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Trois Frères Cave

"Sorcerer" in the "Sanctuary"
Magdalenian engravings: 13,000 BC

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Breuil's sketch of the Sorcerer engraving in Les Trois-Frères Cave
The iconic dancing sorcerer, Salon Noir sanctuary, Trois-Frères Cave. (Sketch of the engraving by the famous archaeologist, Henri Breuil). Image courtesy of the Wellcome Collection. (CC BY 4.0)

Why is Trois Frères Important?

The Cave of the Trois-Frères - one of the three Volp caves in southwest France - is renowned as a major sanctuary of prehistoric art during the final phase of the Stone Age.

It was one of the six "giants" chosen by prehistorian Henri Breuil (1877-1961) in his landmark book "Four Hundred Centuries of Cave Art" (1952), to exemplify Franco-Cantabrian Cave art during the Upper Paleolithic.

It contains an exceptional array of petroglyphs, illustrating the principal characters of the age - namely, bison, horses and reindeer.

Other highlights of Trois-Frères include the life-size engraving of a lioness, as well as the famous painted engraving of the "Sorcerer".

The earliest artworks in the cave have been dated to the era of Magdalenian art, about 13,000 BC, although experts believe some might be significantly older.

Engraving of little shaman with a musical bow (or a flute), in the Salon Noir, Trois-Frères
The little shaman with a musical bow (or a flute). Image courtesy of the Wellcome Collection. (CC BY 4.0)

Other Great Caves

The five other 'giants' revered by Breuil, include:

To these, one should add Chauvet Cave (34,500 BC), the remarkable showcase of Aurignacian artistry, which was only discovered in 1994.

To understand how Trois Frères fits into the chronology of art within the Franco-Cantabrian region, please see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

Location

The Cave of the Trois-Frères is located at Montesquieu-Avantès in the foothills of the central Pyrenees, in the Ariège department of southwest France.

It is one of three caves hollowed out of the same karst terrain by the Volp river - the other two being the Tuc d'Audoubert Cave - famous for its bison reliefs - and the Grotte d'Enlène.

Trois Frères (length 430 metres) is joined to Enlène (length 200 metres) by a 65 metre long tunnel, but there is no connection between them and Tuc d'Audoubert (length 600 metres).

For another important site in the Ariège, see: Le Portel Cave (12,500 BC).

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Volp Caves

The three caves of the Volp River, constitute an important centre of Stone Age culture in the French Ariège.

Of the three, Enlène has the least decoration, although it has yielded some delightful mobiliary art, including some fine animal carvings and adornments.

Perhaps this is because, unlike its two neighbours, Enlène was a place of habitation.

Trois Frères and Tuc d'Audoubert, on the other hand, functioned as decorated sanctuaries who hid their parietal art in their deepest, most remote areas.

Like modern day churches, they would have hosted ceremonies but remained uninhabited save for their artists and caretakers.

How old is the art in Tuc d'Audoubert and Trois Frères? The three caves are traditionally assigned to the Magdalenian era (15-10,000 BC), although recent research has shown that Enlène was occupied during the Gravettian (30-20,000 BC).

This raises the possibility that some of the engravings in the other two caves could be older.

Discovery

Trois Frères was discovered via a sinkhole in July 1914 by Jaques, Louis and Max, the three sons of Count Henri Bégouën, and two family friends.

After the war, the famous paleoart expert Abbé Henri Breuil surveyed the cave during the 1920s and 30s, making drawings of the engravings that were widely published.

In 1958, Breuil and R. Bégouën published a monograph on the hundreds of images carved on the walls of the gallery known as the "Sanctuary".

Later, in 1964 a systematic photographic record was made of the cave art by J.Vertut and R.Bégouën. Additional investigations have been conducted by Jean Clottes and others.

In 2014 a new monograph on Trois Frères was published by the Louis Bégouën Association, summarizing a century of research since the cave's discovery.

