Le Placard Cave (17,500 BCE)
An important site of prehistoric abstract signs (aviforms), dating back to the era of Solutrean art, Placard Cave (Grotte du Placard) lies on the right bank of the River Tardoire, a few kilometres from La Rochefoucauld, in the Charente. It is traditionally grouped together with three other archeological sites of Franco-Cantabrian cave art - all of whom contain similar bird-like abstract symbols - namely, Pech Merle Cave (25,000 BCE) near Cabrerets, and Cougnac Cave (23,000 BCE) near Gourdon, both in the Lot, and Cosquer Cave (25,000 BCE) at Calanque de Morgiou near Marseilles. Because Placard Cave is the only one of the four rock shelters whose rock art has been directly dated (to 17,500-18,000 BCE), the strange aviforms it contains are now known as "Placard-type signs", even though the earliest art of this type was created at Pech Merle, during the Gravettian. To see how Le Placard Cave fits into the chronology of Paleolithic culture, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 2.5 million BCE).
Placard Cave (Grotte du Placard, originally called Grotte de Rochebertier) is a big rock shelter carved into a middle-Jurassic limestone cliff overlooking the River Tardoire, close to the hamlet of Rochebertier in the commune of Vilhonneur. The site is 13 kilometres upstream from La Rochefoucauld and 30 kilometres east of Angouleme. Other neighbouring sites of prehistoric art in the Charente include: Cave of the Face (c.25,000 BCE) also at Vilhonneur, and Roc-de-Sers Cave (17,200 BCE), the great benchmark of Solutrean relief sculpture, located near Gachedou.
The entrance to Placard Cave, situated about 17 metres above the river, has a wide porch leading into a large chamber roughly trapezoidal in shape, measuring 17 metres in length, about 9 metres in width, and 10 metres in height. Two narrow galleries lead off the chamber to the right, while another more important one (1.5 metres wide, 27 metres long) leads off to the left. A lower network of passageways is periodically flooded by river floods.
The cave was discovered around the middle of the 19th century (dates vary), and has been investigated many times since. The scientist JL Fermond was the first to examine the site, in 1864. After him, there were excavations by A. de Maret (1878-1890), the landowner of Placard. Interested solely in making a profit by digging out top-quality artifacts, no matter what damage was done in the process, he was responsible for a series of extensive and disastrous excavations which caused significant and irreparable damage to the cave and its contents.
After de Maret came professionals like G Chauvet (1891-1910), Adrien de Mortillet (1906), Daniel (1942), and J Roche (1958-1963).
Back in 1906, Adrien de Mortillet had described Le Placard as the most interesting cave to have been explored in France. In 1966, the prehistorian Philip Smith still considered the cave to be the most important prehistoric site north of the Vezere river (in the Dordogne).
Amazingly, although some high quality cave painting was found during the early investigations, it wasn't until Louis Duport excavated Placard in 1987, that the cave's exceptional rock engravings were discovered. [Note: the archeologist Daniel, who searched for any sign of engravings in 1942, could find only two unimpressive examples and concluded that the medium was not well developed at Placard!] Duport's archeological report, published in 1988, stimulated a revival campaign for the Placard site, organized by Duport himself, Jean Clottes and Valerue Feruglio, all of whom collaborated on a series of excavations of the new galleries (1990-95). These investigations proved that much of the shelter had originally been decorated with paintings as well as engravings.
Human occupation at Placard dates from the Middle and Upper Paleolithic, and includes deposits and artifacts from the Mousterian era, a very significant sequence of Solutrean, then Badegoulian, and all phases of the Magdalenian. The oldest art at Placard dates to the Solutrean (17,500-18,000 BCE). This was confirmed by radiocarbon dating of an animal bone lodged above the engravings, which provided a minimum age range of 17,500-17,970 BCE.
The first cave art discovered Le Placard consisted of some outstanding animal paintings from the period of Magdalenian art ( Leroi-Gourhan's Styles I-III), which, according to prehistorian Henri Breuil (1877-1961), were incomparable. The landowner de Maret found a particularly striking profile image of a reindeer, also dating to the Magdalenian.
Everything changed in July 1988, however, when Louis uncovered a decorated frieze of animal figures and abstract signs. Consisting mainly of horses, plus some incomplete ibexes, deer and a few unidentified animals, found engraved on the rear wall of the shelter, it also featured seven distinct aviform-shaped signs, seemingly positioned most carefully in relation to the positions of the animals. A further five aviforms have since been uncovered.
Prior to these discoveries at Le Placard the only surviving examples of this type of "bird-shaped" or "brace-shaped" aviform sign were in the sanctuaries of Pech Merle and Cougnac in Quercy - about 165 and 120 kilometres away, respectively. [Note: there are 3 specimens at Pech Merle and 11 specimens at Cougnac, plus one possible specimen at Cosquer Cave much further away on the Mediterranean coast near Marseilles.]
Although dated to the era of Gravettian art (25,000-20,000 BCE), the earlier designs in the Lot are so similar to those at Placard that they clearly indicate a cultural link between the two areas.
As described by prehistorian Jean Clottes, the aviform symbols typically consist of four elements, plotted as follows: the vertical rectangle, the horizontal band, plus the two underlying appendages.
But there are some important differences. In contrast to Pech Merle and Cougnac, the signs in Le Placard are not only engraved (except for two painted ones), but are always found in a horizontal position, and in a part of the cave lit by daylight, though not limited to a single panel. In both Pech Merle and Cougnac, the signs are found on a single panel, in areas deep within the interior of the cave.
Other creative work at Le Placard features mobiliary art, including a number of ivory carvings (mammoth tusk), reindeer antlers engraved with human or animal figures, and some sherds of ancient pottery (mostly Magdalenian); plus a few items of prehistoric sculpture (reliefs). Many items of Stone Age art recovered from Le Placard Cave are on display at the National Archeological Museum at St-Germain-en-Laye, near Paris.
For more examples of French Paleolithic caves and rock shelters containing abstract signs and symbols, see these articles.
Cave (c.30,000 BCE)
Cave (c.25,000 BCE)
des Deux-Ouvertures (c.26,500 BCE)
Cave (25,000 BCE)
Cave (23,000 BCE)
du Poisson (23,000 BCE)
Cave (17,000 BCE)
Cave (c.24,000 BCE)
d'Audoubert Cave (c.13,500 BCE)
For more details of Upper Paleolithic cave art in France, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF STONE AGE