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Font-de-Gaume Cave

Painted Engravings, Bison Frieze
Licking Reindeer: 14,000 BC

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One of the multicoloured bison from the 5-Bison Frieze at Font-de-Gaume
Polychrome painting of a bison at Font de Gaume. From the frieze of five bison. Note the naturalistic shading of the under-belly and rump. Copyright Wendel Collection. (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Why is Font-de-Gaume Important?

Font-de-Gaume is a major sanctuary of Upper Paleolithic art in the French Périgord.

It is famous for its polychrome rock engravings, in which painting is combined with engraving to enhance the shape and volume of the animals depicted.

The same technique was used at Atxurra Cave in the Basque Country.

This helps enormously to identify the pictures, because when the paint fades, most of the carving remains visible.

The quality of its cave painting and petroglyphs makes Font-de-Gaume the foremost French showcase of Magdalenian art, after Lascaux, although some experts believe that a few images may be older.

To date, some 250 engraved and painted figures have been identified, including bison, horses, reindeer, mammoths, rhinoceroses, and a wolf.

Its most famous images include: 'The Licking Reindeer', 'The Galloping Horse', the '5-Bison Frieze', the 'Small Bison Chamber' and the 'Black Panel'.

Other items include a variety of abstract signs, several hand stencils, painted images of female representations, and at least one item of mobiliary art.

In 1979, together with other prehistoric archaeological sites in the region, Font-de-Gaume was accepted onto the UNESCO World Heritage List as one of the leading paleolithic caves of the Vézère Valley'.

For more about the chronology of Magdalenian engraving and painting, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

Manganese paintings of animals (deer, bison) from the Black Frieze at Font-de-Gaume
Manganese drawings of bison and deer from the Black Frieze. Copyright Wendel Collection. (CC BY-NC 4.0)

One of Six Giants

Font-de-Gaume was one of the six "giants" selected by prehistorian Henri Breuil (1877-1961) in his landmark book "Four Hundred Centuries of Cave Art" (1952), as exemplifying Franco-Cantabrian Cave art during the Upper Paleolithic.

The other five were: Lascaux Cave and Les Combarelles in the Dordogne; Trois Frères Cave and Niaux Cave in the Ariège; and Altamira Cave in Cantabria.

Note that all these caves were decorated by hunter-gatherers. In other words, all their art is hunter-gatherer art, created by semi nomadic hunter communities.

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Location

The cave of Font-de-Gaume is located in the commune of Les Eyzies in the Vezere valley region of southwest France.

The region is an important centre of Stone Age culture and is home to an extensive network of decorated caves.

See, for instance, the cupules and engravings at La Ferrassie; the 'pointillist' image of a bison at Abri Cellier; the female engravings at Abri Castanet; the salmon sculpture at Abri du Poisson; the horses and bison reliefs at Cap-Blanc; and the black mammoth figures at Rouffignac Cave in the Labinche Valley.

In addition, there are several other important archaeological sites lying along the banks of the Vézère, such as: Le Moustier (60-45,000 BC), and La Madeleine (20,000 BC).

These are the type-sites from which the Mousterian and Magdalenian cultures take their names.

Discovery

The prehistoric art in Font-de-Gaume Cave was first discovered in 1901 by local prehistorian Denis Peyrony, a few days after seeing the petroglyphs at the neighbouring cave of Les Combarelles, two kilometres away.

(Six years earlier, La Mouthe, another neighbouring cave was discovered and excavated by Emile Rivière. This was the first decorated cave to be discovered in the Dordogne.)

Subsequently, a series of surveys and excavations were conducted at the cave by Henri Breuil (1877-1961), Andre Leroi-Gourhan (1911-86), P.Daubisse, C.Barriere, A.Roussot, D.Vialou and F. Prat, who was the first to spot the famous Bison Frieze in 1966.

Dating

Archaeological evidence indicates that Neanderthal humans were present in the entrance and vestibule of Font-de-Gaume from about 45,000 BC and maintained a presence there, on and off until about 10,000 BC. However, the deeper interior of the cave shows no sign of human occupation.

Stylistically, according to Leroi-Gourhan, Font-de-Gaume's paintings and engravings belong to Style III (18,000-14,000 BC) and Style IV (13,000-10,000 BC), corresponding to a period which spans Solutrean as well as Magdalenian art.

It is possible, however, individual images and hand stencils might date to the Gravettian period, around 25,000 BC.

Despite this stylistic analysis, most researchers assign the bulk of the rock art at Font-de-Gaume to the early Magdalenian era, from 14,000 BC - at least until direct dating provides evidence to the contrary.

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Font-de-Gaume Cave Art

Layout of Font-de-Gaume Cave, Dordogne, showing the main chambers and galleries
Fig 1. Font-de-Gaume Cave Layout

The Font-de-Gaume sanctuary consists of a narrow main gallery, about 130 metres long, with a side gallery off to the right, about halfway along.

