. This spans the Magdalenian and Azilian cultures, and extends into the Neolithic.
Laugerie-Basse, named after the local village, is located on the western side of the Vézère Valley, about 2 kilometers upstream from Les Eyzies.
Its entrance lies about 15 metres above the level of the river. It is surrounded by numerous important archaeological sites dating back to the Stone Age, which line the valley, from Lascaux Cave in the north, to the Cro-Magnon rock shelter next to Les Eyzies. A full list of these sites appears below.
Archaeology did not develop properly until the 20th-century. So Laugerie-Basse, like many sites of Upper Paleolithic culture which were excavated during the 19th century, suffered from years of over-eager attempts to extract valuable artifacts as quickly as possible.
The first scientists to arrive in 1863 were Édouard Lartet (1801-1871), an eminent paleontologist, and his English patron Henry Christie (1810-1865).
Next came, the local landowner Paul Hurault the Marquis de Vibraye (1809–1878). It was the Marquis who discovered the now famous 'Venus Impudique.'
Next up, in 1865, were the archaeologist Elie Massénat and an eccentric local troglodyte called Léonard Delpeyrat. They were followed by Massénat.
Unfortunately, none of these individuals managed to establish an accurate stratigraphy of the site - stratigraphy being one of the key dating methods of the time - which wasn't accomplished until Denis Peyrony finally produced a timeline for the main abri in 1913.
Today, the original Laugerie Basse (Abri Classique), is completely excavated, and the location is now occupied by buildings, including a restaurant, shops and private houses.
The cave art at Laugerie-Basse consists mainly of portable items (sculpture and decorated artifacts), as well as decorative jewellery. So far, a total of about 600 artworks have been documented and recovered.
The shelter is best-known as the home of the Venus Impudique, the first Venus figure found in France, which gave its name to the genre of Gravettian venus figurines, none of which had been discovered at the time the Venus Impudique was found.
The Venus Impudique is a 8-centimetre tall nude figure of a young girl, carved out of ivory. It has no head, arms or feet.
Its name was intended as a contrast with the Roman Venus Pudica - a class of statues whose subjects covered their nudity with their hands.
This 10-centimetre carving decorates a bovine scapula, and depicts a heavily pregnant woman lying on her side, under a male deer whose rear limbs appear in front of the legs of the woman.
The woman herself is adorned with bracelets and appears to be wearing a thick necklace or collar.
The work may have been created as a pendant.
Known as the 'Venus of Laugerie Basse - the Supplicant', this tiny 4-centimetre figurine is fashioned from reindeer antler, and depicts a faceless human bent forward in supplication as if in prayer or adoration.
In addition to the above carvings, Laugerie-Basse has yielded a large quantity of bone and antler carvings, as follows:
A range of rock engravings have been documented on the walls and fragments of collapsed walls ay Laugerie-Basse. They include:
Unusually, Laugerie-Basse does not contain any abstract cave signs, although some cupules are documented. See: Cupules in French Caves.
Several finds indicate that ochre pigments were used in the shelter, probably for a variety of tasks.
A pestle (molette), along with a small cup for grinding pigments to manufacture ochre paint was recovered, along with several blocks of ochre, probably haematite.
A pelvic bone was also found decorated with a finely engraved drawing of a horse, whose contours were painted with red ochre.
In addition, a human face incised on a steatite pebble was overpainted with ochre colouring.
For more about the use of pigments during the paleolithic, see: Stone Age Colour Palette.
Archaeologists also discovered numerous pierced stone pebbles and perforated marine shells (Purpura lapillus) and pendants, probably used for personal adornment.
Whistles, flutes and bull-roarers were all made during the Upper Paleolithic.
Drums, too, except that being made of wood and skin, they rarely if ever survived.
At Laugerie-Basse, however, only whistles were found. These would have been used for communication, as well as music.
A large quantity of artifacts have been recovered from Laugerie Basse, mostly stone and bone tools.
Laugerie-Basse was also a centre of tool-making. It is noted in particular for a flint tool known as the 'Laugerie-Basse point', a foliate flake with a delicate retouch. Among the thousands of other stone tools found on-site, were the following:
Excavations show that 90 percent of all animal bones found at Laugerie-Basse were reindeer bones. Bone tools recovered, include:
Over the years, many of these artistic artifacts have been sold to private collectors and museums abroad.
The British Museum in London, for instance, and the Staatliche Museum in Berlin, have important collections.
Fortunately, the more important artifacts remain in France at the National Archaeological Museum housed in the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, just west of Paris.
Other prehistoric items from Laugerie-Basse are in the National Museum of Prehistory in Les Eyzies, and the Museum of Art and Archaeology of Périgord, at Périgueux.
In addition to the caves mentioned above, the World Heritage site of the Vézère Valley also includes (among others) the following caves, listed by location from north to south:
(1) Bahn, Paul G. Cave Art: A Guide to the Decorated Ice Age Caves of Europe. (2012) Frances Lincoln. ISBN -13: 978-0711232570.
(2) Bordes F., Deffarges, R., de Sonneville-Bordes D., 1973: Les pointes de Laugerie-Basse dans le gisement du Morin. Essai de définition. Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française, Comptes rendus des séances mensuelles. 1973, tome 70, N. 5. pp. 145-151.
(3) Crémades, M., Laville H., 1995: Le félin gravé de Laugerie-Basse: à propos du mouvement dans l'art paléolithique. PaléoNo. 7, 1995. pp. 259-265.
(4) Insoll, Timothy (2017). The Oxford Handbook of Prehistoric Figurines. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780191663109.
(5) Raoul D., 1972: Note sur l'outillage lithique magdalénien du grand abri des Marseilles, à Laugerie-Basse, Les Eyzies (Dordogne) [Fouilles A. de Mortillet, 1913], Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française, Comptes rendus des séances mensuelles. 1972, tome 69, N. 3. pp. 73-79. Roussot A., 2000: Visiter les Abris de Laugerie-Basse, Editions Sud-Ouest.