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Grande Grotte at
Arcy-sur-Cure

Gravettian paintings engravings
Archaeoacoustic effects: 26,700 BC

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Painting of Woolly Mammoth in Grande Grotte Arcy-sur-Cure
Red ochre painting of a mammoth, at Grande Grotte Arcy-sur-Cure. The cave network contains the oldest parietal art that can still be viewed by the public. Image by Basicdesign. (CC BY 4.0)

Grande Grotte: A Summary

The Grande Grotte at Arcy-sur-Cure in Burgundy is now considered to be a major site of prehistoric cave painting, due to the recent discovery of ochre pigment and black imagery, dating to the Gravettian era of Upper Paleolithic art.

The Grand Grotte is one of sixteen caves and rock shelters at Arcy-sur-Cure, that were used by Neanderthals from the Lower Palaeolithic onwards (around 220,000 BC).

With the exception of one of these sites - the Grotte du Cheval - which contains a collection of Gravettian engravings, none of the others contain any significant decoration.

Indirect radiocarbon dating tests show that the parietal art in the Grand Grotte dates back to 26,700 BC, ranking them among the oldest art in France.

In 1992, the cave was designated an Historical Monument of France.

To understand how the Grande Grotte fits into the chronology of Stone Age painting and engraving, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

Location & Discovery

The Grande Grotte d'Arcy-sur-Cure is located in a south-facing limestone cliff overlooking the meandering Cure river valley in the Yonne département in Burgundy, France.

It is the second most northern decorated cave in France, after Gouy Cave in Normandy.

It is part of a series of paleolithic caves on the left bank of the river, which include the following. They are listed by distance upstream from the Grande Grotte:

The Grande Grotte was first described in 1666 by Jacques de Clugny.

The other caves were discovered during the 19th- and 20th-centuries, the last being Abri du Lagopède, which was discovered and excavated in 1962, by Arlette and André Leroi-Gourhan.

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Main Chambers & Galleries

The interior of the Grande Grotte stretches for about 1,252 metres.

[Note: In total, the Arcy-sur-Cure caves form a network almost 5 kms in length, within an area of ​​less than 60 hectares.]

The main chambers of the cave, include: La Salle du Grand Désert (the room of the Great Desert); the Lac des Fées (the Lake of the Fairies), and La Salle de la Vièrge (the room of the Virgin), which leads to two large caverns - La Galerie Ouest (West Gallery) and La Galerie Est (East Gallery).

The West gallery includes areas known as: La Salle de Bal (the Ballroom), La Passage du Défilé, La Salle des Éboulements (Room of the Rockfall), La Salle du Chaos, Le Panneau des Rhinocéros, La Corniche au Bison, Le Panneau des Mains, La Salle des Noyaux de Cerises (Cherry Pits Room), La Salle des Vagues (the Wave Room), and La Salle de la Cascade (the Waterfall Room).

The large East gallery includes the Le Lavoir des Fées (Fairies Washhouse), La Salle de l'Amphithéâtre (Amphitheater Room) and the Parat Room.

Human Occupation

Grand Grotte and the other Arcy-sur-Cure caves were used by hunter-gatherer Neanderthals from about 220,000 BC until the arrival of Cro-Magnons, around 50-40,000 BC.

Thereafter, the moderns used the caves during the Aurignacian, Gravettian, Solutrean and Magdalenian cultures, thus providing the only (virtually) uninterrupted series of occupations, from the Mousterian to the Magdalenian, of any cave in France.

The caves were also used during the Mesolithic and Neolithic cultures (c.10,000-3,000), and during the Middle Ages.

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Discovery of the Paintings

In 1990, ownership of the cave site was acquired by Gabriel de la Varende. Confronted by the twin problems of how to promote the caves while conserving their interiors, he opted to reopen the site to archaeological exploration.

To this end, a television crew was invited to film inside the Grand Grotte and duly installed a battery of bright lights.

As they were filming in the intense light, an onlooker (Pierre Guilloré) suddenly spotted the profile of a large horned ibex, peeping from behind the calcite flowstone overlying the painting.

The following year, a multidisciplinary team was set up to examine and excavate the Grand Grotte, led by Dominique Baffier and Michel Girard.

Subsequent study of the cave walls using infra-red techniques has revealed a much larger collection of painted images than expected, with many more waiting to be discovered.

