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Paleolithic Cave Art in France
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Paleolithic Cave Art in France

by Dr Jean Clottes

www.bradshawfoundation.com/clottes

Paleolithic Cave Paintings and Rock Art in France : Extracted from the Adorant magazine 2002



The Niaux Cave | Film Download

Less well known than other European caves such as Chauvet and Lascaux, Niaux houses some of the world's most spectacular rock art.
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Introduction

Page 1 of 8


The Bradshaw Foundation presents the recently published paper by Dr. Jean Clottes, French Ministry of Culture The paper provides a definitive and comprehensive analysis of the Palaeolithic rock art discoveries so far made in France. Given Jean Clottes' understanding of the complexities of the subject, his experience and knowledge gained from viewing cave paintings around the world.


Extracted from the Adorant magazine 2002


European Ice Age rock art, often called 'cave art', is well-known all over the world, probably because of the high quality and antiquity of its images. So far, about 350 sites have been discovered, from the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula to the Urals. Out of them, nearly half (about 160) were found in France. They include some really major caves. When the Abbe Breuil published his big book "Four Hundred Centuries of Cave Art", he pointed out what he called 'The Six Giants', one in Spain (Altamira), the other five in France : Lascaux, Niaux, LesTrois- Freres, Font-de-Gaume and Les Combarelles (Breuil 1952). No doubt that nowadays he would at least add Chauvet (Clottes (ed.) 2001), Cosquer (Clottes & Courtin 1996), Cussac (Aujoulat et al. 2001) and Rouffignac (Plassard 1999) to the list.

Portable art is no less famous for the same periods in France. In the course of the XIXth century, major discoveries were made in several sites such as Le Mas d’Azil, Gourdan, Brassempouy, Laugerie. Other top sites were excavated in the XXth century (Isturitz, La Vache, Enlene, La Marche) with thousands of engraved or carved objects. Mobiliary art is just mentioned here as the purpose of this paper will mainly be rock art (about mobiliary art see Clottes (ed.) 1990).

Geographical location


Obviously, rock art locations heavily depend upon the presence (or absence) of caves and shelters. However, areas which one might have thought favourable on that account, such as Languedoc, Roussillon, Provence or again the valleys and causses in the south of Quercy and Aveyron have few or no painted or engraved sites. Cultural choices were a determining factor. Differential preservation is another one, as many caves and shelters may have been destroyed by all sorts of phenomena. For example, at the end of the last glaciation, the 115 meters rise of the sea flooded dozens of caves in the Mediterranean. Several could have had wall art. Only one was partly preserved (Cosquer).


Four main areas with Paleolithic rock art stand out. The most important one is that of Perigord, with more than sixty sites, ranging over the twenty thousand years during which wall art was done and including some of the most spectacular caves ever discovered for paintings (Lascaux, Rouffignac, Font-de-Gaume), engravings (Les Combarelles, Cussac) or low-relief sculpture (Le Cap Blanc).


Quercy (especially the Lot but also the Tarn and Tarn-et-Garonne) is a group in itself, immediately east and south of that of Dordogne. It includes more than thirty painted caves.

The major ones are Cougnac and Pech-Merle. The Pyrenees constitute a group equivalent to that of Quercy. Its thirty-odd painted or engraved caves are mostly Magdalenian, but a few are older (Gargas, some galleries in Les Trois-Freres and Portel). They are often to be found in small groupings, like the Basque caves in the Arbailles mountains in the west of the chain, the three Volp Caves, and the six caverns in the Tarascon-sur-Ariege Basin. Several are most important (Niaux, Les Trois-Freres, Le Tuc d’Audoubert, Le Portel, Gargas).



Four main areas with
Paleolithic rock art


Quercy (especially the Lot but also the Tarn and Tarn-et-Garonne) is a group in itself, immediately east and south of that of Dordogne. It includes more than thirty painted caves. The major ones are Cougnac and Pech-Merle. The Pyrenees constitute a group equivalent to that of Quercy. Its thirty-odd painted or engraved caves are mostly Magdalenian, but a few are older (Gargas, some galleries in Les Trois-Freres and Portel). They are often to be found in small groupings, like the Basque caves in the Arbailles mountains in the west of the chain, the three Volp Caves, and the six caverns in the Tarascon-sur-Ariege Basin. Several are most important (Niaux, Les Trois-Freres, Le Tuc d’Audoubert, Le Portel, Gargas).

The lower valley of the Ardeche used to be considered as a minor group - numbering about twenty caves - before the discovery of the Chauvet Cave, in itself a most exceptional site. The other caves and shelters with rock art are scattered in various places : the Cosquer Cave Provence by the Mediterranean, Pair-non-Pair in the Gironde, Le Placard, La Chaire-a-Calvin, Roc-de-Sers in the Charente, Le Roc-aux- Sorciers and its splendid sculptures in the Vienne, the two caves of Arcy-sur-Cure in Burgundy, the Mayenne Sciences cave in the Mayenne, one or two shelters in the Fontainebleau Forest and two other caves, including Gouy, in Normandy.

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