d'Audoubert Bison Reliefs (c.13,500 BCE)
Era: A Summary
art, the term "Magdalenian" refers to a late period of Upper
Paleolithic art and culture,
named after the type site "La Madeleine", a rock shelter at
Plazac in the Dordogne. Magdalenian tool culture is best known for its
denticulated microliths, as well as its uniserial and biserial projectile
points. Nicknamed the "Age of the Reindeer" in 1875 by Edouard
Lartet and Henry Christy, the archeologists who first investigated the
type site, Magdalenian parietal art is
exemplified by the Lascaux cave paintings
in the French Dordogne, the Altamira
cave paintings in Cantabria, Spain, and the Font
de Gaume Cave paintings in the Perigord. An important influence on
Magdalenian rock art was the climate. To begin
with, Magdalenian man lived as a hunter-gatherer, living off the herds
of reindeer on the continental tundra, just outside the ice pack. Then,
between about 13,000 and 10,000 BCE, the Ice Age came to an end and a
period of global warming began. This precipitated the extinction of certain
ice age megafauna, such as the mammoth and the woolly rhinoceros, and
the disappearance northwards of the reindeer herds. All this had a hugely
damaging effect on Magdalenian civilization, which proved unable to adjust.
Already, well before this, Franco-Cantabrian
cave art had begun to run out of steam, as new painters and sculptors
found themselves unable to maintain the innovation of their predecessors.
Around the start of the Holocene epoch (10,000 BCE), Magdalenian culture
was superceded by two other microlithist cultures: the "Azilian"
in Spain and southern France, and the "Sauveterrian", in northern
France and Germany. With Neolithic civilizations on the horizon, it wouldn't
be long before ancient art began to decorate
the tombs and cities of Antiquity instead of the caves and rock shelters
of Paleolithic man.
Art: History, Characteristics
The Magdalenian era witnessed the full-flowering
of cave painting, most exquisitely in
the cave sanctuaries of Lascaux and Altamira, which are both noted for
their large polychrome murals and
decorated ceilings. Perhaps this was because they had a solid tradition
of cave art to follow - after all several caves
from this period contain large quantities of paintings and rock
engravings superimposed several times over. Or maybe it was because
many of their galleries were illuminated by daylight. Whatever the reason,
Magdalenian painters used colour
pigments to a far greater extent than their Aurignacian, Gravettian
or Solutrean predecessors, and applied them with a new "spray-painting"
technique. Other beautifully decorated rock shelters included those at
Font-de-Gaume, Niaux, Les Trois Freres, Les Combarelles, Rouffignac, Ebbou
and Le Gabillou.
During the Middle Magdalenian, there appears
several advanced examples of prehistoric sculpture
- in this case clay modellings - all created within four caves of the
Ariege Pyrenees: Bedeilhac, Labouiche, Le Tuc dAudoubert and Montespan.
The forms in the last two caves are best known: Tuc dAudoubert because
of its two outstanding bison reliefs; Montespan, because of its life-sized
clay statue of a bear.
In addition, like the Solutrean, the Magdalenian
culture was noted for its microlithic technology and functional crafts:
see, for instance the "Lortet Reindeer" (c.15,000 BCE), a tool
made from a reindeer antler, engraved with images of reindeer and fish,
discovered at the Lortet Rock Shelter, in the Hautes-Pyrenees, France.
But as well as these utilitarian items, Magdalenian craftsmen were for
their highly aesthetic, small-scale plastic
art, such as bracelets, pendants, necklaces, pins and other items
of jewellery art, made from reindeer
antlers, bone and ivory. They also made ivory
carvings and spatulars covered with fine figurative or geometrical
engravings. By the 11th millennium, however, a certain mannerism started
to appear in the decoration of thin slabs and objects in general: as at
La Madeleine, Teyjat, and Limeuil. This tendency became more widespread
during the millennium, culminating by 10,000 BCE in a marked drop in artistic
Note: The Magdalenian era was preceded
by the Solutrean era and succeeded by the Azilian/Sauveterrian. (For
more about the timeline of the Upper Paleolithic, see: Prehistoric
of Magdalenian Culture
Lascaux Cave (c.17,000-13,000
Famous for the "Hall of the Bulls" (actually, aurochs) with
its massive "Great Black Bull" and mysterious unicorn, and the
"Shaft of the Dead Man". Contains some of the most beautiful
decorative art of the
Note: Australian Bradshaw
paintings, produced in the Kimberley area, date to the same period
as Lascaux. Other contemporaneous aboriginal
art includes the Burrup Peninsula
rock engravings of the Pilbara and the Ubirr
rock paintings of the Northern Territory. These two traditions endured
throughout the Stone Age, although their earliest forms are estimated
to have occurred around 30,000 BCE.
