Rock engravings, hand stencils
Abstract Signs: 27,000 BC
Roucadour, one of the notable decorated caves in Quercy, is best known for its rock engravings of animals and birds, its spectacular hand stencils and its host of abstract signs, dating back to between 28,000 and 26,000 BC.
These works have been dated to the early Gravettian phase of the Upper Paleolithic, because of their stylistic similarity to the decorations in the nearby Pech-Merle Cave (27,000 BC), Cussac Cave (26,500 BC) and Cougnac Cave (23,000 BC).
Roucadour is unique because its prehistoric art was created over a relatively short period of time.
The site was classified as a Historical Monument of France in August 1964, and was purchased by the state in 1992, but legal action prevented any further archaeological work until 2002. It remains closed to the public as excavations are ongoing.
Roucadour cave located on the Causse de Gramat, a limestone plateau in the Massif Central, near the town of Thémines, in the region of Quercy, Lot.
This places Roucadour in the region of Franco-Cantabrian art, which is noted for the similarity of its themes and style.
The region is rich in paleolithic caves, the nearest being La Grotte des Escabasses, at Carrière Ferrade, less than three kilometres away.
Other decorated caves in the Lot, include: Grotte du Cantal, the Pergouset Cave, the Cave of Sainte Eulalie, Grotte Carriot, Grotte Christian, Grotte des Faux-Monnayeurs, Grotte Marcenac, Grotte des Merveilles, and Grotte du Moulin.
Roucadour cave was first discovered in 1890 by Édouard-Alfred Martel, who returned in 1925 to explore the site with André Niederlender.
However, it wasn't until October 1962, following the chance discovery of a side gallery by local speleologists Jean-Paul Coussy and Pierre Taurisson from the Caving Club of Brive, that the cave's rock art was uncovered, some 6 metres above the present floor level.
In 1963, the site was visited by the Paleolithic scholar Abbé Andre Glory (1906-66) who, along with his assistant Father Jean-Louis Villeveygoux, carried out five surveys of the cave between 1963 and their fatal car crash in July 1966.
Thereafter, until 2002, the cave was closed to all further archaeological excavation.
Since 2002, the cave has been investigated by a variety of experts, including: Norbert Aujoulat (1946-2011), Emmanuel Anati (b.1930), Jean Clottes (b.1933), Michel Lorblanchet, and Dominique Baffier, the curator of Chauvet Cave in the Ardèche.
One of the lesser known sites of Upper Paleolithic art, Roucadour consists of a spacious main gallery known as the "Great Column Room" - which is 15-20 metres wide and 280 metres in length - and a lateral gallery roughly 40 metres long and 5 metres wide, which contains the art.
At the end of the Upper Paleolithic, a rockfall filled the lateral gallery, effectively making it impenetrable.
The cave art at Roucadour consists of 495 images, including 139 animal figures, 213 geometric signs, and 12 red and black hand stencils in black (carbon black) or in red (red ochre).
With the exception of a few engravings that have been filled-in with pigment, all the animal drawings are engraved - there is no cave painting to be seen.
The animal figures include: 43 horses, 22 felines, 16 megaloceros, 11 bison, 9 mammoths, 8 ibex, 6 deer, 4 bovines, 1 bear, 1 hare, 1 reindeer, 1 dog, 1 bird, 1 moose, 1 composite animal, and 13 unknown creatures.
The abstract signs include: more than 600 vertical lines, 44 indented circles, as well as other shapes including a series of red and black negative hands.
For an important site associated with a particular aviform abstract symbol, see: Le Placard Cave (17,700 BC) in the Charente.
Colour Pigments Used
In 2005, researchers using Raman microscopy (RM) conducted a series of tests on the prehistoric colour pigments used in the Roucadour Cave.
These tests showed that the main red pigment is hematite, while dark-red was created by adding magnetite, manganese or carbon. Red pigments also had trace-amounts of rutile and gypsum. The whites were obtained from crystals of calcite or quartz, while blacks were derived from manganese, small quantities of carbon and tiny amounts of anatase.
These findings indicate that Roucadour artists obtained their paint colours from a wide variety of naturally occurring minerals, all of which appear to have been acquired locally.
According to Michel Lorblanchet, who specializes in paleolithic art within the Lot region, the style and subject matter of Roucadour's cave art - notably the shape of the horses' heads, the indented circles and the hand stencils - is very similar to the collections of Gravettian art at other Quercy caves and rock shelters, such as Pech-Merle, Cougnac, Cussac, Les Merveilles, Les Fieux, and Puy Jarrige II.
This indirectly dates Roucadour's art to the early Gravettian, between 28,000 and 26,000 BC.
For more about prehistoric rock carvings in France, see the following caves:
(1) "Roucadour 40 years later." Michel Lorblanchet, Préhistoire du Sud-Ouest 2009-1, p. 5-94.
(2) "The history of the research carried out in the decorated cave of Roucadour, in the Lot." Michel Lorblanchet. actu.fr (May 1, 2019).
(3) "Art pariétal: Grottes ornées du Quercy." (Parietal Art: Decorated Caves in Quercy) Michel Lorblanchet (Editions du Rouergue, 2010).