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The swimming reindeer; a masterpiece of Ice Age art
2010 Apr 26


Jill Cook, Curator of European Prehistory at the British Museum and member of the Bradshaw Foundation Advisory Board, turns the spotlight on a masterpiece of Ice Age art.

The image above shows the tip of a mammoth tusk carved as two reindeer, depicted one behind the other, around 13,000 years ago, from the rock shelter of Montastruc, France.

The swimming reindeer; a masterpiece of Ice Age art, part of Asahi Shimbun Displays ‘Objects in Focus’, has recently been on view in Room 3 in the British Museum. The exhibit attracted 79,000 visitors.


First published in the British Museum Magazine Winter 2009

While building the railway from Montauban to Rodez, north of Toulouse, France, in 1866, engineer Peccadeau de l’Isle spent his spare time digging beneath a rock overhang below the castle of Bruniquel. Here, at a site called Montastruc, just above the bank of the river Aveyron, he got lucky. As well as finding the expected flint tools and animal bones, he discovered two reindeer carved from mammoth ivory which together form the largest known and most remarkable masterpiece of late Ice Age art.

The reindeer, now known to be about 13,000 years old, were published and first put on public exhibition as two separate pieces at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867. They caused a sensation and were recognised as three-dimensional figurative art older than any such sculpture known
from the presumed cradles of art history – Egypt, Greece or Rome.

Furthermore, the detailed representations of animals now extinct in Western Europe offered irrefutable evidence of an earlier world of Ice Age hunters, dating from long before human history was previously thought to have begun.

[Above] Part of a weighted antler spear-thrower with the carving of a mammoth, c.13,000 years ago, from the rock shelter of Montastruc, France.

Peccadeau de l’Isle sold the finds from his excavations to the British Museum in 1887, but it was not until 1904 that a visiting French archaeologist, the abbé Breuil, realised that the two reindeer joined together. The quality of the composition became even more apparent. A male reindeer follows a smaller female. Their heads are up, nostrils flared, ears back and their antlers rest along their backs. The attitude of their heads and the way their legs are extended suggests the animals are swimming.

The female reindeer is worked in extraordinary detail so the markings on her face and coat, as well as her eyelashes, ribs and nipples are defined. She is also marked with ten oval incisions on each side. These were the last marks to be drawn. From the bottom of each one a trail of open, asymmetric, V-shaped incisions made by alternate strokes of the engraving tool runs down to her abdomen. These do not represent a natural characteristic of the animal and their significance is obscure.

The male’s antlers and the shading of the female’s coat represent the animals as they appear in autumn and winter when reindeer are most valuable to hunters who use every part of the animal for food, clothing and equipment. Autumn is also the time when reindeer migrate and cross rivers, followed or awaited by their human predators. This could suggest that the piece was made to mark the passage of a certain time of year or, as journeys bring adventures and inspire real or imagined stories, it might be the visual representation of an oral, perhaps even spiritual, tradition.

Alternatively, the attention to detail on the female and the curious marking of her sides might suggest totemic, animistic and shamanic meanings or the hunter’s interest in a particular animal. For us, the skilful carving and naturalism of the animals represent an extraordinary work of art.

The composition takes advantage of the tapering form and curvature of the tip of a tusk which, judging from its size, was probably from either a young or a female mammoth. No mammoth bones are recorded from the site, but it is clear that these animals were not extinct when the reindeer were made because at Montastruc Peccadeau de l’Isle also found a unique spear-thrower carved in the form of a mammoth and made from reindeer antler. Unlike the reindeer, the mammoth is not naturalistically depicted but might almost be described as an ingenious caricature utilising the shape of the antler to meet the required form of the weapon. That two such remarkable and stylistically distinctive works should be found together in a site alongside naturalistic, engraved animal drawings on bone – as well as complex overlays of animals and symbols engraved on stone slabs – reveals the diversity of the artistic mind outside the painted caves at the end of the last Ice Age.

Jill Cook, British Museum

A new publication 'The Swimming Reindeer' by Jill Cook will be available in May 2010 at the British Museum. It is the first book to be devoted entirely to this extraordinary sculpture. It details its discovery and dating, and explores the artistic techniques used to create it, its potential meanings and importance.

The reindeer have also been one of the most popular items in the first batch of the 100 objects in the BM/BBC 'A History of the World in 100 Objects' and a podcast is available on the BBC website 'Ice Age Art makes history'.

Publication details: 'The Swimming Reindeer' published in the British Museum Objects in Focus series. ISBN 978 0 7141 2821 4.
£5 paperback. 56 pages, 26 colour, 6 black and white illustrations.
Tel: 0207 323 1234
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