Spila Pottery (c.15,500 BCE)
An independent Balkan tradition of ceramic art, centred on Korcula Island
off the coast of Croatia, which was established and developed over a period
of 2,500 years (15,500-13,000 BCE) before vanishing from the archeological
record. Noted for its finely made ceramic animal figures.
Altamira Cave (c.15,000 BCE)
Although now known to have been decorated by engravers and painters throughout
all four main cultures of the Upper Paleolithic era, from as early as
34,000 BCE, its showpiece polychrome pictures of bison were all created
by Magdalenian artists. Its recently dated abstract
signs represent some of the earliest
art in the history of cave painting.
Blanc Frieze (15,000 BCE)
The benchmark of Magdalenian rock carving, Cap Blanc is famous for its
13-metre long limestone frieze of relief sculpture, which includes images
of horses and bison, all carved into the contoured rear wall of the shelter.
The central horse is roughly 2 metres in length. The cave was also the
site of a rare, well preserved human grave.
Font-de-Gaume Cave Paintings
Discovered in 1901 near Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil in the Dordogne, the
shelter contains nearly 250 polychrome cave paintings and engravings,
including 80 images of bisons and 40 mammoths, plus a number of ideomorphs.
The most remarkable work is a frieze of five bison, whose three-dimensional
quality has been enhanced with shading under the belly and along the thighs,
executed in an utterly modern manner. The first cache of Stone
Age art to be uncovered in the Perigord province, it is, in terms
of the quality of its art, second only to Lascaux.
Cave Paintings (second phase, c.14,000 BCE)
Located close to Gourdon, in the Lot, the shelter contains charcoal
drawings and polychrome paintings of various herbivores - notably,
a beautiful picture of a large red ibex, placed so that the flowstone
on the wall imitates hair hanging from its belly - many of which were
drawn during an earlier phase of Gravettian culture c.25,000. The Magdalenian
art includes three human figures, thought to be wounded men, similar to
figures found at Pech Merle,
as well as some 50 hand stencils
and many fingerprints in black and red. Scholars believe the Gravettian
phase was artistically more significant.
Cave Art ("Cave of the hundred mammoths") (c.14,000
Rouffignac cave, also known as Miremont cave, is located in the French
commune of Rouffignac-Saint-Cernin-de-Reilhac in the Dordogne. The Rouffignac
cave complex is the most extensive prehistoric cave system in the Perigord,
with 5 miles of underground passageways, and more deeper levels still
to explore. The cave features more than 240 pictures, executed in the
form of engravings or black drawings. The most popular animal figure is
the mammoth (158 images), followed by the bison (28), horse (15), capricorn
(12), woolly rhinoceros (10) and cave bear (1). Unlike the pictures at
Lascaux and Font-de-Gaume, the ones at Rouffignac are monochrome. There
is also a quantity of symbols, including tectiforms and serpentiforms.
of Eliseevichi (14,000 BCE)
Discovered at a site in Bryansk Province, southwest of Moscow, it is unlike
any of the other Russian venuses, but it resembles the French Magdalenian
carving known as the Venus Impudique (14,000 BCE).
Bustillo Cave (14,000 BCE)
Located in the municipality of Ribadesella in the Principality of Asturias,
Spain, the cave is noted for its red and black paintings of animals, notably
in the Gallery of Horses ("Galeria de los Caballos").
Tuc d'Audoubert Bison Reliefs
Found in Tuc d'Audoubert cave, in the Haute Pyrenees, this extraordinary
pair of animals, a bison bull and cow in pre-mating mode, is one of the
oldest and most striking examples of prehistoric relief
sculpture. Only 2-feet long, eighteen inches high and about 4 inches
thick, the pair are modelled in clay, and appear to be resting on a rock.
The animals' jaws were shaped by the artist's fingernail and other finger
marks can be seen along the length of the composition. On the walls of
the cave are charcoal drawings, coloured paintings and engravings of bison
and other animals.
La Marche Cave Art (c.13,000
Discovered in 1937 near Lussac-les-Chateaux, in the department of Vienne,
western France, the cave contained some 155 painted engravings of human
heads and faces, carved onto limestone slabs that had been carefully arranged
on the floor. Some engravings even had items of clothing represented.
