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Vogelherd Cave

Aurignacian ivory carvings
Dated: 38,000-30,000 BC

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Aurignacian ivory carving of a horse, Vogelherd Cave, Germany
Horse figurine, carved out of mammoth ivory, Vogelherd Cave. Image by Wuselig. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Why is Vogelherd Cave Important?

The Vogelherd Cave is a limestone karst shelter in the eastern Swabian Jura of southern Germany.

It's important because it's a key source of prehistoric sculpture, which sheds light on the cognitive and artistic capabilities of early modern humans, just as they arrived in Europe and displaced the indigenous Neanderthals.

The cave came to prominence in 1931, after archaeologists discovered a number of miniature ivory carvings of animals, dating back to the era of Aurignacian art (40,000-30,000 BC).

This trove of mobiliary art, augmented by later finds, includes some of the oldest art of its type in the world.

In 2017, the Vogelherd Cave - along with the paleolithic caves of Hohlenstein-Stadel, Bocksteinhöhle, Geissenklösterle, Hohle Fels and Sirgenstein - became part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site entitled "Caves and Ice Age Art in the Swabian Jura".

To understand how the Vogelherd carvings fit into the evolution of paleoart, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

Ivory carving of lion, Vogelherd Cave, Germany
Lion figurine, carved from mammoth ivory. Image by Wuselig. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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Location

The Vogelherd Cave is situated on the edge of the Lonetal - the valley of the river Lone - in the eastern part of the Swabian Jura.

It is set inside a hill overlooking the river Lone, with a panoramic view of the valley.

The cave has a Y-shaped layout and covers about 170 square metres. There are three entrances.

The two larger entrances are joined by a 40-metre curved gallery - known as the "Big Cave".

A third entrance, now unusable, leads to a second gallery, known as the "Small Cave", which is very narrow.

A connecting passage between the two caves is almost completely impassable due to an accumulation of debris.

Mammoth ivory carving, Vogelherd Cave, Germany
Mammoth carved out of ivory. One of several exquisite items of Aurignacian mobiliary art found at Vogelherd. Image by Thilo Parg. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Discovery and Excavation

In 1931, excavations began at the Vogelherd under the supervision of archaeologist Gustav Riek (1900-76) from the University of Tübingen.

Researchers traced human occupation of the cave back to the Middle Paleolithic, around 130,000 BC, when it was used sporadically by Neanderthals.

Researchers also recovered eleven miniature figurines (5-10 cm in length) carved from mammoth tusks, dating to the Aurignacian. Some of the carvings bore ornamental markings.

Further excavations took place in 2005, focusing on the waste material set aside from earlier excavations.

Using up-to-date technologies, researchers from the Department of Early Prehistory and Quaternary Ecology at Tübingen, unearthed the first completely intact carving of a woolly mammoth.

Over the next six years, researchers recovered a large collection of prehistoric art, including 326 ivory pendants and personal ornaments, as well as more than 200,000 stone artifacts.

Archaeology Explained

For a short guide to the theory and practice of archaeological digs, see: Archaeology: Prehistoric & Ancient.

Vogelherd Carvings: Description

The tiny sculptures unearthed at Vogelherd include several mammoths, a lion figurine, a wild horse and two unidentified carvings.

Cave Lion Sculpture
Dated: 38,000 BC
Size: 5.6 cm

This Vogelherd lion carving, with its extended body and neck, is one of the most famous examples of paleolithic art in Europe.

Initially discovered in 1931 with a flat head, it was mistaken for a relief sculpture. Luckily, the missing piece was found during the later excavations and reattached.

The object is decorated with about thirty finely incised crosses on its spine.

Mammoth Sculpture
Dated: 33,000 years BC
Size: 3.7 cm

Weighing only 7.5 grams, the tiny Vogelherd Mammoth has powerful legs, an arched trunk, and a pointed tail.

Carved in exquisite detail, it is embellished with six short incisions, and the soles of its feet are marked with a crosshatch pattern.

It is the world's second oldest carving of an animal after the Vogelherd Cave Lion.

Wild Horse Sculpture
Dated: 29,000-28,000 BC
Size: 4.8 cm

An exceptionally well carved object, the Vogelherd Horse is amazingly expressive.

With its arched neck, full mane and assertive bearing, it is usually seen as a stallion.

The head is fully intact but most of its legs are gone.

Engraved symbols, such as crosses and geometric signs are visible on the back of the neck, and also on the back and chest.

These remarkable animal figures - together with the Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel (38,000 BC) from the same valley, and the Venus of Hohle Fels (38,000-33,000 BC), from the nearby valley of the Ach, form a unique trove of Upper Paleolithic art in southern Germany.

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Interpretation

The caves of the Swabian Jura - such as Vogelherd, Hohlenstein Stadel and Hohle Fels - are a unique source of some of the oldest sculpture and oldest musical instruments in the world.

They have also produced the world's first carving of a human figure and the first woolly mammoth carving.

At present, these masterpieces are well within the Aurignacian period, so it's almost certain they were created by modern man, rather than Neanderthals.

The artists involved lived and worked in and around these caves. The caves are also likely to have served as the places where the figurines were displayed and perhaps revered in spiritual or cultural ceremonies.

Paleo-anthropologists see the creation of art as an important step foward in human cognition and abstract thinking. Sculpture, in particular, is an important indicator of human progress.

As a result, the prehistoric carvings at Vogelherd and elsewhere in the locality, clearly demonstrate that the Swabian Jura was an immensely important centre of cultural innovation during the early part of the Upper Palaeolithic.

It remains to be seen what Aurignacian sculptures are discovered in Africa or SE Asia, but at present, southern Germany around the Upper Danube looks like being the birthplace of sculpture and a major source of Stone Age culture in Western Europe.

For a later example of Swabian carving, see the Petersfels Venus Figurines (13,000 BC) in southwest Germany.

References

(1) "Ice Age Art 35,000-Year-Old Mammoth Sculpture Found in Germany". Der Spiegel. 20 June 2007.
(2) "Caves and Ice Age Art in the Swabian Jura". UNESCO." whc.unesco.org
(3) "The Palaeolithic Occupation of Vogelherd Cave: Implications for the Subsistence Behavior of Late Neanderthals and Early Modern Humans." Laura Niven. Journal of Anthropological Research. The University of Chicago Press Books. 64: 135–136.

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