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What is Solutrean Culture?
The Solutrean was a short-lived archaeological tradition of the European Ice Age that succeeded the Gravettian culture about 20,000 BC.
It was developed by modern humans in France and the Iberian Peninsula, while central and Eastern Europe followed the Epigravettian culture.
It forms the third phase of the 'Upper Paleolithic Revolution' introduced by Cro-Magnons, who arrived in Europe from the Middle East about 54,000 BC.
The Solutrean toolkit came and went during the Last Glacial Maximum, between 20,000 and 14,000 BC, when Europe experienced freezing conditions across large parts of the continent.
Upper Paleolithic Chronology
For more about the chronology of Stone Age culture, especially the development of rock carving, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).
Why is the Solutrean Important?
Solutrean culture is noted for three main reasons:
- The workmanship of its stone tools, in particular, its shouldered points, 'laurel-leaf' and 'willow-leaf' blades, and its wide range of burins. Solutrean craftsmen mastered several key tool-making techniques, including pressure-flaking, and re-touching.
- A new form of rock art: namely, the stone frieze - which often employed a champlevé technique for added realism. The process is exemplified by the remarkable bas-reliefs at the rock shelters of Fourneau-du-Diable in the Dordogne, and Roc-de-Sers in the Charente.
- Hunting tools. Solutrean hunter gatherers became specialists in the creation of javelins and darts, using a range of barbed and tanged fléchettes and points. In addition, they introduced the atlatl tool, or spear thrower, which added greatly to the power and range of all projectiles. Solutrean hunters also developed their own bow and arrow technology. The earliest dated bows and arrows in Europe were found at Mannheim-Vogelstang during the Solutrean culture, about 16,000 BC.
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Why is it Called the Solutrean?
The Solutrean tool culture is named after the Rock of Solutré (Crôt du Charnier), an archaeological site near Mâcon, in France, overlooking the village of Solutré-Pouilly.
The site was a well-established open-air camp, sheltered on the north by a steep ridge, where hunters gathered to butcher animals after hunting.
Efficient processing of animal kills was a crucial survival skill during the Stone Age, especially during the period of the Last Glacial Maximum.
The meat, fat, organs, bones, teeth, hair and hides of all game animals were carefully stripped from the carcass, and used in a variety of ways.
Reindeer, for instance, were prized for their antlers, ulnas, ribs, tibias and teeth.
A host of small tools (often made of animal bone) were devised to streamline the process, in which the whole community would participate.
Solutrean Stone Tools
Solutrean lithic assemblages have been discovered at sites throughout the region of Franco-Cantabrian art and beyond.
They include 120 sites in France and 165 sites in Spain and Portugal. For the main ones, see below.
The greatest density of sites is in the Iberian Peninsula, notably in the southern areas of Andalucia, where the tool industry may have started. (See also: History of Stone Tools.)
Solutrean flintknappers specialized in creating finely worked laurel-leaf points and blades, using a new technique called pressure flaking, rather than flint-knapping.
- First, they would heat a core, which caused microscopic cracks to form. These cracks reduced the amount of force necessary to cause a fracture.
- Then, using an exceptionally light touch, they applied pressure to the edge of the core in order to detach a small flake – pressing with a soft chisel made from bone, antler or ivory.
When a flake needed to be struck directly from a core, using a hammer, it was done using batons of antler or wood, or soft stone.
By employing this gentler knapping technique, tool-makers were able to generate the thin slivers of flint, necessary for the most finely edged tools, as well as light projectile points for darts and arrows.
Solutrean tool-makers were experts at re-touching the edges of their flints to create the perfect shape.
Re-touching was done in several different ways. Shallow angle re-touching, also known as invasive retouching, was used to sharpen an already thin edge - on blades, knives, scrapers, spear points, arrowheads and other tools. (This is very similar to pressure flaking.)
Re-touching could also be done at a steeper angle (between 45 and 90 degrees) to blunt a sharp edge to make a tool easier to hold. This method is known as 'abrupt' or 'semi-abrupt re-touching'.
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The Solutrean suite of stone tools includes:
- Shouldered points, Vale Comprido points, bifacial spear heads (large and thin, or elongated, or barbed and tanged), arrowheads and fléchettes.
- Laurel-leaf and willow-leaf blades and blunt-backed flint blades.
- Grattoirs, end scrapers, side scrapers, flint knives, burins and saws.
Solutrean Relief Sculpture
Solutrean artists improved on Gravettian traditions of Upper Paleolithic art in several ways, notably by introducing the stone frieze - a continuous panel of images, sculpted in relief.
- Solutrean sculptors made full use of the light and contours of the cave walls. In particular, their reliefs were executed in combination with a deep champlevé technique, to enhance the three-dimensional qualities of the figures.
- At Fourneau-du-Diable, for instance, a stone block contains two animal figures. One, a walking cow, has a small head, a thin and slender neck, with a pronounced chest. The abdomen shows she is heavily pregnant. The supple line of the back clearly shows the shoulder and hip. A natural groove in the rock surface could have spoiled the beauty of the work, but instead the artist used it to enhance the work, giving the illusion of the tail flicking the animal's rear. Several features of the animal were enhanced by the champlevé technique. The second animal, with a big head, strong neck, powerful muscles and horn, is obviously a bull. Both are treated with a level of accuracy usually seen only in Magdalenian works. Indeed, the only stone relief comparable to it, is the frieze at Cap Blanc, long regarded as the touchstone of Magdalenian rock art, created during the final phase of the European Ice Age.