After this crossroads, the main gallery continues for another 50 metres or so, passing through a domed-roof diverticulum before ending in a final 20-metre section of passageway.

Font-de-Gaume's cave art consists of more than 250 animal figures, of which about 200 are polychrome images depicted in one or more ochre pigments.

They include depictions of: 82 bison, 45 horses and 29 mammoths, 18 deer including reindeer, 8 aurochs, 4 ibex, 2 rhinoceroses, 1 lion and 1 wolf.

Abstract signs include 4 handprints, 5 tectiforms, 2 quadrangle symbols, 2 H-shaped signs, 1 oval, and 1 half-circle.

In addition, there are a few hand stencils as well as numerous unidentified figures.

Layout of the Cave Art

The first part of the passage, leading up to the crossroads with the right-hand gallery, and known as the 'Galerie des Fresques' (Gallery of Frescoes), is particularly rich in rock engravings of animals, notably bison, overpainted in red and black. Outlines are typically black with red ochre infill.

On the left side of the passage are several abstract signs (two dotted red H-shaped symbols), followed by several engraved drawings of mammoths superimposed over a large red bison, then a 2-metre long bison overlain by two tectiforms and a single small engraving of a mammoth.

After this comes two magnificent reindeer facing each other, their antlers and contours painted in red and black. Beneath the reindeer are two red tectiform signs.

Just before the crossroads is the famous image of the 'Licking Reindeer'. A standing male reindeer, with imposing black antlers, bends forward to lick the forehead of a smaller kneeling doe, painted in red ochre. The snapshot of the tongue brushing the forehead is deftly engraved, and imbues the scene with a tenderness that is rarely seen in paleolithic art, no matter how life-like the image.

The right hand side gallery (Galerie Latérale), which enters the long gallery at a spot known as the "crossroads", contains the famous painting of the black 'Galloping Horse'.

The natural shape of the rock has been fully incorporated into the picture. The hind leg and tail of the horse are not drawn but implied by a concretion; the curve of the belly by the line of the flowstone.

In addition, the gallery contained a solitary item of prehistoric sculpture - the carving of a horse's head on an animal bone.

Returning to the crossroads, and turning right into the second half of the main gallery, we first encounter the 'Black Frieze'.

This features a bison and a superimposed deer facing in opposite directions. Another deer is to the left, drawn in bold lines, and part of a bison can be seen on the right.

This is followed by the famous 'Bison Frieze', discovered only in 1966. Up until then, it had been obscured by a film of grey calcite mixed with iron and clay deposits that made the paintings almost invisible.

The frieze features five bison - 3 males and 2 females - all with finely engraved outlines and bodies painted in black-brown and red, set against a background of yellow limestone concretions.

After this comes a small chamber with a domed ceiling set into the left hand wall, known as the 'Chamber of the Small Bison' (Cabinet des Bisons).

Four bison form a circle in the ceiling of the rotunda. One animal is half bison and half mammoth. The rest of the walls are decorated with a swirl of 9 other bison, depicted in a range of positions.

Finally, there is a variety of painted animal engravings of aurochs, bison, rhinoceroses and horses - plus a strange outline of a human head, with the face painted black.

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Font-de-Gaume Artistry

The painters and engravers at Font-de-Gaume worked entirely by the light of primitive torches made out of juniper branches, or lamps burning animal fat. Despite this, they showed enormous skill in their art.

First, they exploited the cave's natural contours to maximize the 3-D quality of their animal images. They enhanced this through the painting of black pigment over the engraved outlines to add to the relief effect.

The second black horse in the side gallery (not the galloping horse) is a case in point. The artist has incorporated the natural forms and contours of the rock in the work.

The hind limb and tail, for example, are suggested by a concretion, the curve of the belly suggested by calcite drapery. Finally, the artist accentuated the contours implied by the natural relief, by thick black lines.

Second, they used a multiplicity of pigments. For example, reindeer in the Gallery of Frescoes were first engraved, after which the incisions were retraced with heavy lines of black manganese dioxide, before being finely finished with a wash of grey tone.

Third, they used shading for modelling and 3-D effects. See, for example, the rhinoceros in the final section of the main gallery which was painted in red ochre before shading was added to give it extra body.

Related Articles

For more information about Magdalenian cave art in France and Spain, see the following articles:

References

(1) "Cave Art: a Guide to Decorated Ice Age Caves of Europe." Paul Bahn (2007). Frances Lincoln Ltd. ISBN 978-0-7112-2655-5.
(2) "The Font-de-Gaume Cave." Paulette Daubisse; Pierre Vidal; Jean Vouvé; Jacques Brunet. (1994). Périgueux: Pierre Fanlac. ISBN 978-2-86577-149-3.
(3) "Stepping Stones - A Journey through the Ice Age Caves of the Dordogne." Christine Desdemaines-Hugon. 2010. Yale ISBN-13: 9780300188028.

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