ArtsLookUp.com Logo

Le Portel Cave Art

Black Drawings, archaeoacoustics,
Circus horse, Camarin: 12,500 BC

Main A-Z Index

CONTENTS

Black drawing of the famous Circus Horse at Le Portel
The so-called 'Circus Horse' from Le Portel. Copyright Wendel Collection. (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Why is Le Portel Cave Important?

Le Portel in the French Ariège contains a range of remarkable cave painting from the era of Magdalenian art, as well as from Solutrean or even Gravettian times.

The cave is noted, in particular, for its charcoal drawings of horses and bison - like the famous 'Circus Horse', and the 'Scene of the Three Bison' - and its two red male figures complete with phalluses.

In addition, Le Portel - like Niaux Cave and Grande Grotte at Arcy-sur-Cure - is noted for its extraordinary archaeoacoustics (the connections between its cave art and sound resonance), as shown by the fact that its greatest concentrations of parietal art seem to be located at spots with the greatest sound resonance.

The site was originally occupied by Neanderthals until the arrival of Cro-Magnon modern man, but there is no evidence that they created any cave art here.

Owned by the Vézian family, Le Portel was registered as a historical monument in February 1969.

For a chronology of paleolithic culture, see: Timeline of Prehistoric Art (from 540,000 BC).

Location

Le Portel Cave is set in limestone karst terrain of the Plantaurel massif, within the region of Franco-Cantabrian art, which is noted for its similarity of style.

It is located two kilometres south of Loubens, 9 kilometres northwest of Foix, in the commune of Loubens, and is inside the Ariège Pyrénées Regional Nature Park.

The underground River Carol runs through the lower level of Le Portel, like the Volp River runs under the two important sites of Tuc d'Audoubert Cave and Trois Frères Cave, also in the Ariège.

Excavation

The cave was discovered by Dr R.Jeannel and G.Fauveau in March, 1908.

A few days later, more galleries were discovered. Felix Regnault found the Gallery of the Horses, and Henri Breuil the Gallery of the Bison.

The cave has been thoroughly studied by the Vézian family, including Joseph Vézian (1886-1958), his son Jean Vézian (1915-2012) and grandson Régis Vézian, who between them have preserved the site with great care.

A multi-year program of excavation was launched in 2019 by the European Center of Tautavel and the Natural History Museum of Paris, in order to lean more about the Neanderthal occupation of the cave from 135,000 to 40,000 BC.

Back to top

Cave Layout & Galleries

Le Portel occupies two levels but the River Carol flows through the lower floor.

From the eastern entrance (upper level), we enter the "Joseph Vézian Gallery". Halfway along, a passage opens to the west which takes us into the "Jeannel Gallery".

Following this gallery takes us into the Great hall. This leads to the three main galleries, whose layout forms the three prongs of a fork.

Most of the prehistoric art in the cave is found in these three galleries.

Two Parts of the Cave

In practice, the cave may be divided into two sectors.

Back to top

Le Portel Cave Art

The cave art at Le Portel consists of about 140 paintings and engravings, mostly created by Magdalenian artists.

However, most of the paleolithic art in the main gallery was made before the Magdalenian period and is believed to belong (without direct dating) to the Gravettian or Aurignacian (40,000-20,000 BC).

Le Portel is noted in particular for its:

Le Portel also contains numerous abstract signs, including claviforms, flabelliforms, penniforms and ovals, among others.

The Circus Horse

At the very end of the Horse's Gallery the passage narrows considerably. It is here that the Magdalenians created their Panel of Horses.

Unforunately, lack of space has led to the panel being damaged as visitors brush against the paintings. This is the case with the most beautiful horse - called "The Circus Horse" because of its pose with its front leg raised.

This horse which faces to the left was sketched by the artist who drew the horse's head in only two lines.

The thick mane is indicated by three lines, two of which extend downwards to represent the shoulder lines.

Other short lines emerge from the mane and the curved line of the back. The artist employed a double line to outline the chest. The position of the front leg adds movement to the horse, which has only one rear leg and no hooves. But the differences in fur on the animal's belly and back were captured superbly.

For other oustanding paintings of horses from the Magdalenian, see: Ekain Cave (12,000 BC) and Santimamiñe Cave (12,000 BC), both in the Basque Country.

