Inora Newsletter #44


On the 11th of June 1967 Roger Bouillon and his team of cavers from the Mayenne-Sciences Association made a surprise discovery of prehistoric representations in the cave which now carries their name (Bouillon 1984). It is the westernmost decorated cave in France and is part of the group of eight decorated caves or shelters attributed to the Upper Paleolithic north of the Loire. This group contains the caves of Gouy and Orival in Normandy, Boutigny, Le Croc-Marin and Les Trois Pignons in Essone, as well as the caves of Le Cheval and La Grande Grotte d’Arcy-sur-Cure in Burgundy. To these must be now added the newly-discovered Church Hole Cave in England.

The Mayenne-Sciences cave opens onto the “canyon” of Saulges, a 1.5 km long karst massif, crossed by the Erve, a tributary of the Sarthe. The site is actually spread over three communes (Thorigné-en-Charnie, Saint-Pierre-sur-Erve and Saulges). Some thirty cavities have been noted of which only ten or so were excavated at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century (Allard 1983). It is likely that Neanderthals used the site, as there is Mousterian material, their associated culture in France, present. However, the cultures most represented are those of modern man: a fairly early Aurignacian (around 30,000 BP) and a middle Solutrean with large laurel-leaf-shaped blades (around 20,000 BP). Magdalenian III-IV (between around 13,000 and 11,000 BP) as well as Azilian (around 9,000) have been reported. The presence of Gravettian (around 29,000 BP and Upper Solutrean shouldered points (around 18,000 BP) is still under debate.

Since 1998 a research programme on “Paleolithic Occupation of the Erve Valley”, lead by Jean-Laurent Monnier, has been organised by UMR 6566 of the CNRS of Rennes-1 University. In particular, there has been a second excavation in the Grotte de Rochefort by Stéphane Hinguant (UMR 6566 of CNRS/INRAP). It is as part of this programme that we have been led to restudy the Mayenne-Sciences Cave for a doctoral thesis. A recent monograph (Pigeaud, 2004) has thrown fresh light on this cave.

The cave is small with four chambers in a row, around 60 metres long following the cavers’ route, but only 50 metres from what was probably the original Paleolithic entrance. The main line of march is in general horizontal. The visitor is nearly always upright, apart from certain points where he has to crawl or duck under large stalactite formations.

At present the cave has 59 representations: 16 figures (9 horses, 2 mammoths, 1 bison and 4 indeterminate), 19 signs, 12 undetermined lines and 12 red finger-marks: 3 fingers and 9 palms, thumbs or fingers close together, to which must be added 6 dubious cases whose anthropomorphic and/or Paleolithic character cannot be formally shown.

Fig. 1. Position of the site called the “Grottes de Saulges” where the Mayenne-Sciences cave can be found. After Colleter 2003.

The majority are black charcoal drawings. The animal style can be summed up as a synthetic figurative, with the figures shoown as a a simple silhouette in profile, with no extremities or eye, nor lip corners nor coat or hairs; in semi-twisted perspective for the bovid horns and the horses’ ears, flattened in front of the forelock. The lower belly line with distinct folds, the “staircase” mane, characterise horses which also have a “duck-beak” (this means that the rectilinear part of their mandible is sunken in such a way as to show the animal’s lip as the ‘tab’ of a duck’s beak). The signs are also relatively simple: there are 6 more elaborate ones either in the form of an incomplete ellipse, or in a triangle with rounded sides; this is a relatively common type, identified in the past in the El Castillo Cave in Spain.

Fig. 2. Click here to view Topography of the Mayenne-Sciences Cave and the Dérouine Porch. Positions of the permanent topographic sites. Drawn up by: S. Tribout, Fl. Métayer, S. Langlois, P. Lecornet, ESGT, P. Bonic,

Fig. 3. (left) Main Panel. General view. From left to right and from top to bottom: Oval triangular sign 5, Horses 6 and 7, Mammoth 8, Angularsign 9, Equid 10 hind-quarters and Horsehead E. Photo Hervé Paitier. Fig. 4. (right) Main panel. Horse 7 facing Mammoth 8. Synthetic copy: notethe close overlapping of the two figures as well as the clever balancing
of the two body masses. The dotted lines show the dispersion of the pigment. The grey on the Number 7 horse’s neck suggests a Palaeolithic rubbing done as a correction, that of the lumbar region of Mammoth 8 a more modern modification. The scale gives the horizontal plane. Copy Romain Pigeaud.

Fig. 5. (left) A. Bison 14. B. Horned anthropomorph (?) L. Synthetic copies. The scale bar gives the horizontal plane. Copies Romain Pigeaud. Fig. 6. (right) Position of the samples taken from Horse 15 and carbon 14-dated. The scale bar gives the horizontal plane. Copy Romain Pigeaud.

