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Bison Licking Its Side

Magdalenian antler carving
From Abri de la Madeleine

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Bison licking insect bite on its flank, antler carving found at La Madeleine
The famous 'Bison Licking Its Side' carving made from reindeer antler as part of a Magdalenian spear-thrower. Now in the National Museum of Prehistory (Les Eyzies, France) Image by Jochen Jahnke. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Summary

"Bison Licking its Side", (in French: Bison se léchant le flanc) is a prehistoric carving made from reindeer antler, which was recovered from La Madeleine rock shelter, near Tursac, in the French Dordogne.

La Madeleine is the type-site of the Magdalenian culture, which was the highpoint of prehistoric art during the late Stone Age, notably in France and Spain.

The carving depicts the figure of a bison, with its head turned to the rear and its tongue extended. Which explains why it is sometimes called "Bison Licking an Insect Bite" or "Bison Licking its Shoulder."

It used to be on display at the National Archaeological Museum at St. Germain-en-Laye, but has been transferred to the nearby National Museum of Prehistory in Les Eyzies.

It is dated to between 18,000 and 10,000 BC. According to the museum, it was made in 13,000 BC.

Location

The Madeleine bison was found in the Abri de la Madeleine, located underneath an overhanging cliff, on the bank of the Vézère river, close to Tursac in the French Dordogne.

The shelter is named after the nearby chapel of Sainte Madeleine (built 1354), which also gives its name to the troglodyte village, built into the limestone buffs above the shelter.

Excavation

The Madeleine shelter was discovered in 1863 by Édouard Lartet (1801-71) who began excavations the following year. Later, excavations continued under the prehistorian Paul Girod (1856-1911), and archaeologists Denis Peyrony (1869-1954) and Louis Capitan (1854-1929).

Between them, they recovered thousands of artifacts including stone tools, bone and antler implements, and other artifacts.

The haul included various items of mobiliary art, including the Madeleine Bison, as well as several other pieces of prehistoric sculpture, like: a mournful-looking bison with a drooping head, which formed part of an amulet; and a hyena creeping up on its prey, which decorated a spear-thrower.

Other items included an engraved drawing of a woolly mammoth on a plate of ivory; an engraving of a female reindeer and calf on a limestone block; and numerous engravings of reindeer, horses, lions, and ibex.

The Madeleine rock shelter was classified as a historical monument in 1956, and in 1979 it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as part of the 'Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley.'

Dating

As mentioned, the Madeleine Bison is indirectly dated to about 13,000 BC, during the height of the Magdalenian era.

Magdalenians were modern humans or "Cro-Magnons" who had considerable expertise in microblade technology, which enabled them to carve ivory and antler, as well as stone.

Another delightful Cro-Magnon carving is the "Swimming Reindeer" (11,000 BC), which was recovered from the Montastruc rock shelter in southern France.

For a comparison, check out the Lingjing Bird Figurine (11,300 BC), East Asia's oldest bone carving.

Bison Licking its Side: Description

The Bison is 10.5 cms in length and is made of reindeer antler. Originally, it was part of a spear-thrower, or spear-throwing lever (atlatl), an implement used to produce greater velocity in dart or javelin-throwing.

It portrays the figure of a now extinct species of steppe bison (Bison priscus), with its head turned around and tongue extended.

Archaeologists believe the artist turned the animal's head in order to 'fit' the design into the existing structure of the spear-thrower.

Although small, the Madeleine Bison is considered to be a masterpiece of Upper Paleolithic art, due to its design, exquisite detail and sense of movement, which brings the animal to life.

All this detail, carefully composed within a 10 cm (4-inch) space.

No wonder Picasso admitted "we have learned nothing" when he came face to face with the Stone Age art at Lascaux Cave - also in the Dordogne.

Related Articles

The Vézère Valley is central to our understanding of Stone Age culture in Europe (40,000-10,000 BC). Among the most important Vézère Valley Caves, are the following:

For more about the chronology of art during the Magdalenian period, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.

References

"La Madeleine: son gisement, son industrie, ses oeuvres d’art." (La Madeleine Rock Shelter: the site, its tool culture, its works of art.) Capitan L., Peyrony D., 1928: Paris, Librairie Emile Nourry, 1928.

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