Although the legitimacy of the art has been 'accepted' by the French Prehistoric
Society and the French Ministry of Culture, its supposed Magdalenian origins
remain highly controversial and many experts doubt its authenticity for
two reasons: first, human figures are extremely rare in paleolithic cave
art - those that do exist are typically indistinct and lack any sort of
real detail; secondly, the slabs upon which the La Marche pictures were
engraved might have been carried into the cave later than the Magdalenian
Niaux Cave Drawings and Footprints
Excavated in 1906, Niaux cave is situated in the northern foothills of
the Pyrenees, close to Foix, and is one of the most impressive Magdalenian
galleries of cave paintings. In addition to its huge cathedral-like main
chamber known as "Salon Noir", it is noted for its unique series
of prehistoric 'footprints' left by children aged 8-12, and an older companion.
In addition, in one of the caves of the complex, now called Reseau
Clastres, archeologists found several beautifully executed charcoal
images, including an extremely rare drawing
of a weasel, executed by an obvious master-artist in 10 flawless strokes.
(See the weasel-shaped image in the Fumane
Cave paintings c.35,000 BCE.) The cave is also famous for its collection
of abstract art, which includes more
than a hundred red and black dots, dashes, bars and lines, some applied
with paint 'brushes', some with fingers. None have been deciphered. Many
of the other animal figures in the cave complex have been executed in
a very sophisticated manner. Throughout the galleries, Magdalenian artists
exploited the topography of the rock surfaces and the interplay of light
Freres Cave - Painting of the "Sorcerer" (13,000-12,000
Discovered in 1914, near Montesquieu-Avantes, in the Haute Pyrenees, close
to the Tuc d'Audoubert cave, it is best known for the parietal art of
one of its deepest chambers, known as the Sanctuary. It features nearly
300 engraved figures of horses, bison, ibex, stags, reindeer, and mammoths,
along with two therianthropes (part-human, part-animal figures). But the
Sanctuary's most famous figure painting
(painted and engraved) is a small composition known as the "Sorcerer"
or "Horned God". Consisting of a human with the features of
several different animals, it looks down on the herd of animal figures
from a height of 13 feet above the floor. The scholar Abbe Henri Breuil,
whose sketch of the Sorcerer was the original cause of its fame, concluded
that the painting represented a shaman or magician, an interpretation
to which most scholars largely adhere. At any rate, the consensus among
Magdalenian archeologists is, that the Sorcerer was a cult figure of great
ritualistic significance to the group or community who used the cave.
The idea of the Sanctuary as a sacred place is borne out by its remote
interior location inside the cave, and by the existence of a second sacred
chamber, known as the Chapel of the Lioness. This features a life-sized
engraving of a lioness on a natural "altar" surrounded by votive
objects in the form of animal teeth, shells, and flints. See also: Religious
Art (700,000 BCE - present).
of Engen/Petersfels (c.13,000 BCE)
One of several tiny stylized female figurines carved out of semi-precious
jet stone (Lignite), discovered in the 1920s at the important Petersfels
site, near Engen, Germany. Similar to the Venus of Monruz-Neuchatel (10,000
Cave Paintings (c.12,500 BCE)
Also known as the Shulgan-Tash Cave, this extensive network of underground
chambers in Burzyansky Region, Bashkortostan, is best-known for its red
ochre paintings of mammoths and horses.
Combarelles Cave Engravings (c.12,000 BCE)
First discovered in the early 1890s, near Les Eyzies de Tayac in the Dordogne,
this narrow (1-metre wide) cave contains 600800 drawings of animals
- mostly finely engraved, with a minority outlined in black - which include
some exceptionally lifelike representations of reindeer - cleverly rendered
so that they appear to be drinking from the cave's stream - horses, lions,
cave bears, and mammoths. Traces of colour pigments suggest that the engraved
pictures were originally painted. (For details, see: Prehistoric
Colour Palette.) In addition, the cave also contains a remarkable
collection of over 50 anthropomorphic figures, as well as a number of
indecipherable tectiforms (house-like ideomorphs). Due to the quantity
and quality of its art, scholars see Les Combarelles as one of the major
sanctuaries of Magdalenian culture, and a key indicator of the cultural
maturity of the late paleolithic era.
Cave Engravings (11,000 BCE)
Discovered in a rock shelter at Mount Pellegrino near Palermo, in Sicily,
they include a sensational ensemble of human figures involved in some
kind of ritualistic or sacrificial rite. Two bound victims are being guided
by two shamans, while watched by a dancing crowd.
of Monruz-Neuchatel (c.10,000 BCE)
Prehistoric fertility symbol and pendant, carved out of jet stone; it
is the oldest art in Switzerland and ranks among the world's oldest items
of jewellery art. Discovered in 1991 in the commune of Neuchatel.
See also: Oldest
Stone Age Art: Top 100 Artworks.
For more information about paleolithic
art and culture, please see the following:
Enigmatic Stone Age fertility statuettes of obese females.
(290,000 - 4,000 BCE)
Cupules and other rock scratchings from around the world.