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Rouffignac Cave

Black Paintings, engravings
Magdalenian art: 11,000 BC
"Cave of a Hundred Mammoths"

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Charcoal drawing of a mammoth at Rouffignac Cave, Dordogne
One of many black drawings of woolly mammoths at Rouffignac Cave, France. Copyright Wendel Collection. (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Magdalenian Mammoths

Rouffignac Cave (Grotte de Rouffignac) in the French Dordogne ranks alongside Lascaux, Font-de-Gaume and Altamira, as one of the great sites of Upper Paleolithic art, around 11,000 BC.

It contains one of the finest collections of cave painting and rock engravings of the Magdalenian era.

Its bestiary features about 160 mammoths - about one third of the European total - fully justifying its nickname as the "Cave of the Hundred Mammoths".

Highlights of Rouffignac's parietal art include:

Rouffignac is also the largest cave sanctuary in Europe, and its 10 kilometres of passageways are still relatively unexplored. Which means a lot more cave art could be awaiting discovery.

In 1979, together with several other caves and rock shelters in the area, Rouffignac was accepted onto the UNESCO World Heritage List as one of the most culturally important paleolithic caves of the Vézère Valley.

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Location

Rouffignac Cave, also known as "Cro de Granville", "Cro des Cluzeau", or "Miremont cave", is located on a forested limestone plateau, with three openings into the Labinche Valley, in the French commune of Rouffignac-Saint-Cernin.

This places it within the region of Vézère Valley cave art, which is noted for the similarity of its themes and forms. Rouffignac's nearest neighbours are the rock shelters of Laugerie-Haute and Laugerie-Basse, at the confluence of the Labinche and Vézère rivers.

Rouffignac's 10-km network of passages is spread over three levels, although most of the known art is found on the top level.

The cave interior is now largely dry and there is no sign of any stalactites or stalagmites. Some of the smooth-walled passageways are wide enough to take two cars, while two electric trains are on hand to convey visitors some 2 kilometres into the cave.

Vézère Valley Art

Other examples of Stone Age art in the Vézère area of the Dordogne, include:

Discovery

Known since the 16th century, Rouffignac was both a tourist site and - from the 20th century onwards - an object of interest to archaeologists and prehistorians such as Henri Breuil, Andre Glory and Denis Peyrony.

However, it wasn't until 1956, when the paleolithic experts Louis-René Nougier and Romain Robert discovered most of its paintings and engravings, that the cave became established as a showpiece of Magdalenian culture.

Layout of Rouffignac Cave, Dordogne, showing the main areas of paleolithic art
Fig 1. Rouffignac Cave Layout.

Cave Art at Rouffignac

The cave art at Rouffignac appears throughout the cave, but is concentrated mostly on the top floor in the "Voie Sacrée" (the Sacred Way), the "Grand Plafond" (Great Ceiling), and the "Galerie Henri Breuil".

Types of Cave Art

Images are either painted or engraved, or both.

The cave painting at Rouffignac - like the Chauvet Cave paintings and those at Niaux Cave - consists mostly of black drawings, using manganese dioxide or, more rarely, red clay or white chalk.

This is different from the Lascaux Cave Paintings and those at Font-de-Gaume, where polychrome imagery is used.

The petroglyphs at Rouffignac, which are sometimes enhanced by black contours and outlines, can be finely or deeply incised.

Subjects Depicted

As usual, most of the parietal art at Rouffignac consists of animal figures. They include representations of 160 mammoths, 28 bison, 15 horses, 12 ibex, 10 rhinos, 6 snakes, 2 cats, 1 cave bear and 1 deer.

In addition, there are a number of anthropomorphs, including 1 black sketch of a bearded face, and a pair of figures known as "Adam and Eve".

Abstract signs are also present. In particular, there are 17 tectiform (house-like) and 6 serpentiform (snake-like) symbols at Rouffignac, as well as groups of lines and bars, dots and other undefined markings.

Many of these symbols appear next to animal figures, or groups of figures.