Main Galleries

Trois Frères twists and turns for more than 400 metres. Its principal galleries include:

Dating

Based on comparative analysis data, Trois Frères has been assigned to the mid-Magdalenian era, around 13,000 BC.

In the final part of the cave, certain figures - such as the rhinoceros and onager in the "Sanctuary" - are undoubtedly rendered in an earlier style.

Indeed, some figures bear a strong resemblance in style and theme to the era of Aurignacian art (40-30,000 BC). But so far, no archaeological evidence, such as a radiocarbon dating, or an Aurignacian type tool, has been found to confirm this hypothesis.

For the earliest animal paintings, see: Oldest Art in the World.

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Trois Frères Cave Art

According to a 2014 monograph on Trois Frères, its cave art consists of 1300 separate images - more than half the number in the entire Ariège region.

It includes more than 500 animal and human figures - mostly engravings - the largest number in any prehistoric cave.

The paintings are limited to a small number of charcoal drawings including famous 'Sorcerer'.

The remaining 800 or so images are mostly abstract signs (see blow), and hand stencils, as well as finger-flutings and other digital tracings, plus 7 anthropomorphic figures.

Themes

The paleolithic art at Trois Frères is dominated by its engraved drawings of animals, typically arranged in groups of crowded, overlapping images - see, for instance, the right hand wall of the "Sanctuary".

The most popular species depicted, by far, are bison, followed by horses, reindeer and ibex.

There are also a number of bears, lions, mammoths, rhinoceros, and birds, as well as the only insect known in Stone Age art - a cricket, engraved on a large fragment of bison bone at the junction of Trois Frères with the Grotte d'Enlène.

Curiously, unlike many other decorated caves of the Magdalenian period, female representations are absent from Trois Frères, except for a single instance, see below.

Male representations, however, are clearly present, including the "Man-Bison", the "Small Sorcerer" with the nose flute, and of course the Sorcerer himself.

The Sorcerer

The 'Sanctuary' is the most remote and most important chamber in the Trois Frères cave. It contains the majority of the animal images in the cave, plus some of the human-like figures.

Its walls are covered with around 280 overlapping and often superimposed images of bison, horses, ibex, stags, reindeer, and mammoths.

The artists responsible went to great lengths to exploit the natural contours and relief of the walls, in order to maximize the 3-D effect of their figures.

The Sanctuary's most exciting but enigmatic figure is a small engraving, accentuated with charcoal, known as the 'Sorcerer' or 'Horned God', dating to about 13,000 BC.

The figure is located some 4 metres (13-feet) above floor-level, and depicts a human figure with the features of several different animals, although its exact characteristics remain a matter of debate.

Description

According to Count Henri Bégouën, in a 1920 report on The Sorcerer, it measures about 75 cm high and 50 cm wide.

Its entire figure is engraved, with some body parts accentuated with black paint. The man depicted is tilted forwards as he moves left. Not crawling but sort of dancing. The human figures in Les Combarelles adopt a similar stance.

The man's buttocks are decorated with a horse's tail, as if glued onto the figure's posterior.

The head is most bizarre indeed - a stag's antlers on the top of the head, framed by two upright hairy ears. From his ill-defined cat-like face, projects a long beard. The arms and hands are badly rendered compared to the feet. The right hand (claw?) has only four fingers.

The Sorcerer was first studied and sketched by Henri Breuil while compiling his set of drawings of the cave art, back in the 1920s.

He sketched a human-type figure wearing a headdress that resembled a stag's antlers, and it was this image - published in the 1920s - that set the parameters for many theories about the Sorcerer.

Breuil himself thought the picture represented a shaman or priest-like individual, indicating the chamber was used for shamanistic ceremonies. See Shamans in Paleolithic art.

However, modern experts dispute the accuracy of Breuil's sketch, asserting that modern photos do not show the famous antlers. They believe that Breuil mistook natural lines in the rock for man-made incisions.

But this criticism has itself been challenged on the grounds that man-made incisions are sometimes impossible to see in photographs, due to the quality of the light source.

