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Les Combarelles in the Dordogne

Les Combarelles in the Dordogne

The little valley of Les Combarelles cave

Photo: Sémhur (2009a)


Les Combarelles in the Dordogne
With more than 600 images on its walls, most of them engraved, the cave of Combarelles is considered to be one of the major sanctuaries of Magdalenian culture. This extraordinary site was discovered in 1901, and was quickly authenticated by L. Capitan, H. Breuil and D. Peyrony.

Beyond the entrance of the cave, excavated by Emile Riviere in 1892, two galleries diverge. The largest one, now open to the public, is a narrow and winding passage, following a zig zag pattern for more than 240 metres.

The animals represented are finely engraved, or (more rarely) drawn in black outlines. A diverse fauna is represented, including horses, reindeer, ibex, mammoths, rhinoceros, bears, lions and a few bisons and aurochs. The identification of these often superimposed animal engravings is facilitated by their naturalistic style. This naturalism is in contrast to the exceptional assemblage of 52 anthropomorphic figures, which are more schematic, and the occasional signs (mostly tectiforms). The entire ensemble of images is attributed to the late Magdalenian, about 13 000 years ago.

Text: Sign outside Les Combarelles

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2008




Les Combarelles in the Dordogne

In front of the caves is an old plastered stone farmhouse, nestled under the rock overhang. It is by no means the first such dwelling, as can be seen by the lead sheet let into the cliff above it formerly providing weather protection to the roof, from water run off down the cliff, of a larger structure.

The farmhouse now provides shelter for tour guides, and a display area.

Source: Display in the Les Combarelles reception area.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2008




Les Combarelles in the Dordogne

A minor cave entrance, not open to the public.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2008




Les Combarelles in the Dordogne Les Combarelles in the Dordogne

(Left) Entrance to the galleries of Les Combarelles, with Les Combarelles I on the left, and Les Combarelles II on the right.

(Right) Locked steel door giving access to tours of the engraved galleries of Les Combarelles I. Les Combarelles II is not open to the public.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2008




Les Combarelles in the Dordogne

Plan of Les Combarelles.

Photo: Bosinski et al. (2001)



Les Combarelles in the Dordogne

The plan of the images shown in their position in the cave. Note that not all the images are depicted in this schematic view.

Source: Capitan et al. (1924)



Les Combarelles in the Dordogne



Entry to Les Combarelles.

Photo: Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum)




Les Combarelles in the Dordogne



The front of a feline, facing right. It may well be that the back of the animal never existed. This fine engraving shows a round nostril and a well marked mouth. The eye is indicated by a small flat stone. The area has been calcified, and this may well have helped preserve the image.

Photo: Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum)
Text: http://www.culture.gouv.fr/culture/conservation/fr/grottes/Pageshtm/CombarellesI.htm




Les Combarelles in the Dordogne



Close up of the feline head. The wall appears to have had subsequent calcification.

Photo: Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum)




Les Combarelles in the Dordogne



The feline above is labelled as number 52 in the 12 metre long series of drawings by Capitan and Breuil (1902a) (see the rest of these images below).

Source: Display in Les Combarelles reception area
Photo: Don Hitchcock 2008




Les Combarelles in the Dordogne



This is an engraving known as 'reindeer drinking', and is one of the best known of the cave. The animal is complete; the back is well marked, the rump is rounded, and the hind legs are marked. The antlers are huge, with wide, fingered webs, bent at right angles to the front.

Photo and text: http://www.culture.gouv.fr/culture/conservation/fr/grottes/Pageshtm/CombarelleRenneBuvant.htm




Les Combarelles in the Dordogne Les Combarelles in the Dordogne

Another version of the reindeer drinking, and a closeup of the head.

Photo: Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum)




Les Combarelles in the Dordogne

The engraving of the drinking reindeer on the right, and another which may be of a rhinoceros on the left.

Photo: Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum)




Les Combarelles in the Dordogne



Engraving of a horse, the best represented animal in the engravings.

Photo: Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum)




Les Combarelles in the Dordogne horse head



This horse head is beautifully proportioned, by an artist with talent and a lifetime spent studying horses.

Photo: Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum)




Les Combarelles in the Dordogne



The horse head above is part of the complete horse labelled as number 18 in the 12 metre long series of drawings by Capitan and Breuil (1902a) (see the rest of these images below).

Source: Display in Les Combarelles reception area
Photo: Don Hitchcock 2008




Les Combarelles in the Dordogne deer



Deer with a long neck.

