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Penniform Signs

Feather-shaped motifs
Upper Paleolithic caves in France

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Penniform Signs in Paleolithic Caves
A Paleolithic penniform symbol. Image by Cave Signs Design. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

What is a Penniform Sign?

In paleolithic culture, the "Penniform sign" is a feather-shaped symbol, which is also known as a "ramiform" or "barbed" sign.

According to prehistorian Genevieve von Petzinger, it is one of only 32 abstract signs used in Franco-Cantabrian art, of the Upper Paleolithic, between 40,000 and 10,000 BC.

How Common are Penniforms?

Penniform pictographs are reasonably plentiful. They are present at 38 sites of prehistoric art in France, or roughly 25 percent of the total.

Less common motifs include: Aviform (7.8%), Claviform (15.6%), Cruciform (13%), and Tectiform (10.4%).

[Source: Petzinger (2005).]

Dating

This sign type is seen in French cave art in all periods of the Upper Paleolithic except the Aurignacian (40,000-30,000 BC), which implies it was first invented in Spain or elsewhere. Most examples we know about date from the Magdalenian era (15,000-10,000 BC).

The first appearance of the sign type in France was probably at Pech Merle Cave, whose earliest works date to 27,000 BC.

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Geographical Distribution

According to Petzinger, the absence of this sign type in the Aurignacian, raises two possibilities: either it was a French Gravettian invention, or the sign was developed outside the country.

Since penniform signs have been documented at El Castillo Cave and Monedas cave, further research into Spanish caves may give us the answer.

Caves with Penniforms

Penniform motifs are present in the following French caves:

[Source: Petzinger (2005).]

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Meaning of Penniform Sign

The Penniform symbol is often found on or close to the edges of animal paintings.

Examples can be seen, for instance, on the famous panel of the Chinese horse at Lascaux Cave in the Dordogne.

In Gallery C at La Pasiega Cave in Cantabria, there is a feather-shaped sign next to a bison. This might be a clue that the sign-type is associated in some way with animals and hunting.

There is also a small engraving of a penniform motif on the right-hand side of the limestone relief sculpture known as the Venus of Laussel (23,000 BCE), discovered in the Dordogne in 1911.

It's not much to go by, but as the distinguished French scholar and prehistorian Jean Clottes pointed out: "Geometric signs and indeterminate marks constitute one of the most significant and mysterious characteristics of European cave art."

See also our article on the Purpose and Meaning of Cave Art.

Related Articles

For more about ideomorphs and other motifs in caves, see the following articles:

References

"Making the Abstract Concrete: The Place of Geometric Signs in French Upper Paleolithic Parietal Art." (2005) (Thesis) Genevieve von Petzinger. University of Victoria, Canada.

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