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Niaux Cave

Black Paintings, Salon Noir
Weasel, fish, signs: 13,000 BC

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Charcoal drawing of ibex, Salon Noir, Niaux
Black painting of an ibex. One of the most stunning figures in the Salon Noir. Copyright Wendel Collection. (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Magdalenian Masterpieces

Niaux Cave is an important centre of Stone Age culture in southwestern France, due to its charcoal drawings of bison, horses, ibex and a weasel - during the final phase of Magdalenian culture between 15,000 and 10,000 BC.

Another site from the Magdalenian which is noted for its black drawings, is Rouffignac Cave in the Dordogne.

The many highlights of Niaux's parietal art include:

Black drawing of weasel, Reseau René Clastres, Niaux
Sublime charcoal drawing of a weasel in the remote Reseau René Clastres, at Niaux. Image by Christelle Molinié. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Years of exploration have uncovered more than 14 kilometres of underground passages within the Niaux cave system as a whole, but it seems the parietal art is confined to the outermost galleries which extend for no more than two kilometres.

Nonetheless, it is far from certain that the artistic secrets of this vast site have been exhausted.

In 1994, a replica of Niaux cave was built at the Park of Prehistory museum located in the small town of Tarascon-sur-Ariege, lower down the valley.

Charcoal drawing of horse in the Salon Noir
Black painting of horse in the Salon Noir. Copyright Wendel Collection. (CC BY-NC 4.0)

One of the Giants of Cave Art

In 1952, the eminent French prehistorian, Henri Breuil labelled Niaux one of the six 'giants' of Franco-Cantabrian art, along with:

Had Breuil known of Chauvet Cave when he made his list, he would surely have included it.

Location

Niaux Cave (Grotte de Niaux) is embedded in the steep-sided valley of Vicdessos, overlooking the Ariège River that runs through the Tarascon basin in the northern foothills of the Pyrénées.

Its entrance lies at 678 metres above sea level.

The area's topography is responsible for a warmer micro-climate than that of the terrain to the north, which was no doubt an attraction to the bison and ibex that grazed in the vicinity, and to the Magdalenian hunters who followed them.

Other paleolithic caves in the area include the nearby Grotte de la Vache (used by Niaux's artists as a workshop), Sabart Cave (to the north) and Lombrives Cave (to the east), none of which are decorated.

Discovery

Niaux Cave has been known about for centuries, although archaeological interest did not really begin until 1906, when a retired military engineer Commander Molard (and his two sons, Paul and Jules), discovered the rock art in the "Salon Noir", the cathedral-like sanctuary at the centre of the cave.

A few months later, leading archaeologists Emile Cartailhac and Henri Breuil determined that these images of horses and bisons were authentic examples of paleolithic art dating back to the Magdalenian era - a finding which brought Niaux instant fame.

A series of investigations followed. In 1925, another gallery was discovered by J. Mandeman, who named it Cartailhac Gallery.

Then, in 1970, local potholers discovered the Réseau René Clastres gallery, which triggered a major examination of the cave by Jean Clottes and Robert Simonnet.

Since then, research into the cave structure and contents has been ongoing.

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Niaux Cave Art

Layout of Niaux Cave, Ariège, showing the main chambers and galleries
Fig 1. Niaux Cave Layout.

Niaux Cave consists of a number of decorated chambers, all connected by a winding passageway.

Its cave art, however, is mainly concentrated in the Salon Noir, although there are groups of paintings, engravings and abstract signs in perhaps a dozen different spots.

For first 500 metres or so, there is no art whatsoever. It finally appears in the form of red and black abstract signs, grouped together like navigation aids, or seemingly placed as markers next to a rock fissure or some other feature.

There are about 100 red and black dots, dashes, and lines, as well as claviforms (club-shaped symbols), crosshatch signs (hashtags), circles and open angle signs.

