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Pergouset Cave

Saint-Géry, Lot
Engravings & Abstract Signs

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Summary

Pergouset Cave (Grotte de Pergouset) is one of several paleolithic caves in the Lot department of France.

It is noted for its rock engravings, dating back to Magdalenian culture between 15,000 and 10,000 BC.

It is also known for its array of abstract signs and symbols which were largely introduced into France during the Aurignacian culture by modern humans arriving in Europe from the Middle East.

In 1967, the cave was classified as a historic monument but, owing to its fragility and relative inaccessibility, entrance is reserved for scientists only.

Location

Set in limestone cliffs on the right bank of the Lot River, the cave is located in the commune of Saint-Géry, in the Occitanie region of southwestern France.

Other Stone Age caves in the Lot include Pech-Merle (Cabrerets), Roucadour Cave (Thémines), Cantal Cave (Le Verdié), Cougnac Cave (Gourdon), and Sainte-Eulalie Cave (Espagnac-Sainte-Eulalie).

Discovery

The cave and its rock art was discovered in February 1964 by Jean-Guy Astruc, an experienced speleologist from Cahors who, together with Gabriel Maury, a caver from Montgesty, crawled 200 metres along a narrow passage which led into a chamber covered with engravings.

Excavation

The cave was excavated over a 10-year period by Michel Lorblanchet, the leading expert in paleolithic art of the Lot region.

He found the original paleolithic entrance to the cave which had been walled off to support a road embankment.

Also as part of his investigation, Lorblanchet took thousands of photos, which have been digitalized and transformed into drawings and surveys.

Combing the chamber's narrow cavities, many of which were incisized with images and where one can only sit alone or in pairs, he also documented scratches from foxes, bats and badgers, dating back several millennia.

Completed in 1999, his study was published as a book, as well as a CD-Rom published by the Natural History Museum of Paris.

Interestingly, Lorblanchet considered Pergouset Cave to be a secret sanctuary.

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Cave Art at Pergouset

Even though the cave was occupied by Cro-Magnons from 30,000 BC onwards, it seems that no actual parietal art was produced for at least 15,000 years.

The cave art which was documented by Lorblanchet, consists of 153 engravings from the final phase of Upper Paleolithic art, beginning around 15,000 BC.

Subjects include 17 horses, 5 reindeer, 3 deer, 5 bison, 8 ibex, plus a quantity of unidentified creatures and signs.

There are also a number of monsters - both hybrid or deformed creatures - which are found in one of the deepest chambers.

The presence of these beasts (along with primitive female motifs), allied to the cave's general inaccessibility, are some of the reasons that made Lorblanchet think that Pergouset had an occult meaning, and was a site of ritual ceremonies involving symbolism and fertility.

Abstract Signs

Recent research by Genevieve von Petzinger has identified 32 abstract signs and symbols that are found in caves in France.

They were an important feature of Stone Age culture, but we still don't know what they symbolized. All we can say is that they were pictographs that communicated some type of information.

See also: What is the Meaning of Cave Art?

Pergouset Cave contains 8 of these signs. They include the following motifs:

Note that some of these patterns date back to the time of Homo erectus, over 500,000 years ago. For instance the Trinil Shell Engravings (540,000 BC) discovered in Java, consist of zigzags on marine shells.

References

(1) Michel Lorblanchet. "La grotte ornée de Pergouset (Saint-Géry, Lot). Un sanctuaire secret du paléolithique." (The Decorated Pergouset Cave. A Secret Paleolithic Sanctary.) Maison des Sciences de l'Homme (collection Documents d'archéologie Française No 85), Paris, 2001 (ISBN 978-2-73510802-2)

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