On the other hand, during a 'clean-up' of the cave (1970-90) about 80 percent of the rock art was unfortunately destroyed by high pressure application of a hydrochloric acid cleaning solution.

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Grand Grotte Cave Paintings

According to the latest information, the cave art at Grand Grotte d'Arcy-sur-Cure contains roughly 282 paintings, with more being discovered each year.

They include charcoal drawings of woolly mammoths, bears, lions and ibexes, painted with red ochre.

Most are located in a 200-metre stretch of the cave, between 300 and 500 metres from the entrance.

Signature characteristics of the paintings, include:

As well as animal paintings, There are numerous hand stencils and other handprints (of adults and children), as well as a quantity of abstract signs, including:

Animal & Fish Paintings

The bestiary depicted on the walls of the cave is relatively diverse.

But unlike the usual iconography seen in Franco-Cantabrian art, which mostly features horses, bison and deer, almost 70 percent of the pictures in the Grande Grotte d'Arcy are made up of dangerous species, including mammoths, woolly rhinoceros, bears and lions.

A similar pattern can be observed at Chauvet Cave in the Ardèche.

Among the highlights in the cave, is a giant deer or Megaloceros (now extinct) whose antlers measure 4 metres across, and a number of fish (especially pike), one of the least common creatures in Stone Age art.

Fish in Stone Age Art

There are only some ten instances of fish being depicted in painting or relief sculpture during prehistory. They include: a pike at Pech Merle Cave; a halibut at La Pileta Cave, a salmon in the Abri du Poisson, a trout at Niaux Cave, and a salmon at the Ekain Cave in Spain, among others.

Pigments & Colours

The paintings in the Grand Grotte were created using a fairly narrow Stone Age colour palette.

The two main colours are blacks made from charcoal, and reds made from red ochre (hematite).

Yellow (from ochre) is also common. A blue pigment (made from a copper ore) is a rare addition - in fact, it's the only blue pigment discovered to date in a French cave.

Interestingly, although pigments were usually sourced locally during the Upper Paleolithic, the red ochre found at Arcy-sur-Cure did not come from the hematite mined locally at Saint-More. The actual source remains unknown.

Dating of Paintings

The prehistoric art in the Grande Grotte has not been dated directly, as calcitic deposits have covered the charcoal drawings.

However, fragments of charred bones found in fire pits close to the paintings, that contained materials (pigment dyes) identical to those used in the murals, were dated by radiocarbon dating methods to 26,700 BC.

This was reinforced by a comparative analysis of the paintings with those of other sites, such as Chauvet.

The species of animals depicted in the cave (mammoths, lion, rhinoceros, ibex etc.) and the style of representation, supports the idea that Grande Grotte's prehistoric art should be assigned to the late Aurignacian and early Gravettian cultures.

Archaeoacoustic Effects

The greatest concentration of painting in the Grand Grotte is found in locations with the maximum sound resonance.

These places are often marked with red dots, suggesting they may be visual indicators of sound resonance properties.

Archaeoacoustic research at Le Portel Cave and Niaux Cave - both in the Ariège, and at Grotte de Labastide, in the Hautes-Pyrénées, indicates that sound/image concordance can be 80-90 percent in most cases, sometimes 100 percent.

Engravings at Grotte du Cheval

Discovered in 1946, by René Bourreau, Marcel Papon and Gérard Méraville, the rock engravings in the Grotte du Cheval (Cave of the Horse) date to about 26,000 BC, coinciding with the paintings in the Grand Grotte, 230 metres downstream.

Gravettian Cave Art

More examples of Gravettian cave art can be seen at:

References

(1) "Dating French and Spanish Prehistoric Decorated Caves in Their Archaeological Contexts." Hélène Valladas, Evelyne Kaltnecker, Anita Quiles, Nadine Tisnérat-Laborde. January 2013. Radiocarbon 55(2-3): 1422-1431.
(2) "Concretion and archaeology in the caves of Arcy-sur-Cure (Yonne)" Jean-Claude Liger (1995). Bulletin of the French Prehistoric Society. Vol 92, No. 4, p.445.
(3) "The sound dimension of Paleolithic caves and painted rocks." Iegor Reznikoff. In Jean Clottes (dir.) "Pleistocene art in the world." (Actes du Congrès IFRAO, Tarascon-sur-Ariège, 2010. Symposium "Pleistocene Art in Europe") (2012).

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