The prehistorian Jean Clottes, one of the top paleolithic scholars in France, has no doubts that Breuil's sketch is accurate, claiming to have seen the Sorcerer for himself, some 20 times over the years.

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What is the meaning of the Sorcerer?

How should one identify this bizarre half-man half animal figure? For instance, is he a divine being, a magician or a shaman? The answer is, we have absolutely no idea, although we can make a few observations.

First, Trois Frères Cave was a centre of hunter-gatherer culture, and its art was hunter-gatherer art, created by semi-nomadic people. So the Sorcerer would have looked far more 'normal' to these people than to us.

Second, as to the figure itself, clearly he is a 'serious' figure. The entire cave has been building up to this final chamber.

Thirdly, given the remote position in the deepest section of the cave, the groups permitted to see him are more likely to be small and select, than large and unqualified.

Fourthly, someone or some people must interpret the cave and its art, including the image of the "Sorcerer" for the visitors.

This gives these interpreters a certain ascendancy, a certain authority. They are the 'decoders' of the cave, as it were.

But to what end? It's really impossible to say.

See also: What is the Meaning of Cave Art?

Lions in Trois Frères

Pictures of lions are rare in parietal art: only about 150 are known, most of which are in Chauvet (75), Roucadour (22) and Lascaux (11) caves.

What's more, the location of the lions in Trois-Frères Cave seems to be carefully planned.

The Chapel of the Lioness is a small cavern that contains two feline engravings traced/enhanced in black, on a large mass of calcite that forms a natural 'altar'.

One of the engravings - a detailed picture of a lioness - has been redone and its body incised with lines and wounds. It also displays several signs, such as an arrow and an engraved hand.

Carefully placed in crevices near the altar and on the walls around it, are numerous objects such as shells, animal teeth, and flint tools, which may have been deposited there for votive purposes.

In the Hall of the Fallen Rocks (Salle du Grand Eboulis), there is another impressive lion - this time a male - which is engraved on the right hand wall just before the entrance to the Sanctuary, as if he is guarding access to the chamber.

This male lion is about two metres in length, with a thick mane and large eyes, and fixes the viewer with a terrifying look. He is accompanied by another lion, whose head looks down from the wall above.

The Phallus

On the right-hand wall of the Sanctuary, researchers recently discovered a 59 centimetre long image of a phallus, located just above a natural concavity in the wall which itself evokes the curves of a vulva.

The artist faithfully followed the natural contours of the wall, which explicitly suggests that of the male organ.

For the record, the size of the phallus at Trois Frères is second only to the specimen at Fronsac Cave (61 cm), easily beating the example in the Bédeilhac Cave (28 cm).

What's more it compares favourably with the engraving of the "Sorcerer", whose entire body is only 75 cm.

Other Sanctuary Highlights

Other famous images in the Sanctuary include:

Abstract Signs

The majority of the cave art at Trois Frères consists of abstract symbols and geometric motifs, which occur throughout the cave.

According to Genevieve von Petzinger, an expert on cave signs in Upper Paleolithic art, more than a dozen different sign-types are present at Trois Frères, including:

Related Articles

For details of other important sites of Magdalenian art in France, see these articles:

References

(1) "New discoveries in the Sanctuary of Les Trois-Frères cave (Ariège)." Bégouën E., Bégouën M., 2013: Quartär 60 (2013): pp.107-114.
(2) "Découverte d'un grand phallus gravé magdalénien dans la grotte des Trois-Frères (Ariège)." (Discovery of a large Magdalenian engraved phallus in the Trois Freres Cave) Bégouën E., Bégouën M., 2013a: Bulletin de la Société Préhistorique Française , Tome 110, numéro 1, janvier-mars 2013, p. 127-129.
(3) "À propos de l'idée de fécondité dans l'iconographie préhistorique." (About the idea of ​​fertility in prehistoric iconography). Bégouën H., 1929: Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française, 26, 3, pp 197-199.

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