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Oval Signs

Egg-shaped geometric symbol
Upper Paleolithic caves in France

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Oval Sign, Prehistoric Cave Art
A Paleolithic oval symbol. Image by Cave Signs Design. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

What is an Oval Sign?

In prehistoric art, an "oval sign" is a simple geometric egg-shaped motif. Archaeologists sometimes describe it as a vulva-shape.

According to research conducted by Canadian scholar Genevieve von Petzinger, it is one of only 32 abstract sign types present in ice age caves in France and Spain, between 40,000 and 10,000 BC.

How Prevalent are Oval Motifs?

Ovals are the fourth most popular sign-type in Upper Paleolithic cave art, and are present at 45 sites, or about 30 percent of the total.

Less common sign types include: Tectiforms (10%), Zigzags (4.5%), Cordiforms (1.9%), and Spirals (1.3%).

[Source: Petzinger (2005).]

Dating

The "oval sign" occurs in all phases of Late Paleolithic cave art: namely, the Aurignacian (40,000-30,000 BC), the Gravettian (30,000-20,000 BC), the Solutrean (20,000-15,000 BC), and the Magdalenian (15,000-10,000 BC).

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Distribution

Which Caves Contain Oval Signs?

Oval symbols are found in the following paleolithic caves in France:

[Source: Petzinger (2005).]

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Meaning of Cave Symbols

André Leroi-Gourhan (1911-86) - one of the most influential French archaeologists of the 20th century - developed an amazing theory about the meaning of cave art.

He divided all animal-types according to whether their pictures appeared in the central areas or the more remote areas of the cave.

Now comes the strange bit.

He then assigned them a 'gender' according to their location. He said that animals usually found in central areas should be seen as 'male', while those found usually in remote locations, should be seen as female.

Based on extensive analysis, he concluded that horse, ibex, stag, reindeer and hind were 'male', while ox and bison were 'female'.

He also divided abstract signs into male and female types, according to their location.

For example, he determined that dot signs, short lines, and barbed signs like open-angles and penniforms, were male, while ovals and aviforms, as well as triangles, quadrangles and rectangles, were female.

This was in the days when archaeologists were heavily eurocentric and quite unaware of how little they knew about cave painting, and the meaning it had for artists and their hunter gatherer communities.

Today, we know that our chances of deciphering these strange cave signs are non-existent until we acquire a great deal more knowledge of paleolithic customs and values.

Even then, the meaning of specific signs is likely to reflect local conditions and circumstances. An oval in the Dordogne may mean something quite different from an oval in the Ardèche.

Related Articles

For more about these mysterious pictographs, see the following articles:

References

"Symbolism in Paleolithic Cave Art." John Parkington. South African Archaeological Bulletin 24: pp.3-13.

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