Photo: Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum)




Les Combarelles in the Dordogne



The above deer is labelled as number 113/114 in the 12 metre long series of drawings by Capitan and Breuil (1902a) (see the rest of these images below).

Source: Display in Les Combarelles reception area
Photo: Don Hitchcock 2008




Les Combarelles in the Dordogne



The overwhelming impression when in Les Combarelles is how narrow the passages are.

In this photograph we can see the cables on the roof of the cave that are used to supply power for the lights.

Photo: Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum)




Les Combarelles in the Dordogne running horse



Horse running with a fluid movement, beautifully realised by the artist with just a few lines.

Photo: Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum)




Les Combarelles in the Dordogne



This appears to be a cartoon of a human face.

Photo: Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum)




Les Combarelles in the Dordogne



The face above is labelled as number 76 in the 12 metre long series of drawings by Capitan and Breuil (1902a) (see the rest of these images below).

Source: Display in Les Combarelles reception area
Photo: Don Hitchcock 2008




enigmatic horse or stag



Many of the images in Les Combarelles are enigmatic, but I believe I can see on the right the dorsal and ventral line of a horse or a stag, as well as its front legs.

Photo: Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum)




enigmatic horse or stag in context



The above image in context.

Photo: Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum)




right hand side



A close up of the right hand side of the image.

When seen in isolation like this, the engraving could almost be the outline of a human figure.

Photo: Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum)




rear of bison



This appears to be the hindquarters of a bison.

The engraving appears almost moulded into a bas relief in this photograph.

Photo: Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum)




deer



This appears to be an engraving of a deer, yet the tail is more like a horse.

Photo: Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum)




mammoth



Mammoth.

Photo: Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum)




mammoth



The mammoth above is number 69 in the drawings by Capitan and Breuil (1902a).

Photo: Capitan and Breuil (1902a).




unknown



I cannot recognise an animal in this image.

Photo: Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum)




horse horse



Horse, facing downwards to the left.

Photo: Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum)




unknown



This is the outline of a cave bear, facing to the left, with head down.

Photo: Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum)




unknown



The image is labelled number 47 in the drawings by Capitan and Breuil (1902a)

Photo: Capitan and Breuil (1902a)




unknown



There is the head of an unidentifiable animal at centre left in this image.

Photo: Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum)




unknown



I cannot recognise an animal in this image.

Photo: Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum)




unknown



Horse head and front legs.

Photo: Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum)




bison or aurochs



Aurochs head facing to the front.

Photo: Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum)




bison or aurochs



Deer head. The head is quite bulbous or cartoon-like.

Photo: Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum)




comb60102cysm

Les Combarelles in the Dordogne

Facsimile of part of the engraved walls.

Source: Display in the Les Combarelles reception area.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2008






Les Combarelles in the Dordogne

A display of some of the engravings in the cave system. These are sections of the 12 metre long 'ribbon' of drawings created by Capitan and Breuil (1902a)

Source: Display in the Les Combarelles reception area.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2008



Les Combarelles in the Dordogne

A display of some of the engravings in the cave system. These are sections of the 12 metre long 'ribbon' of drawings created by Capitan and Breuil (1902a)

Source: Display in the Les Combarelles reception area.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2008



Les Combarelles in the Dordogne



Monograph by Capitan, Breuil and Peyrony on Les Combarelles published in 1924 - by the serial number, the first such copy!

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2008




Les Combarelles in the Dordogne
Tools from Les Combarelles, photographed at the Musée national de Préhistoire aux Eyzies-de-Tayac

English: Prehistoric tools: scraper (top left); little blades (top); godet, a cup for painting (below). Found in Les Combarelles cave, Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, Dordogne, France. Upper Magdalenian, near 12 000 - 10 000 BP. These tools can be seen on display in the National Prehistory Museum in Les Eyzies-de-Tayac.

Français : Outils préhistoriques : Grattoir sur lame (en haut à gauche), lamelles (en haut), godet pour peinture (en bas). Trouvés à l'entrée de la grotte des Combarelles, Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, Dordogne, Aquitaine, France. Magdalénien supérieur, vers 12 000 - 10 000 ans avant nos jours. Photographiés au Musée national de Préhistoire aux Eyzies-de-Tayac.

Photo: Sémhur (2009b)



Sculptures of animals from the time of the artists of Les Combarelles

These finely made sculptures were in display cases in the reception area of Les Combarelles. I assume they were for sale, and I was impressed with their good proportions and detail. The artist is unknown.