- Another important benchmark of Solutrean relief sculpture is the 10-metre long stone frieze at Roc-de-Sers, in the Charente. It consists of 52 images of horses, bison, ibex, wild boar and musk ox, carved onto 14 limestone blocks. All the animals have large bodies and short legs. In addition, there is at least one human figure, being chased by a Musk Ox. About 70 percent of the images were shaded with various ochre pigments to convey movement. Similar in quality to the Magdalenian animal frieze at Roc-aux-Sorciers, in the Vienne.
Solutrean Cave Art
As well as sculpture, the Solutrean era includes superb examples of cave painting and rock engraving.
- Solutrean carvers injected more realism into their engraved plaques, like those depicting horses and deer at Parpalló in Spain.
- In addition, they began using preparatory drawings for their engravings, using charcoal sketches for their figures.
Was Solutrean Art Linked to Last Glacial Maximum?
- Solutrean culture largely coincided with the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), and is associated with a noticeable increase in the production of cave painting and engraving.
- In addition, more examples of parietal art have been found at inhabited caves and rock shelters, than in any other phase.
- Researchers have also detected a correlation between LGM refuge areas in southwest France and the location and frequency of the art.
- This raises the possibility that the rise in art production was a response to a combination of higher population densities and severe LGM environmental conditions in SW Europe.
- For example, cave art sites could have acted as gathering points and venues for the hosting of ceremonies, to reinforce group identities, and social integration.
Notable examples of Solutrean cave art can be seen at the following sites:
- Lascaux Cave
Noted for its multi-coloured cave paintings, black drawings and abstract signs, created during the first phase of decoration around 19,000 BC.
- La Pileta Cave
In general, Solutrean animal pictures depict simple, stereotypical figures. At La Pileta, for instance, we find a collection of deer and aurochs which are painted yellow and display features typical of Solutrean imagery. Aurochs, for example, are depicted with prominent foreheads, U-profile horns, quadrangular bodies and concave backs. These images date to around 18,000 BC. These figurative images are outnumbered by abstract signs, notably linear symbols and dots.
- Siega Verde Rock Art
The oldest outdoor art in Spain, it includes 244 engraved drawings of animals (horses, aurochs, deer, and goats), 165 abstract signs and a handful of anthropomorphs, created from 18,000 BC onwards.
- Le Placard Cave
Famous for its 5-metre long frieze of engraved animal figures (17,700 BC), which also features a dozen aviform signs, like those found at Pech-Merle and Cougnac in the Lot. The signs are known as "Placard type" signs.
- Cosquer Cave Paintings
Like La Pileta, Cosquer cave enjoyed several phases of decoration. Gravettians created Cosquer's hand stencils from about 25,000 BC, then, during a second phase, Solutrean painters created images like the black stag, which dates to 17,290 BC.
- La Tete du Lion Cave
Located near the Chauvet Pont d'Arc Cave, it is famous for a rock panel, dating to about 19,000 BC, which is believed to show the combination of a star pattern - Aldebaran in the Bull and the Pleiades - with a drawing of the moons cycle above. The panel's seven dots is thought to be a plan of the Pleiades. Next to it is an image of an auroch (bull), whose eye is thought to mark the position of Aldebaran, the primary star in the Taurus constellation. Similar allusions to astronomy appear at Lascaux.
List of Archaeological Sites
Important archaeological sites with lithic assemblages dating to the Solutrean, include:
- Ardales Cave
- Chufin Cave
- Cosquer Cave
- Fourneau du Diable
- Lascaux Cave
- Les Maitreaux
- Nerja Cave
- Oulon Cave
- Parpalló Cave
- Le Placard
- La Pileta Cave
- Roc de Sers
- Roc de Solutré
- La Salpetrière
- La Tete du Lion Cave
- Grotte du Trilobite
- Vale Comprido
Rio Maior, Portugal
East of Moulins, France
(1) Combier J., 1955: "Excavations from 1907 to 1925. Stratigraphic and typological development" (Les fouilles de 1907 à 1925. Mise au point stratigraphique et typologique, in M. Thoral, R. Riquet et J. Combier (dir.), Solutré, Mâcon, éd. Faculté des Sciences de Lyon, Travaux du laboratoire de géologie de la faculté des Sciences de Lyon, nouvelle série 2, p.93-220.
(2) Rosendahl, Gaëlle et al. (2006). "The oldest bow in the world? An interesting piece from Mannheim, Germany" (Le plus vieil arc du monde? Une pièce intéressante en provenance de Mannheim, Allemagne). L'Anthropologie (in French and English). 110 (3): 371–382.
(3) "Stone Tools in the Paleolithic and Neolithic Near East: A Guide." Chapter 2. Lithics Basics. Cambridge University Press. 2013.
(4) "The Upper Paleolithic Rock Art of Iberia." (2007). Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory. 14. 81-151.
(5) "Palaeolithic Timekeepers Looking At The Golden Gate Of The Ecliptic; The Lunar Cycle And The Pleiades In The Cave Of La-Tete-Du-Lion (Ardéche, France) - 21,000 BP." Rappenglück, Michael A. Earth, Moon, and Planets, v. 85/86, p. 391-404 (1999).