The Three Bison Scene

Active scenes are unusual in Upper Paleolithic art and this particular one in the Bison Gallery is unique.

On the left is a massive black bison (the male), whose outline as well as features like eye, ear, muzzle and leg were engraved after painting. This incised accentuation makes the features even more distinct.

The animal appears to be moving away from the two other bison which face each other.

The right hand bison (the female) is more detailed than the one in the centre, which has been left unpainted and so is quite distinct from the others. Its lack of colour indicates the lighter coat of a calf.

Experts interpret this scene as an adult female nuzzling her calf, while a spurned male is leaving the scene.

The artist's exploitation of natural features in the cave wall is exemplary: a natural relief emphasizes the calf's hump and coloured strata in the wall perfectly frames the entire scene.

Back to top

The Camarin Niche

The Bison Gallery includes a particularly unique spot - a narrow niche in which only one person can crouch at a time, known as the Camarin.

This constricted space nonetheless displays a dazzling array of black drawings which cover the walls and ceiling. Almost every animal species depicted in the whole of the cave is represented here.

The tiny interior of the niche would make it impossible to hold any kind of communal ceremony. So the production of the art itself must have been the main motivation, rather than the response of the audience.

The Male Figures

In the main gallery, there are two almost-identical red male figures, painted around short stalagmites that suggest erect phalluses.

The first figure is not very detailed apart from the head, which has an eye, a nose, an open mouth and a roughly drawn beard.

On the same wall, a few metres away, a second man is also depicted around a concretion evoking a phallus, but he is rendered even more abstractly than the first figure. Two thick red lines account for the chest and its head has a small arch for a nose. Neither arms nor legs are shown.

In both cases, the phallus is clearly the most important feature around which both figures were created.

Red Stag and Horse

In a natural niche on the same wall, there is a painting of the dorsal line and antlers of a stag facing right.

Shown in frontal perspective, the antlers are very carefully drawn. Indeed, they are reminicent of the beautiful black stag in Cosquer Cave, near Marseilles.

The stag's placement in the centre of the niche lend even greater impact to the composition.

Continuing along, we see a very small horse on the opposite wall, painted with a red ochre tint.

It faces left towards the far end of the gallery and seems to follow the contours of the wall. Its two forelegs are quite distinct, each with a round hoof, but there is only one rear leg which is less well defined and without a hoof. And the tail is very short.

The eyes of the horse are represented by a natural irregularity in the wall surface, which suggests that the entire composition was built around this irregularity.

The paint is applied more thickly on the chest and hindquarters, while the density varies for the belly and the back, giving this horse a more 3-D effect.

Dating

In the absence of direct dating, experts have assigned most of the rock art at Le Portel to the mid-Magdalenian period, around 12,500 BC.

If and when new dating technologies are applied to the 'older style' paintings in the cave, they are likely to produce dates from the Gravettian or even Aurignacian periods.

For the most ancient artworks, see: World's Oldest Art.

Archaeoacoustics

In 1983 and 1985, two archaeoacoustic studies traced and mapped the resonances of sounds within the cave.

It established a clear correlation between the parietal art and the places of greatest acoustic resonances.

The Horses panel at the very end of the Horses Gallery is a particular case in point. Sounds emitted here resonate to the end of the Main Gallery more than 100 metres away.

Other decorated caves, not already mentioned, that demonstrate similar acoustic effects and sound-image correlation include: Bernifal Cave (Périgord), Rouffignac Cave (Dordogne) and Kapova Cave (Urals), and undoubtedly many others whose internal sound resonances have yet to be studied.

Related Articles

For more about important paleolithic caves in France, see the following articles:

References

(1) "The sanctuary-habitat relationship the case of the Portel cave site (Ariège)." (1997) Henry Baills. Quaternaire, vol. 8, nos 2-3, pp.225-232.
(2) "The sound dimension of decorated caves." Iégor Reznikoff and Michel Dauvois. Bulletin of the French Prehistoric Society, vol. 85, No. 8, 1988, pp.238-246.
(3) "Cave Art" Jean Clottes. Phaidon. ISBN 978-0-7148-5723-7.

Back to top


Home