Fig. 7. (left) Horse 15, sign 15a and finger mark D9. Note how the figure is positioned in relation with the wall’s fissures and volume. Photo Jean-Dominique Lajoux. Fig. 8. (right) Horse 16. Note the “wild” mane. Photo Jean-Dominique Lajoux.

It is difficult to place the Mayenne-Sciences Cave in place and in time. Apart from the Cure Valley caves in Burgundy (Aurignacian-Gravettian), all other rock art evidence in a 400 km radius can be attributed to the Magdalenian (between around 17,000 and 10,000 years BP), in a more naturalistic style with more body details. The mobiliary art and decoration are often uncertain origin, with no stratigraphic context and poorly documented (Pigeaud 2003; Monnier et al. forthcoming).

Traditionally, the Mayenne-Sciences art has been linked to that of the oldest caves of the Quercy, such as Cougnac, Pech-Merle and Roucadour (Bouillon & Dams 1974). This comparison was then justified by the style of the animals, but there have since been two new arguments in its favour. First, the way of associating figures and digital imprints (Pigeaud 2005). In particular, though, it was confirmed by AMS dates from one of the horses (Pigeaud et al. 2003) which give two Gravettian dates: MS 2= 24,220±850 BP (Gif A 100 647) and MS 3= 24,900±360 BP (Gif A 100 645). The statistical margin of error here allows a link to the dates (Lorblanchet et al., 1995), given by a female megaloceros from Cougnac: 25,120±390 (Gif A 92425), and the second dotted horse from Pech-Merle: 24,640±390 (Gif A 95357).

Obviously, it is a little optimistic to talk about sites being relatively contemporary, purely on the basis of a few radiocarbon dates. More is needed to link sites over 500 km apart. With no “waystations” in-between it is impossible to go any farther with research for cultural affinities.The continuation of excavations in the Erve Valley as well as a study of the provenance of raw materials will enable the filling of the information gap left by the Mayence-Sciences drawings and engravings. We do not believe that Mayenne-Sciences is an isolated cave. We regularly carry out surveys in the Erve valley. It is certain that new decorated sites will appear to help link the Paleolithic art of Mayenne to other cultural provinces.


USM 103 – UMR 5198 du CNRS. Département de Préhistoire du Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle. Institut de Paléontologie Humaine, 1, rue René Panhard 75013 Paris.


ALLARD M., 1983. — État de la question sur le Paléolithique supérieur en Mayenne : les grottes de Thorigné-en- Charnie et de Saint-Pierre-sur-Erve. Bulletin de la Société Préhistorique Française, t. 80, fasc. 10-12, p. 322-328.
BOUILLON R., 1984. — La Grotte Mayenne-Sciences. In Collectif. — L’Art des Cavernes. Atlas des grottes ornées Paléolithiques françaises, Ministère de la Culture et Imprimerie nationale, Paris, p. 567-571.
BOUILLON R. & DAMS L., 1974. — Les figurations rupestres de la grotte Mayenne-Sciences à Saulges (Mayenne), Bulletin de la Société Préhistorique Ariège-Pyrénées, t. LXXI , p. 65-87.
LORBLANCHET M., CACHIER H. & VALLADAS H., 1995. — Datation des chevaux ponctués du Pech-Merle, INORA, 12, p. 2-3.
MONNIER J.-L. et alii (à paraître). — Art mobilier et parures sur matières dures animales : collections anciennes et découvertes récentes dans le Paléolithique supérieur de la vallée de l’Erve (Mayenne). Mémoire de la Société Préhistorique Française, Actes de la table ronde d’Angoulême, 28-30 mars 2003.
PIGEAUD R., 2005. — Un Art de traces ? Spontanéités et préméditations sur les parois des grottes ornées paléolithiques. In D. Vialou, J. Renault-Miskovsky & M. Patou-Mathis (dir.). — Comportements des hommes du Paléolithique supérieur en Europe, Territoires et milieux, p. 177-191 [ERAUL n° 111].
PIGEAUD R., 2004 (avec la collaboration de M. Bouchard et d’E. Laval). — La Grotte ornée Mayenne-Sciences (Thorigné-en-Charnie, Mayenne) : un exemple d'art pariétal d'époque gravettienne en France septentrionale. Gallia Préhistoire, vol. 46, p. 1-154.
PIGEAUD R., 2003. — Le «Galet au Glouton» de la collection Chaplain-Duparc (Musée de Tessé, Le Mans, Sarthe) : nouvelle étude. Paléo, n° 15, p. 263-272.
PIGEAUD R. et alii, 2003. — Deux dates carbone 14 en spectrométrie de masse par accélérateur (SMA) pour une représentation pariétale de la grotte ornée Mayenne-Sciences (Thorigné-en-Charnie, Mayenne) : émergence d’un art gravettien en France septentrionale ? C.-R. Palevol, 2, p. 161-168.
SALBERT J. (dir.), 1984. — La Mayenne, des origines à nos jours. Saint-Jean-d’Angély, Éd. Bordessoules, 430 p.

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