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Roc-aux-Sorciers

Abri Bourdois & Cave Taillebourg
Relief sculpture frieze: 13,000 BC

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Ibex carvings in the Roc-aux-sorciers animal frieze
High relief sculptures of ibex in the Roc-aux-sorciers animal frieze. Image by DC. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Magdalenian Frieze

The archaeological site of Roc-aux-Sorciers in the Vienne, is famous for its prehistoric sculpture, namely, a 20-metre long sculpted frieze, created 15,000 years ago (13,000 BC) during the era of Magdalenian art, the final phase of the Paleolithic.

The frieze depicts bison, horses, ibexes, and felines but also a number of female figures.

Its artistic quality has led to Roc-aux-Sorciers being christened the "Lascaux of sculpture", after the famous Lascaux Cave in the Dordogne, which is revered for its cave painting and engraving.

Among archaeologists, the consensus is that Roc aux Sorciers remains the benchmark for Magdalenian stonework during the final phase of Upper Paleolithic art and is an important centre of Stone Age culture in the Vienne region.

Two Caves

Roc-aux-Sorciers consists of two geologically distinct paleolithic caves - the more shallow Abri Bourdois, where the frieze was discovered, and the slightly deeper Cave Taillebourg - which has yielded a number of rock engravings as well as reliefs. Both are named after their original owners.

There are archaeological traces of domestic habitation in the Abri Bourdois, suggesting it was not a closed sanctuary, like most other decorated caves, but rather an "aggregation site" of some social and economic importance, where parietal art and daily life were intertwined.

To preserve its contents, it is no longer open to the public, but an interpretive centre in the nearby village of Angles-sur-l'Anglin provides visitors with a multimedia display of its prehistoric art, its figures, and the sculptural techniques employed.

The frieze itself remains in situ in the Abri Bourdois, where archaeological investigations are ongoing.

However, around fifty reliefs and engravings recovered from a collapsed ceiling at Cave Taillebourg are on display at the Musée d'Archéologie Nationale (MAN), housed in the 16th-century royal castle at St Germain-en-Laye, just outside Paris.

Stone Age Relief Sculpture in France

Other outstanding examples of relief sculpture from the late Stone Age, include:

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Location

The Roc-aux-Sorciers (Sorcerer's Rock) lies at the foot of a limestone cliff overlooking the River Anglin, about 1.5 kilometres downstream from the village of Angles-sur-Anglin, in the Vienne.

As mentioned, the site consists of two cavities.

The first, Abri Bourdois, is a shallow rock-shelter with an overhang, narrow ceiling and a single, mostly sunlit chamber.

The second, Cave Taillebourg, occupies a more elevated position in the cliff, about 30 metres upstream, and has a deeper chamber, which measures about 6 metres in width and 9 metres in depth.

The 30 metres of rock face which separates the two caves has not yet been excavated, but is being kept in reserve for the next generation.

Other prehistoric caves in the general area, include: the Grottes du Chaffaud (Savigné), La Marche Cave (Lussac-les-Châteaux), Grottes des Fadets (Lussac-les-Châteaux) and Blanchard Cave (Saint-Marcel, Indre), all known for their rock engravings and/or mobiliary art.

Excavation

Roc-aux-Sorciers was initially investigated between 1888 and 1892, by Mr. Sabourin and Father Pingeault, who focused on Mousterian sediments, downstream of the site.

In 1927, Lucien Rousseau, a local archaeologist, discovered a Paleolithic occupation deposit while excavating the Taillebourg Cave, and came across a stone block engraved with the drawing of a mammoth. In 1933 he published an account of his find.

In 1947, the French prehistorian Suzanne Cassou de Saint-Mathurin (1900-91), who had read Rousseau's article, came to Roc-aux-Sorciers to continue his work together with her friend, Dorothy Garrod (1892-1968), Professor of archaeology at Cambridge University.

In the end, Saint Mathurin and Garrod investigated Roc-aux-Sorciers intensively for a decade, and thereafter on and off for a further 7 years.

During their first series of excavations, they found numerous fragments of limestone, engraved with carvings of animals - several of them painted - that had collapsed along with part of the ceiling and walls of the Taillebourg Cave.

This was followed in 1950 by another find, this time in the Abri Bourdois, where they discovered the bas-relief of a horse carved on the rear wall of the shelter.

This led to the eventual discovery of the entire 18-metre frieze of relief sculpture.

Saint-Mathurin and Garrod published several articles and studies on Roc-aux-Sorciers, which was duly classified as a historical monument on January 18, 1955.

On her death in 1991, Suzanne de Saint-Mathurin - who had earlier become the owner of the site - left everything to the State.

Research at the site continued under Geneviève Pinçon and Ludmila Iakovleva, and remains ongoing.

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Dating of Frieze

Evidence shows there were two phases of occupation at Roc-aux-Sorciers.

