Archaeology, stratigraphy & art
at Vézère Valley rock shelter
Laugerie-Haute is a collapsed rock shelter on the right bank of the Vézère River, in the French Dordogne.
It is one of the most important paleolithic caves in the district, due to its extensive stratigraphy, which was preserved by the collapse of its overhanging ceiling.
It is not famous for its cave art, which is limited in quantity, but it has yielded a vast amount of stone tools and bone implements.
Laugerie-Haute is one of the 'Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley' - a UNESCO World Heritage Site in France since 1979.
They include: La Micoque (type-site of the Micoquien culture); Le Moustier (type-site of Mousterian culture); Abri de Cro-Magnon (site where Cro-Magnons were first found); and La Madeleine (type-site of the Magdalenian culture).
Laugerie-Haute rock shelter lies at the foot of a tall cliff, two kilometres from Les Eyzies on the northern side of the Vézère River, as it meanders westwards down the valley, in the direction of Les Eyzies.
The separate rock shelter of Laugerie-Basse is located roughly 400 metres downstream, just as the river turns south towards Les Eyzies.
Laugerie-Haute is about 35 metres deep, and about 180 metres in length, most of which (132 metres) is obscured by the collapse of its overhanging ceiling, and by the fall of several enormous blocks from the cliff, which sealed the archeological levels underneath.
A house occupies the central (unexcavated) frontage of the shelter, and divides the site into two sections.
The downstream section towards Les Eyzies is known as Laugerie-Haute Ouest, while the upstream section is called Laugerie-Haute Est.
The rock shelter is located close to an important ford in the Vézère river, which was used by paleolithic fishermen to catch salmon migrating upstream.
In a 1985 study of the area, the American archaeologist Randall White (1985) showed that a large number of Upper Paleolithic sites were located close to fords in the Vézère river.
For hunter-gatherers, these fords would have been very attractive.
They made procurement of wood and lithic raw materials, easier; they made catching fish easy; and served as excellent locations to intercept and hunt game animals, during their crossing of the river.
Laugerie-Haute was discovered in 1862 by French archaeologist Édouard Lartet (1801-1871), and British ethnologist Henry Christy (1810-1865).
Later, it was investigated by E. Massénat and P. Girod (in 1893); Louis Capitan (1854-1929) and Abbé Breuil (1877-1961) in 1902; and by Otto Hauser (1874-1932) during the pre-war period.
During the 1920s, Denis Peyrony (1869-1954) and his wife Elie Peyrony (1897-1989) began the first systematic excavation of the shelter, completing their work in 1935.
In 1938, they published a site monograph with a detailed review of the stratigraphy of Laugerie-Haute, which was added to later by François Bordes (1919-1981) and P.E.L. Smith, during the 1950s and 1960s.
They were followed by H. Laville, who published a 'climato-stratigraphy' of the site after conducting a sedimentological study of the deposit.
The archaeology of Laugerie-Haute is much more transparent than that of other sites, due to the relatively pristine condition of the levels of sediment and other archaeological material, all of which was preserved from human interference by the collapsed ceiling.
Excavations at the shelter have been carried down to bed-rock at depths between 4·5 and 6 metres.
In total, Laugerie-Haute contains 42 levels of sediment, making it a key benchmark for French Stone Age culture during the Upper Paleolithic.
In addition, fieldwork in front of Laugerie-Haute Est has shown that the rock shelter deposits overspilled considerably into the floodplain in front of the site.
Analysis of prehistoric caves has shown that it takes between 8,500 and 10,100 years to accumulate 5 metres worth of sediments, at an average rate of about 5–6 cm per century.
The lowest levels show that occupation of the site by modern Homo sapiens began during the Périgordian culture, around 33,000 BC, and ended abruptly not long after 12,000 BC, following the shelter's collapse.
About 14,000 years ago a volcano erupted at Puy de Dôme, about 150 kilometres away, and covered the cave overhang with a layer of ash many metres thick.
Falling snow and rain would have added to this extra weight, and likely triggered the collapse.
Following this terminal event, it seems the inhabitants of Laugerie-Haute migrated down to the Laugerie-Basse shelter, where the lowest level of occupation dates to about 12,000 BC.
At any rate, Laugerie-Haute seems to have been abandoned from this point, although there is some evidence of an Azilian and a Neolithic occupation on the site, after 8,000 BC.
Laugerie-Haute is not burdened with a famous reputation for its rock art, like that of the nearby Font de Gaume Cave (14,000 BC), Cap Blanc (13,000 BC), Les Combarelles (11,700 BC) or Rouffignac Cave (11,000 BC).
Parietal art is found at a remote corner of Laugerie-Haute-Ouest, in a space accessible only by a narrow passage, which archaeologists believe was a sacred sanctuary or temple.
The shelter has yielded copious examples of mobiliary art in the form of animal bones and artifacts decorated with engraved drawings of reindeer, horses, mammoths, aurochs, bison, wolves and other animals.
Decorated artifacts include spear-throwers (atlatls), pierced batons, antler chisels, and more.
A variety of pierced stone pebbles, animal teeth and other tiny artifacts have been recovered from Laugerie-Haute and Laugerie-Basse, which were probably used as jewellery.
A huge number of stone tools and other artifacts have been unearthed at Laugerie Haute, many of which are on display at the National Museum of Prehistory at Les Eyzies.
They include shouldered points, flint laurel-leaf biface points, laurel-leaf knives, microliths, notched blades, pierced batons (bâton percés), reindeer antler lissoirs and harpoons with barbs, and ivory stoppers (bouchons d'outre), for leather water bottles.
See also: History of Stone Tools.
(1) Laugerie-Haute, Dordogne. Nature 142, 1004–1005 (1938).
(2) Laville H., Rigaud J., Sackett J., 1980: Rock Shelters of the Périgord, Academic Press, New York.
(3) Roebroeks, W. et al; 2009: Watching The River Flow: A small-scale survey of the floodplain deposits in the Vézère valley, between Le Moustier and Les Eyzies (Dordogne, France), Analecta Praehistorica Leidensia, 41/2009.
(4) Verpoorte, Alexander et al; Improving the chronological framework for Laugerie-Haute Ouest (Dordogne, France). Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. Volume 23, February 2019, Pages 574-582.
(5) White, R., 1985: Upper Paleolithic Land Use in the Perigord: a topography approach to subsistence and settlement, BAR, International Series 253.