Aviform signs, frieze of engravings
Solutrean petroglyphs 17,700 BC
Le Placard Cave (Grotte du Placard, Grotte de Rochebertier) is the most important site of prehistoric art in the French Charente for three reasons.
The cave was inhabited by Neanderthals of the Mousterian culture from 80,000 onwards, and by Cro-Magnon moderns from around 40,000 BC until about 5,000 BC.
Much of the parietal art recovered from the cave is on display at the National Archaeological Museum at St-Germain-en-Laye, near Paris.
To see how Le Placard fits into the evolution of rock engraving, see Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).
Placard Cave - originally known as Grotte de Rochebertier - is a large rock shelter set in a limestone cliff overlooking the River Tardoire, in the commune of Vilhonneur in the Charente, 30 km east of Angoulême.
The entrance to Le Placard is 17 metres above the river.
There is a wide porch which backs into a large chamber about 17 metres in length, 9 metres in width, and 10 metres in height.
Two narrow galleries branch off the chamber to the right, while the most important gallery (1.5 metres wide, 27 metres long) leads off to the left.
Since its discovery, Grotte du Placard has been extensively examined and excavated, although the exciting rock art wasn't found until 1988.
The first paleolithic art found at Le Placard, were cave paintings attributed to the Magdalenian - which Henri Breuil deemed "incomparable". A few Magdalenian petroglyphs were also discovered.
The major discovery came in July 1988, when Louis Duport - the official archaeologist of the Charente - uncovered a new gallery, identified as Solutrean, which contained a 5-metre long frieze of engraved animal figures and abstract ideomorphs.
These petroglyphs included mainly horses, plus ibex, reindeer, a chamois, a saiga antelope, aurochs and two buffalos.
The abstract signs included 12 bird-like aviform-shaped signs, which became known as Placard-type signs.
Prehistorian Jean Clottes describes them as having four typical elements: a vertical rectangle, a horizontal band, and two underlying appendages.
All of the signs appeared to be carefully positioned in relation to the positions of the animals.
Le Placard also contains some mobiliary art, including a number of mammoth ivory carvings, reindeer antlers engraved with human or animal figures, and some sherds of ancient pottery (chiefly Magdalenian).
In addition, there are a few examples of prehistoric sculpture (reliefs).
Pech Merle has three aviforms, Cougnac has eleven and Cosquer one, but note that three-quarters of Cosquer's cave art was lost when the cave was submerged by the sea, so it might have contained more.
Although the aviforms at these other caves were assigned to the earlier era of Gravettian art (30,000-20,000 BC), they are so similar to those at Grotte du Placard that they indicate a clear cultural link extending for over 600 kms between the three areas of Charente, Lot and Provence.
Even so, there are some differences. For instance, unlike those at Pech Merle and Cougnac, the aviforms at Le Placard are engraved (bar two painted ones), positioned horizontally, and found dispersed in a gallery that receives daylight.
But in both Pech Merle and Cougnac, the signs are painted, on a single panel, in galleries deep within the interior of the cave.
Of the four sites with these identical aviform signs, Le Placard Cave was the first to be radiocarbon dated, when an animal bone lodged above the engravings, provided a date of 17,700 BC.
As a result, at the instigation of Jean Clottes, the aviforms are now known as "Placard-type signs", even though the specimens at Pech Merle could be older.
For the 100 earliest artworks, see: Oldest Art in the World.
For more details of paleolithic caves and rock shelters in France, that contain abstract signs and symbols, see these articles.
(1) "Les signes du Placard." (Placard Signs) Clottes J., Duport L., Feruglio V., 1990: Bulletin de la Société préhistorique Ariège-Pyrénées 45: 15–49.
(2) "Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons, glacial times in the Charente basin." André Debénath. CroitVif (2006) (ISBN: 2-916104-00-3).