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Cap Blanc Frieze

Bas-reliefs, haut-relief sculpture
Magdalenian Skeleton: 13,000 BC

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Eroded figure of horse at Cap Blanc. From the cave's frieze of relief sculpture
High relief sculpture of horse. Part of Cap Blanc's famous animal frieze. Copyright Wendel Collection. (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Cap Blanc Rock Shelter

Cap Blanc rock shelter is a Cro-Magnon site in the French Dordogne, best-known for its frieze of prehistoric sculpture, dating to the last phase of Upper Paleolithic art, about 13,000 BC.

Sadly, the frieze - consisting of animals carved in bas-relief and haut-relief - was in a damaged condition when it was originally found.

Even so, it presents a dramatic spectacle of Magdalenian life, reflecting a world dominated by herds of reindeer, wild horses, and bison.

Magdalenian Girl

Cap Blanc's celebrity also stems from the discovery in 1911, of a well-preserved human skeleton lying at the bottom of the archaeological deposit, about half a metre below the hooves of the central horse in the frieze.

Known as the "Magdalenian Girl", a replica of her can be seen at the on-site museographical interpretive centre.

In 1910, Cap Blanc was registered as a French historical monument, and in 1979 - along with other Vézère Valley Caves - was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

It was purchased by the French government in April 2006.

Other Relief Sculpture

Other caves noted for their outstanding rock art include:

In addition, Cap Blanc is only a few hundred metres from the home of the Venus of Laussel (23,000 BC), the only known relief carving of a venus figurine.

Location and Discovery

Cap Blanc rock shelter (L'Abri du Cap Blanc) is set in a steep wooded escarpment, some 9 kilometres east of Les Eyzies, in the valley of the Grand Beune, a tributary of the Vézère.

The shelter was first discovered in 1908 by Raymond Peyrille who was working on the site entrance for Dr Jean-Gaston Lalanne of Bordeaux.

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Locality Rich in Stone Age Art

The area around Les Eyzies, is rich in prehistoric art of all types. Paleolithic caves near Cap Blanc, in the valley of the Beune and Petit Beune, southeast of the Vézère, include:

Excavation

The first excavations were crudely done with pickaxes and shovels, and the frieze on the rear wall was not noticed until significant damage had been done to the sculpted figures.

In 1911, a more professional examination was launched by the eminent archaeologist Denis Peyrony (1869-1954), chiefly to preserve the structure of the shelter and protect its cave art from further deterioration.

During his excavation, Peyrony unearthed an almost complete human skeleton of a Cro-Magnon female buried near the frieze. In 1926, the skeleton was purchased by the Field Museum in Chicago.

In 1992, a more focused dig was conducted by Alain Roussot and Jacques Tixier. This involved a search of the debris accumulated during the original excavations, in order to recover small fragments of the frieze which may have gone unnoticed.

In the process, a quantity of artifacts and other archaeological material was recovered, dating to the preceding period of Solutrean art, which suggests the frieze may be older than supposed.

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Cap Blanc Frieze

See the World's Oldest Art (from 540,000 BC).

Comparison with La Chaire-à-Calvin

Roughly 120 kilometres to the northwest, is the Abri de la Chaire-à-Calvin (Calvin's Pulpit), a rock shelter near the village of Mouthiers-sur-Boëme in the Charente.

The shelter has similar parietal art to Cap Blanc, namely a sculpted frieze which also dates to the Magdalenian period, about 13,000 BC.

It features a headless ox, a mating scene of horses, and a pregnant horse. Traces of red and orange ochre paint were found on the frieze when it was first discovered.

Arguably, the more complex iconography at Chaire-à-Calvin suggests Cap Blanc is older.

Magdalenian Girl Skeleton

The skeleton known as "Magdalenian Girl" (or sometimes "Magdalenian Woman" or "Magdalenian Lady"), which was recovered from the floor debris at Cap Blanc, is that of a Cro-Magnon adult female.

She is now thought to be between 25 and 35 years of age, and about 1.56 metres (5 ft, 1 inch) in height. Her wisdom teeth were impacted.

It remains one of the most complete Upper Paleolithic skeletons in Northern Europe.

When it was acquired by Chicago's Field Museum, in 1926, 22,000 visitors flocked to the museum to see it.

The Field Museum made a cast of the skeleton for exhibition at Cap Blanc.

Artifacts and Tools

Most of the artifacts recovered from the Cap Blanc shelter, including both Solutrean and Magdalenian tools used in the sculpting of the frieze, are now on display at the Musee d'Aquitaine, in Bordeaux. A few exhibits are kept in the Musée National de Préhistoire aux Eyzies and the Musée de l'Homme in Paris.

To see how the reliefs at Cap Blanc fit into the chronology of Stone Age carvings, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.

References

(1) "Journey Through the Ice Age." Paul G. Bahn, Jean Vertut, (1997). University of California Press. p. 112. ISBN: 9780520229006.
(2) "Stories of Bisons and Horses: A look at the evolution of the parietal frieze of Cap-Blanc (Marquay, Dordogne) through the analysis of the alcove panel." (Histoires de Bisons et de Chevaux: Regard sur l'évolution de la frise pariétale de Cap-Blanc) Bourdier C., Abgrall A., Huard O., Le Brun E., Peyroux M., Pinçon G. , 2010: Paleo No 21 2009 - 2010 pp. 17-38.
(3) "Cap Blanc (Marquay, Dordogne), The contribution of the 1992 excavation to the knowledge of human activities and the cultural attribution of the sculptures." (L'apport de la fouille de 1992 à la connaissance des activités humaines et à l'attribution culturelle des sculptures) Castel, J., Chadelle J., 1992:, Paléo. No 12, 2000. pp. 61-75.

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