Les Combarelles in the Dordogne
The sculpture of the mammoth is especially valuable because of the inclusion of a human figure at the same scale. Mammoths were the largest animals of the time in the area. They were smaller than an African elephant, about the same size as an Asian elephant, standing 3 metres high at the shoulder. Nevertheless they would have been a formidable prey to bring down. The meat and fat they carried, as well as their huge and thick hide would have made them very valuable to the people of the time. Bones and ivory could have been scavenged from mammoths which died a natural death.


Photo: Don Hitchcock 2008


Les Combarelles in the Dordogne

This Aurochs was particularly well fashioned. The Aurochs is the ancestor of modern cattle. Like most of the animals on display here, and depicted on the walls of Les Combarelles, it was a creature of the well grassed open plains and wide valleys, such as the Dordogne region in ice age times.


Photo: Don Hitchcock 2008


Les Combarelles in the Dordogne

The European Bison, like the Aurochs, were most often in herds, and the hunters would most likely have hunted this quarry in groups. Each species would have required different methods, and even different spears in some cases.


Photo: Don Hitchcock 2008


Les Combarelles in the Dordogne

The Cavebear, though nominally vegetarian, would have been a formidable adversary if it was disturbed, or if their young were endangered. Cavebears may well have been encountered by nomadic hunters returning to caves for ritual or painting purposes, since cavebears overwintered in caves, and there is plenty of evidence of cavebears in the area at the time.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2008


Les Combarelles in the Dordogne

The Wooly Rhinoceros would have been the most dangerous animal of all during those times. Often alone, it was well able to defend itself, and almost certainly had a very aggressive response to any approach by humans. It was probably given a wide berth at all times.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2008


Les Combarelles in the Dordogne

The Cave Lion was a huge animal. It was significantly larger than modern African lions. No doubt it was avoided where at all possible, as it would have regarded humans themselves as prey. A lone human would have had little chance against a Cave Lion.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2008




Les Combarelles in the Dordogne

An unpublished engraving from the walls of Les Combarelles.

Photo: Capitan and Breuil (1902b)




Les Combarelles in the Dordogne

An engraving of a bovid with a mane.

Photo: Capitan and Breuil (1902b)




Les Combarelles in the Dordogne

A reindeer in full flight.

Photo: Capitan and Breuil (1902b)




Les Combarelles in the Dordogne

An engraving of an ibex.

Photo: Capitan and Breuil (1902b)




Les Combarelles in the Dordogne

Two tectiform signs symmetrically placed. Between them, an engraving of a deer or antelope.

Photo: Capitan and Breuil (1902b)










Below is an important paper by Breuil and Capitan from 1902, in which they report some signs of domestication of horses in the Magdalenian.

Figures préhistoriques de la grotte des Combarelles (Dordogne)

Prehistoric figures from Les Combarelles in the Dordogne

Capitan and Breuil (1902a)

Translated by Don Hitchcock


In September 1902 we recognised on the walls of Les Combarelles 109 perfectly distinct figures, representing a series of engraved animals of various species, the entire animal or just the head alone.

We have represented all these animals on a strip which measures 12 metres long and 12 centimetres high, at about one tenth of the natural size, and we place these here for the eyes of the Academy, as well as 27 tracings of the principal figures.

These images engraved on the walls begin at 125 metres from the entrance.

The cave has the shape of a long winding corridor, with a height of 50 centimetres to two metres, and a width of 1 to 2 metres. They extend over a length of 100 meters on each side of the cave, almost to the end, which is 235 meters from the entrance.

Engraved sometimes deeply (4-5 mm) In the Cretaceous limestone, sometimes slightly more, sometimes enhanced with a stroke of black paint, these figures measure 25 centimetres to over a metre in length. Many are coated with a calcite coating measuring a few millimetres thick and acts as a glaze on the drawings, while in other points the calcite hides them completely.

The animals represented as entire are horses, bovidae, bisons, ibex, reindeer, and mammoths, not to mention unidentified animals, various heads, and many drawings unable to be interpreted.

These drawings are always executed in profile, and show the animal at rest or walking, sometimes running. Their technique is identical to that of engraved bone or ivory found in deposits from the Magdalenian period. They have a character of precision and skill, showing the constant concern to reproduce nature as it is, with no idea of stylisation. As for the engraved bones, it appears evident that the figures have been executed by the artists of the time as exact replicas of what they saw.