Next comes the Entrance Gallery (Galérie d'Entrée), which contains the first animal paintings and engravings. Shortly afterwards there is a 50-metre wide area known as the "Great Crossroads". Three galleries lead off this area.

To the left, is the spacious "Gallery of the Scree" with its floor engraving of an aurochs. This gallery is a cul-de-sac.

Straight on, is the Deep Gallery (Galerie Profonde), with a few bison paintings and floor engravings, some cupule signs, and a quantity of abstract signs (like those near the cave entrance).

The gallery ends at a T-junction.

The left hand turn leads to the Marble Gallery, and the Gallery of the Great Dome with its two paintings of horses and a quantity of abstract symbols.

The right hand passage leads to the Réseau René Clastres gallery, which contains five charcoal drawings - three bison, a horse and a weasel, plus the famous "Magdalenian footprints".

To the right, at the top of a steep but wide slope, is the huge cathedral-like Salon Noir - the iconographic centre of the entire site.

Near the entrance, in the sandy clay floor of a small side passage, there are engraved drawings of two salmon (or trout), as well as an ibex and an aurochs.

In total, the chamber contains 21 rock engravings carved into the cave floor.

Its animal drawings, which feature mostly bison, horses and ibex, are outlined in black and left unshaded and unfilled. They are clustered together on distinct panels.

At the extreme end of the Salon Noir, located in a deep recess known as the Cul-de-Four, is one last black picture, which is almost hidden from view.

This unidentified therianthropic image - either of a human figure, or part of an animal - seems to disappear into the very cave wall itself. See Shamans in Paleolithic Art.

Pictures of Fish

The engraved drawings of fish in the Salon Noir are a rarity in Stone Age art. Only 10-12 pictures of fish are known.

They include: a pike at Pech Merle Cave; a halibut at La Pileta Cave, a salmon in the Abri du Poisson, several pike at Grande Grotte d'Arcy-sure-Cure, and a salmon at the Ekain Cave in Spain, among others.

Salon Noir Rock Art

There are numerous sets of painted images in the Salon Noir at Niaux. They include:

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The Weasel

The most famous cave painting in the Réseau René Clastres gallery, is the extraordinary charcoal sketch of a weasel - the only known depiction of such a creature during the Stone Age. According to prehistorian Jean Clottes, it was executed in ten flawless brushstrokes.

For details of the pigments used by cave painters at Niaux cave and elsewhere, see Stone Age Colour Palette.

Dating

Radiocarbon dating suggests at least two phases of painting are represented at Niaux. One occurred around 11,850 BC; the other about a thousand years later.

Stylistically, all Niaux's paintings fit comfortably within the artistic traditions of the Magdalenian era, which are visible across much of northern and western Europe during the period 15,000-10,000 BC.

In contrast, some of the prehistoric art in Trois Frères Cave, Niaux's neighbour in the Ariège, has an older style which belongs to the Gravettian or even the Aurignacian era.

For the earliest artworks, see: Oldest Art in the World.

Archaeoacoustics

Similar to Grande Grotte at Arcy-sur-Cure (Yonne), Le Portel Cave (Ariège), and Kapova Cave (Urals), research at Niaux has shown a correlation between the location of the cave art and those locations with the greatest acoustic resonances.

Although still in its infancy, archaeoacoustics looks set to shed significant light on certain aspects of Upper Paleolithic cave art.

Related Articles

For more about Magdalenian art in France, see these articles:

For more about the chronology of Upper Paleolithic cave painting, see: Timeline of Prehistoric Art (from 540,000 BC).

References

(1) "Journey Through the Ice Age." Bahn, Paul G.; Vertut, Jean (January 1997). ISBN 9780520213067
(2) "Cave Art" Jean Clottes. Phaidon. ISBN 978-0-7148-5723-7.
(3) "Direct radiocarbon dates for prehistoric paintings at the Altamira, El Castillo and Niaux caves." Valladas, J. et al, 1992: Nature, 357, 68-70 (7 May, 1992).

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