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Roc de Sers Cave

Bas-relief frieze of animals
Prehistoric sculpture: 17,200 BC

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Horse and bison/boar from the animal frieze at Roc de Sers
This composition is one of the most famous of all the sculptures at Roc de Sers. It depicts a horse on the left, and a bison/boar composite figure on the right. Photo by Don Hitchcock. Source: National Archaeology Museum, St-Germain-en-Laye. Reproduced by kind permission of the author.

Benchmark of Solutrean Sculpture

Roc de Sers is a rock shelter and sanctuary situated south-east of Angoulême, in the Charente.

The cave contains various types of rock art, but it is best-known for its prehistoric sculpture - namely, a series of limestone fragments which originally made up a frieze of animal figures.

Archaeologists and paleontologists consider Roc de Sers to be an important benchmark of Solutrean art - that is, relief sculpture - joining Lascaux Cave as a major exemplar of Upper Paleolithic art between 20,000 and 13,000 BC.

Now reassembled, the Roc de Sers frieze is on display at the French Museum of National Antiquities (Saint-Germain-en-Laye), although a replica can be seen at the site.

Stone Age Sculpture in France

Roc de Sers is only one of several paleolithic caves in France, which contain exceptional relief sculpture and petroglyphs.

Others include: Abri du Poisson (23,000 BC), noted for its ceiling carving of a salmon; Abri de Laussel, noted for its fertility carving of the Venus of Laussel (23,000 BC); Abri Reverdit (14,000 BC), noted for its 3.5-metre frieze of bison and horses; Cap Blanc, noted for its 13-metre animal frieze (13,000 BC); Roc-aux-Sorciers (12,000 BC), noted for its exceptional limestone frieze of animals and women; the Tuc d'Audoubert cave (12,000 BC), renowned for its bison reliefs.

For the evolution of paleolithic rock carving, see: Timeline of Prehistoric Art (from 540,000 BC).

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Location & Excavation

The archaeological site of Roc de Sers is located in a limestone cliff between the Grotte de la Vierge and the Grotte du Roc in the valley of the Echelle river, about 2 kilometres south of the town of Sers, in the Charente.

The site was first excavated in 1908-9 by A. Favraud, and in 1917 and 1924-29 by Dr. Henry Martin.

It was in 1927 that the first fragments of the Roc de Sers frieze were unearthed near the cave entrance.

The most likely explanation for the collapse and fragmentation of the frieze, is that ice had accumulated on the huge overhang at the mouth of cave, causing a partial collapse of the shelter, along with the limestone reliefs.

A similar event took place at the Roc-aux-Sorciers shelter in the Vienne.

In 1951, a new series of excavations began, led by R. Lantier and Mlle G. Henry-Martin, during which a number of new petroglyphs were discovered.

For the world's earliest sculpture, see: Oldest Art in the World.

Dating

Archaeological deposits in and around the shelter have been found from a number of human occupations dating to the final phase of the Stone Age, between 18,000 and 15,000 BC.

Some of the tools and artifacts recovered, include: "feuilles de laurier" (laurel leaf points), willow points, shouldered points, burins, notched points, double end scrapers, grattoirs, blades, needles, smoothers, and reindeer antler chisels.

Furthermore, the discovery of large quantities of small stone chips suggests the presence of stone workshops.

The cave's paleolithic art - the limestone frieze fragments - can be confidentally assigned to the Solutrean, about 17,200 BC, since they collapsed into a precisely-dated layer of sediment.

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Roc de Sers Frieze

The Roc de Sers animal frieze, which is about 10 metres long, has been reassembled from 19 fragments of 14 limestone blocks.

It has sufficient continuity of style to suggest that it was created as a single composition.

Analysis shows that the stone surface of the wall was carefully prepared beforehand. It was pecked, rubbed and scraped, and a number of charcoal sketches were made on the rock itself.

When sculpting the main figures, the artist(s) made full use of the available contours of the wall, and employed a full range of bas-relief and engraving techniques to maximize the 3-D effects of the sculptures.

Paint was also used as a modelling device. About 70 percent of the relief-figures are shaded with various ochre pigments to convey animation as well as fullness.

The frieze contains a total of 52 images of horses, bison, ibexes and musk ox. Most are given disproportionately large bodies and short legs.

There are two basic groupings: one dominated by ibexes, the other by horses. Although fewer in number, bison appear in both.

In addition, the frieze contains two human figures.

Highlights include: two male ibexes confronting each other during the rutting season (fragment 13), and the figure of a man pursued by a Musk Ox (fragment 5).

There are visible similarities between the stone sculpture at Roc de Sers and the reliefs of aurochs at Fourneau du Diable in the Dordogne (18,000 BC), but especially with the sculpted 18-metre frieze at Roc-aux-Sorciers (Vienne, France).

Details of Limestone Fragments

What details appear on the limestone fragments at Roc de Sers? To answer this question, here is a brief synopsis of the recovered blocks and the figures depicted.

Signs & Engravings

In addition to its animal relief sculptures, the cave art at Roc de Sers also includes a quantity of abstract signs, plus a number of rock engravings of bison and mammoths.

Related Articles

For more examples of prehistoric rock carving in France, see these articles.

References

(1) "Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons, glacial times in the Charente basin." André Debénath. Le Croit Vif. (2006) ISBN: 2-916104-00-3.
(2) "The sculpted Solutrean frieze of Roc de Sers (Charente): new parietal art data." (La frise sculptée solutréenne du Roc de Sers (Charente): nouvelles données d'art pariétal.) S. Tymula. (1998) L'Anthropologie, t. 102, No 2, p. 143-165.
(3) "The Prehistoric Art of Poitou-Charentes: Sculptures and Engravings from the Ice Ages." (L'art Prehistorique Du Poitou-Charentes: Sculptures Et Gravures Des Temps Glaciaires) J. Airvaux. Maison des roches, 2001. ISBN: 9782912691132.

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