Bison haut-relief sculptures
Volp caves, Ariège: 13,000 BC
The Tuc d'Audoubert Cave in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, is world famous for its prehistoric sculpture of a pair of bison, fashioned in haut-relief out of clay from an adjoining chamber.
This unique piece of prehistoric art was found in the most remote, least accessible part of the cave, indicating the cultural and mystical value of the sculpture and its location.
Created about 13,000 BC, the composition has no equivalent in any paleolithic art known to archaeology.
The cave contains a variety of other parietal art, including rock engravings, some cave painting - including a number of abstract signs - and several items of mobiliary art, mostly produced during the era of Magdalenian art, between 13,500 and 11,500 BC.
The Tuc d'Audoubert Cave is owned by the local Bégouën family and, for reasons of conservation, is not open to the public.
For other examples of relief sculpture, see the sandstone carving of the Venus of Laussel (23,000 BC); the salmon relief on the ceiling of the Abri du Poisson (23,000 BC); the ibex and horse frieze at Roc-de-Sers (17,200 BC), the carvings at Cap Blanc (13,000 BC), the 20 metre limestone frieze at Roc-aux-Sorciers (13,000 BC), and the famous headless bear at Montespan Cave in the Haute-Garonne.
The Tuc d'Audoubert cave is located in the commune of Montesquieu-Avantes in the Ariege département of southwest France.
It is one of the Volp caves, a collection of three limestone caves hollowed out of the foothills of the French Pyrenees, by the River Volp.
The other two are the Trois Frères Cave (noted for its anthropomorphic figure known as the "Sorcerer") and the Grotte d'Enlène (noted for its mobiliary art).
These two form a single network, but there is no link between Trois Frères and Tuc d'Audoubert, despite the short distance that separates them.
The Tuc d'Audoubert cave was known for centuries, but the bison reliefs were only discovered in 1912 by the three sons of Comte Bégouën and their companion François Camel.
Early excavations were conducted by the paleoart scholar Emile Cartailhac (1845-1921), a friend of the Bégouën family, who was noted for his work at Altamira Cave in Spain.
Additional investigations were carried out by archaeologists Abbe Henri Breuil (1877-1961), Jean Clottes (b.1933), and Henry F. Rouzaud.
For the earliest relief sculpture, see: Oldest Art in the World.
The Volp cave system as a whole extends over three levels. The bottom level now carries the River Volp and is therefore unusable. The middle level is 3 metres higher, while the top level is 12 metres higher still, and is only accessible through a natural chimney.
Tuc d'Audoubert, like Trois Frères, was uninhabited (at least on the top level) and served as a sanctuary devoted to ritualistic or shamanistic ceremonies, for which its rock art was deliberately created.
The main galleries and chambers at Tuc d'Audoubert included:
This level (Réseau Médian) runs for at least 200 metres and contains engraved images of animals and abstract symbols. Main chambers include:
This level (Réseau Supérieur) stretches for 650 metres. It is only accessible by climbing up a narrow vertical shaft and then squeezing and crawling along a narrow passage.
It contains a variety of rock engravings and other parietal art, as far as the "Bison ceiling", then nothing until the final chamber which contains the famous bison reliefs. Main decorated areas include:
One of the masterpieces of Upper paleolithic art, the two bison reliefs were modelled in clay, with a spatula-like stone tool and the artist's fingers.
They were set on a rock 1.5 metres long, 80 cm wide and 58 cm high, which had fallen from the ceiling. The male bison, the larger of the pair, is set slightly behind the first. It looks like a mating scene in the making.
The male bison is 63 cm long, 13 cm thick, and 31 cm high (belly to hump).
Sculpted in profile, he has only one horn and one ear and the nostrils are not defined in detail. Even so, researchers describe him as "sniffing the air."
The female is 61 cm long and 29 cm high. Her horn and tail are broken and she was given only one back leg, and her ears and horns are relatively detached from her head. Her nostrils are well defined, as is her vulva. She is waiting to mate.
The surface of both bison was given a wet finish to make it smooth - the artist's finger marks can still be seen along the backs of the animals.
The shaggy mane and beard of each bison were shaped with a tool, but the markings along the jawbones were done by the artist's finger.
The overall effect of the work is one of great intimacy - a moment of real life - allied to immense natural beauty.
Also in the chamber are five other bison figures, indicating how important the species was to the sanctuary.
Tuc D'Audoubert shares its veneration for the bison with other Magdalenian sites in France as well as Spain, such as Le Portel Cave (bison gallery), Font-de-Gaume (salon des bisons & bison frieze), Niaux Cave (alcove of the bison), Altamira Cave (bison ceiling), and the Santimamiñe Cave in Spain, where 32 out of 50 animals represented, are bison.
Apart from the bison sculptures, the cave art at Tuc d'Audoubert consists mostly of rock engravings, with some charcoal drawings and a few paintings.
Roughly a third of the images are animal figures; the remaining two-thirds are abstract signs, such as claviforms.
In total, there are roughly 380 images, of which 103 are images of animals, including 41 bison and 16 horses, as well as reindeer, ibex, felines, bears and snakes, among others.
Bison are especially important: the cave contains five pairs of them.
There are also two human motifs: an anthropomorphic mask and a vulva figuration.
In addition, there are about 250 abstract symbols - mostly club-shaped signs known as claviforms.
Lastly, researchers recovered a large cache of flint tools as well as items of mobiliary art, such as bone carvings of a horse and a goat-like antelope.
The remote location of the bison reliefs - beneath a low ceiling in the final chamber of the upper gallery, roughly 600 metres from the cave entrance - suggests the art was created not for public consumption, but for a small select audience. The most common interpretation is that the art served as visual reinforcement for some type of initiation, ritualistic or shamanistic ceremony. More research is needed to unlock the secrets of these extraordinary sanctuaries. Read our article: What's the Meaning of Cave Art?
For more information about Stone Age petroglyphs and sculptural reliefs in France, see the following caves:
For more about the chronology of French stone carving, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).
(1) "Portable and Wall Art in the Volp Caves, Montesquieu-Avantès (Ariège)." Bégouën R., Clottes J., 1991: Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society. 57, pp.65-79
(2) "Les Magdaléniens modelaient aussi l'argile." (The Magdalenians also modeled clay) Bégouën R., Fritz C., Tosello G., Clottes J., Faist F., Pastoors A., Lacombe S., Fosse P., 2007: Les Dossiers d'Archéologie, No. 324, November/December 2007
(3) "Centenary of the discovery of the Tuc d'Audoubert cave (Ariège) and its clay bison." Éric Bégouën and Marie-Brune Bégouën. International newsletter on rock art (INORA), No 65. 2013, pp.24-27