Swimming Reindeer

Magdalenian Ivory Carving
Abri Montastruc: 11,000 BC

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Ivory carving known as the Swimming Reindeer, carved by Homo sapiens during the Magdalenian
Swimming Reindeer: famous carving which depicts two deer swimming nose to tail. It was made during the Magdalenian period, often called 'the age of the reindeer'. Image by Discott. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Magdalenian Sculpture

The "Swimming Reindeer" is a prehistoric sculpture carved from the tip of a mammoth tusk, towards the end of the last Ice Age, around 11,000 BC.

It depicts two swimming reindeer (male and female) following each other nose to tail, and was recovered from floor deposits underlying a rock shelter (Abri Montastruc) in southwest France.

It is considered to be one of the largest and finest works of Upper Paleolithic art, created during the era of Magdalenian culture - sometimes called the "Age of the Reindeer" - when huge herds of these animals roamed the European tundra.

The work was originally found in separate pieces, (male stag and female hind), and the two ivory carvings were sold to the British Museum in 1887. It was only when a visiting French archaeologist Abbé Henri Breuil saw the sculptures whilst visiting the British Museum in 1904, that he realised that the two pieces were in fact two parts of a single carving. The two fragments were rejoined the following year.

This ivory carving constitutes the oldest art in any British museum, and was object number 4 in the BBC series "History of the World in 100 Objects".

Discovery and Location

The two fragments of the sculpture were unearthed in 1866, by an engineer named Peccadeau de l'Isle, whilst digging for artifacts beneath the rock overhang of Abri Montastruc below the castle of Bruniquel overlooking the River Aveyron.

The carvings were sitting in a level of sediment about 7 metres below the surface of the rock shelter.

The Montastruc shelter lies within a few kilometres of several other prehistoric caves, including the famous Bruniquel Cave with its mysterious Neanderthal speleothem constructions (175,000 BC), and the Grotte du Courbet - home of the red quartzite "Courbet Venus" (12,500 BC).

Both these caves have yielded numerous items of mobiliary art dating to the Magdalenian era.

De l'Isle documented his discovery in a report, and in 1867 the carvings were exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, where they aroused huge interest.

Here were two exquisite carvings of reindeer made out of mammoth ivory on the freezing tundra of southern France, 8,000 years before Stonehenge and the Pyramids were built.

The objects were considered especially remarkable, since at that time no cave art of any great antiquity or significance had been discovered. The world's first major discovery - Altamira Cave in Spain - did not occur until 1879, and the first of the famous venus figurines - the Venus of Willendorf - was not found until 1908.

After lengthy negotiations, De l'Isle's reindeer sculptures were eventually sold to the British Museum in 1887, for the sum of £500 - about £30,000 in today's money. But as mentioned above, the museum needed the advice of Abbé Henri Breuil to do justice to their exhibit.

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The "Swimming Reindeer" measures 22 cm in length and was sculpted in a naturalistic style from woolly mammoth ivory using a variety of stone tools, before being polished and finely incised with anatomical detail. The male reindeer is on the left, swimming nose to tail after the female on the right.

In a transcript of the 2010 BBC show "History of the World in 100 Objects" Neil MacGregor of the British Museum outlined the manufacturing process involved in the "Swimming Reindeer".

The overall work displays a hunter's knowledge of reindeer anatomy and movement.

The necks and legs of both animals are outstretched indicating they are in motion.

Both are shown with their chins up, nostrils flared, ears back against their head, and antlers resting along their backs.

The attitude of their heads and the way their legs are extended shows that the animals are swimming.

The fact that both animals are depicted with antlers shows it is autumn, since only during autumn do both males and females have antlers. (Males shed their antlers after rutting in November-December.)

The work depicts the migration of deer that took place each autumn. This was the time when reindeer migrated and crossed rivers.

For human hunters, the autumn was the ideal hunting time, as the meat, skin and antlers were at their best. Reindeer (and bison) were a vital source of food and were regarded as extremely valuable by hunters, who made use of every part of the animal for food, clothing and equipment.

Both reindeer were carefully incised with a sharp tool to depict different colouring and texture in their coats. The female reindeer is finished in particular detail.

Her eyelashes and ribs are defined, and we can see the markings on her face and coat.

Cross hatching combined with patches of interlocking oblique lines, is used to denote the heavier muscules of the thighs.

Fine, vertical lines indicate areas of longer hair.

The soft, fluffy hairs on the edges of her underbelly are shown by a tiny, fine cuts, and her teats are shown in slight relief between her back legs.

Very small incisions on the chest area between the front legs indicate her ribs.

In addition, she is incised with numerous, asymmetric, V-shaped marks down to her abdomen. These are not natural markings and their meaning is unclear.

A masterpiece of prehistoric art, artfully conceived and beautifully executed.

For another Magdalenian masterpiece, see Bison Licking its Side (13,000 BC).

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The totemic importance of reindeer to Magdalenian hunters may give this work added significance. For instance, the carving may commemorate a general tradition of autumn hunting, which - together with associated communal activities - no doubt would have served as a vital life-giving event in the Magdalenian calendar.

Related Articles

Prehistoric sculpture during the Upper Paleolithic is exemplified by the following:


"The Swimming Reindeer: Objects in Focus" Jill Cook. 24 May 2010. British Museum Press. ISBN-13: 978-0714128214.

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