Font de Gaume Cave Art (c.14,000 BCE)
For a list of the earliest art in France
A major site of prehistoric art, bettered only by the caves at Lascaux, Chauvet and Altamira, Font de Gaume Cave was picked out by the renowned French archeologist Abbe Henri Breuil (1877-1961) as one of the six best examples of Franco-Cantabrian Cave art, in his seminal book "Four Hundred Centuries of Cave Art". Famous above all for its painted engravings, Font de Gaume is one of the great showcases of Magdalenian art from the final phase of the Upper Paleolithic. Indeed, with the exception of Lascaux, which is now closed to the public, Font de Gaume is considered to be the foremost site of polychrome cave painting in France. To date, some 250 engraved and painted figures have been identified, including bison, horses, mammoths, reindeer, woolly rhinoceroses, and a wolf. Its most famous images include: "The Licking Reindeer", "The Leaping Horse" and the "Bison frieze". Other works of Paleolithic art at Font de Gaume include a variety of abstract signs, several hand stencils, painted images of female genitalia and at least one item of prehistoric sculpture. To understand the chronology of Paleolithic engraving and painting, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 2.5 million BCE).
The cave of Font de Gaume is located in the Vezere valley near Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil, in the Dordogne department of south-west France. Neighbouring caves include Abri du Poisson (whose art dates to 23,000 BCE); Abri de Laussel (23,000 BCE); Abri de la Madeleine (20,000 BCE); Lascaux Cave (17,000 BCE); Laugerie Haute (14,000 BCE); Rouffignac Cave ("Cave of the hundred mammoths") (14,000 BCE); Cap Blanc rock shelter (13,000 BCE); and Les Combarelles Cave (12,000 BCE).
Although the Font de Gaume Cave has been known about for centuries, its parietal art wasn't discovered until 1901, when Denis Peyrony (1869-1954) - the renowned French expert in the art of the Perigord - first saw its paintings (the first known Stone Age painting in the Perigord province), a few days after seeing the petroglyphs at the nearby cave of Les Combarelles in the company of Henri Breuil. Breuil himself began his surveys of Font de Gaume's art in 1903. From 1958 to 1964, a number of successful excavations were conducted at the cave by Andre Leroi-Gourhan (1911-86), P.Daubisse, C.Barriere, A.Roussot, and D.Vialou. From 1966 to 1968 more investigations were carried out by F. Prat, who was the fist to uncover the famous Bison Frieze in 1966. Up to then, the paintings had been masked by a layer of grey calcite that had rendered the images almost invisible. As it is, a good number of the cave's pictures have only been discovered in recent decades, although many of them remain hidden behind layers of calcite, and are visible only with the aid of a UV or IR light.
Archeological evidence (including flints chisels, scrapers, blades) shows that Stone Age humans were present in the vestibule of Font de Gaume from about 45,000 BCE and continued a sporadic occupation there on and off until about 10,000 BCE. The deeper interior shows no sign of human occupation. At present, the earliest art dates to about 14,000 BCE, although individual markings might well date as far back as Aurignacian art (before 25,000 BCE).
The Font de Gaume sanctuary is of medium depth, its paintings and engravings extending along a narrow gallery, about 130 metres in length onto which open small rooms and two lateral passages. About 250 animal figures have been found so far, many of which are associated with signs.
The cave art at Font de Gaume features more than 200 polychrome images featuring depictions of 82 bison, 45 horses and 29 mammoths, 18 cervids (including some reindeer), 8 bovids, 4 ibex, 2 woolly rhinoceroses, 1 feline and 1 wolf. The cave's natural contours have been exploited to give the paintings the maximum three-dimensional quality, while the use of black outlines over engraved drawings also adds to the relief effect. Abstract signs include 4 handprints, 5 tectiformes, 1 oval, 2 quadrangular signs, and 1 semi-circle.
It is also worth remembering that Font de Gaume's galleries would have been in complete darkness during Paleolithic times, so artists would have worked entirely by the light of primitive torches or lamps. Also, unlike (say) the Lascaux Cave paintings and the Chauvet Cave paintings, all of which were sealed off for millennia by rockfalls, Font de Gaume's pictures have been vulnerable to weathering, human interference and considerable deposits of calcite left by dripping water.
Most of the cave art is located on both sides of the narrow passageway which runs the length of the cave. The first part of the passage, leading up to the crossroads with the right-hand gallery, and known as the "Grande Galerie des Fresques", is particularly rich in rock engravings of animals, mostly bison, painted over in red and black. Outlines are typically painted black with the body filled in with red ochre. On the left side of the passage are several abstract symbols (two dotted red H-shaped signs), followed by several engraved mammoths superimposed over a big red bison, then a 2-metre long bison on top of which are two tectiforms and a single small engraving of a mammoth. After this comes two magnificent reindeer facing each other, their antlers and contours painted in red and black. Beneath the reindeer are two red tectiform signs.
Finally, just before the crossroads is the famous picture of the "Licking Reindeer". A standing male reindeer, with big black antlers, bends forward to lick the forehead of a smaller kneeling female, painted in red ochre. The sensitive picture of the tongue brushing the forehead is deftly engraved, and imbues the scene with a depth of tenderness that is rarely encountered in Stone Age art, no matter how life-like the image.
The right hand gallery, which enters the long gallery at a spot known as the "crossroads", contains the famous painting of the black "Leaping Horse". The natural contours of the rock have been incorporated by the artist into the picture. The rear limb and tail of the horse are implied by a concretion, the curve of the belly by the shape of the flowstone. In addition, the gallery yielded an item of mobiliary art - the carving of a horse's head on an animal bone.
Returning to the crossroads and continuing along the second part of the main narrow passage, all the parietal decoration is on the left hand side. First, there is the extraordinary Bison Frieze, discovered in 1966. It features five bison - 3 males and 2 females - beautifully rendered with finely engraved outlines, bodies painted in black-brown and red, viewed against a backdrop of yellow limestone concretions.
The frieze is followed by a small chamber set into the wall, known as the Chamber of the Bison (Salle des bisons). Inside, the ceiling and walls are beautifully decorated with 13 bison, depicted in a bewildering array of positions. After this comes a variety of painted animal figures - including aurochs, black bison, woolly rhinoceroses and horses - and a strange outline of a human head.
Stylistically, according to Leroi-Gourhan, Font de Gaume's paintings and rock engravings belong to Style III (18,000-14,000 BCE) and Style IV (13,000-10,000 BCE), corresponding to a period spanning Solutrean as well as Magdalenian art. It is possible, however, that some markings (such as the hand stencils) will prove to be older when scientifically dated.
Here is a short list of the most celebrated French caves that contain Paleolithic engravings, paintings and sculpture.
Castanet Engravings (35,000 BCE)
Cave (c.25,000 BCE)
Cave Engravings (25,000 BCE)
Cave Art (24,000 BCE)
Cave Art (c.23,000 BCE)
Cave (17,200 BCE)
Cave (17,000 BCE)
Freres Cave (13,000 BCE)
For more details of Stone Age painting and engraving in France, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF STONE AGE