The first phase took place around 14,000-12,000 BC; the second occurred between 10,000-8,000 BC.

According to the eminent French archaeologist Andre Leroi-Gourhan (1911-86), an expert in the various styles and themes used in paleolithic art, the frieze at Roc-aux-Sorciers was created about 18,000-14,000 BC.

Since then, radiocarbon dating methods have narrowed the date to about 14,000-12,000 BC.

It is therefore safe to say the frieze was sculpted during the first phase of occupation around 13,000 BC.

For more about the chronology of Paleolithic sculpture, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

Roc-aux-Sorciers Frieze

This masterpiece of Magdalenian cave art measures 2.6 metres in height and 20 metres in length. It features figures of bison, horses, ibexes and felines, as well as several reliefs of female nudes, carved in the style of venus figurines like the Venus of Laussel (23,000 BC).

The combined discovery of the frieze in the Abri Bourdois and the engraved fragments in the Taillebourg Cave, has led archaeologists to believe that the entire assemblage constitutes a single work of rock art, albeit created in two locations.

They believe that originally the frieze measured about 30 metres in length - the 20 metres in Abri Bourdois (still virtually intact), plus about 10 metres (now in fragments) in Cave Taillebourg.

In total, the work included 34 figures: 8 ibexes, 7 horses, 6 bison, 4 felines, 1 reindeer, 1 unidentified animal, 4 anthropomorphic heads, and 5 'venus' figures.

Researchers found that the cave walls were extensively prepped prior to carving. Typically, nearly all the original surface of the rock was removed beforehand by hammering and scraping.

In addition, some or all of the carvings may have been painted. Traces of red ochre pigment, charcoal and black manganese have been found in a number of crevices.

The most extraordinary characteristic of the frieze - something rarely, if ever seen in paleoart - is the inclusion of female figures.

These include a group of three figures, depicted without heads or breasts, but carved with great emphasis on the vulva, in the general style of venus figurines.

A fourth female figure is engraved over the image of a bison, while the legs of a fifth woman are visible under a superimposed ibex.

Mastery of the Sculptors

The frieze clearly demonstrates the technical mastery of the cave's sculptors, especially in their depiction of animal anatomy.

Animals are carved in a variety of positions - standing, lying down, curled up - and gender is clearly shown.

Some animals, like ibex, are rendered in amazing detail, notably in respect of ears, muzzles, manes and hooves.

Above all, the sculptors had considerable success in depicting the volume and power of the animals.

The level of realism achieved is rare even for late Magdalenian artists, testifying to the unique nature of the site.

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Roc-aux-Sorciers Frieze: Interpretation

The frieze was carved onto the rear wall of a smallish shelter, which was both inhabited, and used - experts believe - as an "aggregation" or meeting site. So it is likely that the animal figures and their overall impact would have been seen and experienced by a relatively large audience.

What can be deduced about the message of the frieze? To begin with, the composition is dominated by the three most common species in Magdalenian cave art - namely, bison, horse, ibex.

This conveys a degree of symbolic and spiritual value, even if their meaning remains unknown. For example, the images help to reinforce the social cohesion of the viewers, through the expression of a common systems of values and beliefs.

The carving is very standardized, with rules about the depiction of both the outlines and internal details, even if each subject is infused with a degree of differentiation. What's more, the herbivores (horse, bison, ibex) share the same formal archetype.

This uniformity - one might say rigidity - is noticeably stronger than in most of the Paleolithic rock art sites, and perhaps reveals the value placed on communality and conformity at Roc-aux-Sorciers.

Related Articles

For more information about prehistoric rock carving in France, see the following caves:

For the earliest artworks, see: Oldest Art in the World.

References

(1) "Le 'sorcier' du Roc-aux-Sorciers à Angles-sur-l'Anglin (Vienne, France) : nouveaux éléments d'analyse." (The 'sorcerer' of Roc-aux-Sorciers in Angles-sur-l'Anglin (Vienne, France): new elements of analysis.) Auzanne I. and Fuentes O., 2003, Antiquités Nationales, n° 35, pp. 41–54, ill.
(2) "Les fragments de bas-reliefs découverts dans le gisement magdalénien ancien d’Angles-sur-l’Anglin (Vienne)." (Fragments of bas-reliefs discovered in the ancient Magdalenian site of Angles-sur-l'Anglin.) Saint-Mathurin S. de and Garrod D., 1949, , C.-R. Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, séance du 20 mai 1949, pp. 138–142, ill.
(3) "Rock art and social geography in the Upper Paleolithic. Contribution to the socio-cultural function of the Roc-aux-Sorciers rock-shelter (Angles-sur-l’Anglin, France) from the viewpoint of its sculpted frieze." Camille Bourdier. December 2013. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 32(4):368–382.

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