The horses have variable characters; some are reminiscent of the appearance of a mule, others are similar to modern horses, as may be seen on the copies we have presented here.

The bovids are equally varied, one in particular with its large dewlap, his little head and his quite thin body. Two reindeer above, which we present also as tracings are figures with a fidelity that can leave no doubt about their identification.

Two superimposed ibex have been very exactly reproduced.

Les Combarelles in the Dordogne

Finally, 14 figures show a variety of mammoths showing animals sometimes young and entirely covered with hair, sometimes older, and with less hair. All these images are of remarkable accuracy. Forehead, long hair, shape of the ears, trunk, legs, attitude, everything is represented with a special care that leaves no doubt as to the veracity of the identifications.



Photo: Capitan and Breuil (1902a)


Les Combarelles in the Dordogne

Four images of horses showed markings indicating clearly that the animals had been domesticated. Two had a covering on the back clearly shown, another presents a kind of band around the snout and a fourth has an indication evident on the cheek, a piece of reindeer horn, pierced with holes, formerly known as a baton de commandement, and that Piette has shown was a kind of primitive bridle.

Photo: Capitan and Breuil (1902a)




On the side of one horse, there is a diamond-shaped sign, circumscribed by two strokes; on the rump of another animal, we can see three signs that have the appearance of letters. This arrangement recalls the letters that are, on the same area, depicted on some archaic Greek depictions of horses.

Other noteworthy figures include two signs in the form of brackets inclined towards each other and are deeply engraved and behind a large very precise representation of a mammoth. These signs are very similar to those that Piette noted on engraved bones he considered as representing a signature by the artist or a mark of ownership.

These are several triangular signs, with oblique lines inside (tectiform signs) These may be a coarse representation of a head or a human skull seen from the front, and some cupules

The question of authenticity of these figures can not be within the shadow of a doubt. Their technique and way of reproducing animals already allows us to consider them very old, undeniably contemporary with the engravings on bones found near hearths for which the stratigraphy and fauna can be dated exactly and point to a bygone "era of carving" referred to by Piette or the Magdalenian referred to by G. Mortillet. Moreover, the accuracy of the figures speaks clearly to the fact that they had to be executed by artists who saw the beasts they represented, and lived with them.

Since these animals, the ibex and reindeer, disappeared from our land at the end of the late Magdalenian, while the mammoth disappeared probably even before the end of that period, it follows that these representations date from this period whose antiquity not able to be evaluated exactly, even in centuries, but only very roughly, and if we really wanted to have the figures they could be traced back to 10th or 12th millennium before our era and possibly even more remote than that.

These multiple manifestations of a precise art, sincere, true, equipped with a learned technique are all the more remarkable in that they appeared suddenly, already very sophisticated, and they disappear no less suddenly, without going through a period of decadence. There is then no more sign of them in subsequent epochs, and apart from a few stylised or symbolic examples here and there, they have disappeared.

The study of prehistoric art events on the walls of caves give therefore a view of a history of the origins of art.

This is of such great importance that we deemed it necessary to present this report of the results of our initial investigations to the Academy.

References

  1. Bosinski, G., D'Errico F., Schiller P., 2001: Die gravierten Frauendarstellungen von Gönnersdorf, Stuttgart : Franz Steiner, 2001
  2. Capitan L., Breuil H., 1902a, Figures préhistoriques de la grotte des Combarelles (Dordogne). Comptes-rendus des séances de l'année.. - Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres, 46e année, N. 1, 1902. pp. 51-56..
  3. Capitan L., Breuil H., 1902b, Gravures paléolithiques sur les parois de la grotte des Combarelles près des Eyzies (Dordogne) Bulletins de la Société d'anthropologie de Paris, V Série, tome 3, 1902. pp. 527-535.
  4. Capitan L., Breuil H., Peyrony D., 1924, Les Combarelles aux Eyzies (Dordogne), Paris, Masson, 1924.
  5. Sémhur, 23 September 2009a, Wikipedia. Personal work. Licensing of this work: Permission: I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the following license:
    This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 1.0, 2.0, 2.5 Generic license and the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
  6. Sémhur, 25 September 2009b, Wikipedia. Personal work. Licensing of this work: Permission: I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the following license:
    This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 1.0, 2.0, 2.5 Generic license and the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.





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