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Pech Merle Cave

'Spotted horses', 'wounded man'
Placard aviform signs: 27,000 BC

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Painting of spotted horses and handprints from Pech Merle Cave
One of the famous 'spotted horses' (plus handprints and dot signs) in Pech Merle cave. Copyright Wendel Collection. (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Pech Merle Cave: A Summary

Pech Merle is a spectacular example of Franco-Cantabrian art, situated in the Lot department of southwestern France.

It contains some of the most memorable cave painting from the Gravettian period of Upper Paleolithic art, and shares several features with other caves in the region.

Cave art highlights include:

Famous red drawing of the wounded man at Pech Merle
Wounded man, Peche Merle. Copyright Wendel Collection. (CC BY-NC 4.0)

In addition, Pech Merle is one of the few sites to contain the mysterious 'Placard-type' aviform signs, as well as a famous collection of hand stencils and red dots.

Lastly, it has several well-preserved footprints of Stone Age children.

About 10,000 BC, a rockfall sealed the cave and its contents until the 20th Century.

The Pech Merle Cave was classified as a “Historic Monument” in 1952, and is regarded as a key centre of Stone Age culture in the French Lot.

Aviform (bird-shaped) sign from Pech Merle Cave
Aviform sign (Placard symbol) next to wounded man, whose head is just visible (extreme right). Copyright Wendel Collection. (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Location and Discovery

The cave is located in the valley of the river Célé, near the village of Cabrerets, in the Lot. It is named Pech Merle after the hill in which it sits.

The cave's upper level was known to locals since the turn of the century, but the painted chambers located in the deeper areas of the cave were first discovered in 1922, by teenagers Marthe David, her brother André David, and Henri Dutetre, who were encouraged in their searches by Father Amedee Lemozi, the curate of Cabrerets and a keen amateur archaeologist.

In 1949, a search for new galleries in 1949, led by André David - now the cave's owner - uncovered a new chamber known as Combel Gallery.

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Layout

Layout of Pech-Merle Cave, Lot, showing the main chambers and panels of paleolithic art
Fig 1. Pech-Merle Cave Layout.

Pech Merle Cave is spacious and dry, and extends for about 2 kilometres in length.

It has two levels upper and lower, but there are paintings only on the deeper level.

About 1,200 metres of galleries are open to the public, of which about 300 metres are decorated.

The galleries average 10 metres in width and between 5 and 10 metres in height.

The main chambers at Pech Merle include:

How Old is Pech Merle's Art?

Archaeologists believe that Pech Merle's rock art was produced in three phases:

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Pech-Merle's Cave Art

The cave art at Pech Merle includes approximately 570 separate images, the majority of which are abstract signs and symbols.

Highlights of Pech Merle

Red Drawings in Le Combel Gallery

In a tiny corner of Le Combel, we find red paintings (with a few blackish lines) of a characteristically short muzzled cave lion and three red spotted horses, surrounded by 17 additional red dots. These images are among the oldest art at Pech Merle, dating to 27,000 BC. See also: Stone Age Colour Palette.

Chapel of Antelopes in Le Combel

This space contains the most mysterious combination of drawings in the Combel Gallery.

There are 5 images in total:

The scene is framed by two red dots on the left, and one red dot on the right. These drawings are also assigned to the Gravettian.

No one knows what this scene means.

The Panel of the Spotted Horses

The most famous parietal art at Pech Merle is the Panel of the Spotted Horses, dating to 23,000 BC.

Measuring 4 metres in length, and exploiting the natural contours of the rock surface, it presents two horses back-to-back and partly superimposed, surrounded by numerous abstract symbols and hand stencils.

The right-hand horse has been painted over a red drawing of a large red fish (it looks like a pike). The remains of the fish are just visible on the back of the horse.

Fish in Cave Art

Images of fish are rarely seen in Stone Age caves. Rare examples include the pike at Grand Grotte at Arcy-sur-Cure, the salmon relief in the Abri du Poisson in the Dordogne, the black drawing of the halibut at La Pileta Cave, and the salmon at Ekain Cave, in Spain.

But why do Pech Merle's horses have spots? Some scientists say that new DNA evidence shows that spotted horses did exist in Europe in what is known as the Upper Paleolithic period. So Gravettian artists were simply drawing what they saw around them.

Other scientists counter with the argument that:

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The Black Frieze

The black frieze at Pech Merle measures 7 metres by 2.5 metres and depicts mammoths, bison, aurochs, horse and red dots. It was created in four successive stages:

The red drawings (horses) belong to the earliest period of Pech Merle, around 27,000 BC. The drawings in black (the other animals) were executed later, around 23,000 to 22,000 BC, probably by the same artist.

The Hieroglyphic Ceiling

On a ceiling in the Hall of Paintings, we see a number of finger-drawings or finger flutings, executed with one, two or three fingers on a clay surface.

These finger markings include a notched circle, and three mammoths drawn on top of the outlines of three women. They are dated to between 24,000 and 22,000 BC.

The Women-Bison Panel

According to archaeologist André Leroi-Gourhan's controversial analysis, the figures on this panel - dated to between 23,000 and 21,000 BC - represent a progressive transformation of women to bison.

The Wounded Man

Pech Merle's "Wounded Man" figure - one of the most famous human figures in paleolithic art - is depicted as being struck by a number of spears.

We do not know what this is meant to represent - the result of a fight between rival tribes, or perhaps the ritual killing of a wrong doer. It's a mystery.

Nor do we know the meaning of the bird-like shape of the 'Placard' sign' next to the prone figure. These Placard signs occur in eleven painted forms at Cougnac, three times at Pech Merle, and seven engraved forms at Grotte du Placard. They are attributed to the Solutrean era, about 17,500 BC.

For more, see: Meaning of Cave Art.

Footprints

In the Discs Gallery, there are footprints of five children of uncertain gender, aged between 7 and 18. They are all dated to 15,000 BC

Prehistoric Cave Painting in the Lot Region

There are numerous paleolithic caves located around the valley of the river Célé in the Cantal and Lot départments in south-western France. These sites include:

Prehistoric Art in France

Other important sites of Stone Age art in France include: the engravings at Abri Cellier (36,000 BC), Baume-Latrone Cave (35,500 BC), and Abri Castanet (35,000 BC), the black drawings of Chauvet Cave (34,500 BC) and the petroglyphs of Grotte des Deux-Ouvertures (c.26,500 BC).

To see how French cave painting fits in with the evolution of Stone Age art in general, see: Timeline of Prehistoric Art (from 540,000 BC).

References

(1) "Genotypes of predomestic horses match phenotypes painted in Paleolithic works of cave art". Pruvost, M. et al. (7 November 2011). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 108 (46): 18626–18630.
(2) "The Meaning of the Dots on the Horses of Pech Merle." Barbara Olins Alpert. MDPI Arts 2013, 2(4), 476-490.
(3) "Spitting images: Replicating the spotted horses of Pech Merle". Lorblanchet, Michel (1991). Archaeology. 44 (6): 24–31.

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