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Solutrean Art & Culture

Remarkable stone tool workmanship
Stone friezes of relief sculpture

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Solutrean relief sculpture of horse and bison at Roc de Sers
Relief sculpture at Roc de Sers, a key benchmark of Solutrean rock carving. Photo by Don Hitchcock. Reproduced by kind permission of the author.

What is Solutrean Culture?

The Solutrean was a short-lived archaeological tradition of the European Ice Age that succeeded the Gravettian culture about 20,000 BC.

It was developed by modern humans in France and the Iberian Peninsula, while central and Eastern Europe followed the Epigravettian culture.

It forms the third phase of the 'Upper Paleolithic Revolution' introduced by Cro-Magnons, who arrived in Europe from the Middle East about 54,000 BC.

The Solutrean toolkit came and went during the Last Glacial Maximum, between 20,000 and 14,000 BC, when Europe experienced freezing conditions across large parts of the continent.

Upper Paleolithic Chronology

For more about the chronology of Stone Age culture, especially the development of rock carving, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

Why is the Solutrean Important?

Solutrean culture is noted for three main reasons:

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Why is it Called the Solutrean?

The Solutrean tool culture is named after the Rock of Solutré (Crôt du Charnier), an archaeological site near Mâcon, in France, overlooking the village of Solutré-Pouilly.

The site was a well-established open-air camp, sheltered on the north by a steep ridge, where hunters gathered to butcher animals after hunting.

Efficient processing of animal kills was a crucial survival skill during the Stone Age, especially during the period of the Last Glacial Maximum.

The meat, fat, organs, bones, teeth, hair and hides of all game animals were carefully stripped from the carcass, and used in a variety of ways.

Reindeer, for instance, were prized for their antlers, ulnas, ribs, tibias and teeth.

A host of small tools (often made of animal bone) were devised to streamline the process, in which the whole community would participate.

Solutrean Stone Tools

Solutrean lithic assemblages have been discovered at sites throughout the region of Franco-Cantabrian art and beyond.

They include 120 sites in France and 165 sites in Spain and Portugal. For the main ones, see below.

The greatest density of sites is in the Iberian Peninsula, notably in the southern areas of Andalucia, where the tool industry may have started. (See also: History of Stone Tools.)

Pressure Flaking

Solutrean flintknappers specialized in creating finely worked laurel-leaf points and blades, using a new technique called pressure flaking, rather than flint-knapping.

When a flake needed to be struck directly from a core, using a hammer, it was done using batons of antler or wood, or soft stone.

By employing this gentler knapping technique, tool-makers were able to generate the thin slivers of flint, necessary for the most finely edged tools, as well as light projectile points for darts and arrows.

Re-touching

Solutrean tool-makers were experts at re-touching the edges of their flints to create the perfect shape.

Re-touching was done in several different ways. Shallow angle re-touching, also known as invasive retouching, was used to sharpen an already thin edge - on blades, knives, scrapers, spear points, arrowheads and other tools. (This is very similar to pressure flaking.)

Re-touching could also be done at a steeper angle (between 45 and 90 degrees) to blunt a sharp edge to make a tool easier to hold. This method is known as 'abrupt' or 'semi-abrupt re-touching'.

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Solutrean Toolkit

The Solutrean suite of stone tools includes:

Solutrean Relief Sculpture

Solutrean artists improved on Gravettian traditions of Upper Paleolithic art in several ways, notably by introducing the stone frieze - a continuous panel of images, sculpted in relief.

Solutrean Cave Art

As well as sculpture, the Solutrean era includes superb examples of cave painting and rock engraving.

Was Solutrean Art Linked to Last Glacial Maximum?

Notable examples of Solutrean cave art can be seen at the following sites:

List of Archaeological Sites

Important archaeological sites with lithic assemblages dating to the Solutrean, include:

References

(1) Combier J., 1955: "Excavations from 1907 to 1925. Stratigraphic and typological development" (Les fouilles de 1907 à 1925. Mise au point stratigraphique et typologique, in M. Thoral, R. Riquet et J. Combier (dir.), Solutré, Mâcon, éd. Faculté des Sciences de Lyon, Travaux du laboratoire de géologie de la faculté des Sciences de Lyon, nouvelle série 2, p.93-220.
(2) Rosendahl, Gaëlle et al. (2006). "The oldest bow in the world? An interesting piece from Mannheim, Germany" (Le plus vieil arc du monde? Une pièce intéressante en provenance de Mannheim, Allemagne). L'Anthropologie (in French and English). 110 (3): 371–382.
(3) "Stone Tools in the Paleolithic and Neolithic Near East: A Guide." Chapter 2. Lithics Basics. Cambridge University Press. 2013.
(4) "The Upper Paleolithic Rock Art of Iberia." (2007). Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory. 14. 81-151.
(5) "Palaeolithic Timekeepers Looking At The Golden Gate Of The Ecliptic; The Lunar Cycle And The Pleiades In The Cave Of La-Tete-Du-Lion (Ardéche, France) - 21,000 BP." Rappenglück, Michael A. Earth, Moon, and Planets, v. 85/86, p. 391-404 (1999).

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