Lastly, there is a large quantity of well-preserved finger flutings ("macaroni", or "meanderings"). Researchers believe they were done by at least seven individuals, including one young child.

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Dating

None of the paleolithic art at Rouffignac is directly dated. Instead, its antiquity is calculated purely on its stylistic content, as compared to other sites that are directly dated.

The main guidelines come from the theories of André Leroi-Gourhan, who formulated a chronology based on four periods between 30,000 and 10,000 BC.

Leroi-Gourhan assigned Rouffignac's art to his "style IV", which is coterminous with Middle Magdalenian art, between 13,000 and 9,000 BC. As a result, most archaeologists now date Rouffignac to 11,000 BC.

For more about the chronology of parietal art in paleolithic Europe, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

The Grand Ceiling of Rouffignac ("Le Grand Plafond")

The main hot-spot of rock art at Rouffignac, is undoubtedly the Grand Ceiling ("Le Grand Plafond"). This is located roughly 700 metres from the entrance of the cave, in the main gallery known as "La Voie Sacrée".

Why is the "Great Ceiling" at Rouffignac Important?

There are two reasons.

First, artistically speaking, it is the most significant area in the entire cave, as it brings together 66 animals in a single spot.

Second, when it was decorated around 13,000 BC, the ceiling was located in one of the most dangerous places in the entire cave. Because immediately below the decorations was a gaping hole - a funnel-shaped pit with slippery clay sides that dropped down to the river, 7 metres below.

This posed huge problems for the artists, who were obliged to balance themselves on a rickety scaffold fastened across the mouth of the pit. There are still traces of a wooden structure around the rim.

Why did Rouffignac Man create such beautiful art in such a dangerous and remote place, when there was so much spare ceiling space available only a few metres away in every direction?

Was it perhaps because they wanted the ceiling to be viewed from inside the pit, itself. After all, the ceiling as a whole couldn't be appreciated at a glance because of the lack of perspective.

Perhaps, the river or stream dried up at certain points of the year, and permitted a rare viewing opportunity, rather like viewing the summer solstice at Stonehenge or Newgrange. Maybe the ceiling was designed from the start to be observed from the bottom of the pit?

Fortunately, since its initial discovery, the huge hole under the Grand Ceiling has been filled in, and the floor itself lowered to provide better viewing conditions.

Finger Markings

In his 1999 study, Jean Plassard documents about 500 square metres of well-preserved finger flutings in Rouffignac Cave. All four types of fluting were present, namely:

In 2011, research based on fieldwork carried out by Jess Cooney, a Cambridge archaeologist and Gates Scholar at Cambridge, and Dr Leslie Van Gelder of Walden University, managed to identify both the age and gender of the children who made the finger art.

The research revealed that some of the "macaroni" markings were made by a three-year-old child, with the most prolific young artist being a girl of five.

For the earliest petroglyphs, pictographs and relief sculptures, see: Oldest Art in the World.

Related Articles

For more paleolithic sites of importance in France, please see these articles:

References

(1) "Le Grand Plafond de Rouffignac." (The Great Ceiling of Rouffignac) Claude Barrière. 1980: Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française. 1980, tome 77, No.9. pp. 269-276.
(2) "L'art pariétal de Rouffignac La grotte aux cent mammouths." (The Parietal Art of Rouffignac Cave of the 100 Mammoths) Claude Barrière. Picard Fondation Singer-Polignac (1 Jan. 1982) ISBN 10: 2900927102
(3) "10 Years in Rouffignac: A Collective Report on Findings from a Decade of Finger Flutings Research." L. Van Gelder, 2010: Congrès de l’IFRAO, septembre 2010 – Symposium : L’art pléistocène en Europe (Pré-Actes) IFRAO Congress, September 2010 – Symposium.
(4) "Rouffignac: Le sanctuaire des mammouths." (Rouffignac: Sanctuary of the Mammoths) Jean Plassard. 1999: Paris: Seuil. ISBN: 9782020344029

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