Cap Blanc Rock Shelter Frieze
Ice Age Bas-Relief Sculpture, Laussel, Dordogne.

Pin it

Cap Blanc Limestone Frieze.
A masterpiece of prehistoric art
from the French Dordogne.

Cap Blanc Rock Shelter Frieze (15,000 BCE)
Limestone Carvings at L'Abri du Cap Blanc, Dordogne, France


Location, Discovery, Excavation
Cap Blanc Frieze
Related Articles

For the earliest stone carving, see: Oldest Stone Age Art: Top 100 Works.

Four horses and a Bison carved on the Cap Blanc Frieze.


Discovered in 1908, Cap Blanc is a Cro-Magnon rock shelter best known for its monumental frieze of prehistoric sculpture dating back to around 15,000 BCE, if not earlier. Ranked alongside the stonework at Roc de Sers Cave (17,200 BCE) and Roc-aux-Sorciers Cave (Vienne), Cap Blanc's relief sculpture - carved directly onto the contoured surface of the shelter's rear wall - is regarded as an important benchmark of cave art created during the early era of Magdalenian art (c.15,000-10,000 BCE). Indeed it is the only frieze of prehistoric stone sculpture in the world which continues to be on show to the public. Archeologists working at Cap Blanc have also excavated a well-preserved human grave, as well as a fine collection of typical Magdalenian tools. Among the latter are a number of large stone implements which, evidence shows, were used to produce the horses, reindeer and bison depicted in the frieze. The present site also features a museographical area which provides information about the parietal art found at Cap Blanc, as well as other features of Paleolithic art created in France during the last Ice Age. Note that much of the material unearthed at Cap Blanc is now at the Musee d'Aquitaine in Bordeaux.

To understand how Cap Blanc's sculpture fits into the overall evolution of ancient stonework, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 2.5 Million BCE).

Location, Discovery, Excavation

Cap Blanc rock shelter (L'Abri du Cap Blanc) is tucked away on a steep wooded hillside, some 9 kilometres east of Les Eyzies, near the earlier site of the Gravettian Venus of Laussel (c.23,000 BCE), in the Beune valley. The shelter was first discovered in 1908 by workmen employed to excavate the cave by Dr. Gaston Lalanne of Bordeaux. Unfortunately, since nothing like it had ever been found before, the sculptures were not spotted until considerable damage had been done by their pickaxes. After less than three months of work, most of the Stone Age art had been uncovered, albeit in a damaged condition. In 1911, a more professional excavation was conducted by the archeologist Denis Peyrony (1869-1954) largely to protect the site, and much later, in 1992, a more focused investigation of the site was carried out by Alain Roussot and Jacques Tixier. This led to a search of the accumulated debris, both to identify small pieces of rock art which may have broken off the limestone walls during the early excavations, and to recover archeological material which may have gone unnoticed at the time. As a result, a quantity of lithic and bone artifacts were discovered, dating to the earlier period of Solutrean art, which has raised the obvious question whether the sculpted frieze might not have been started somewhat earlier than supposed.

Cap Blanc Frieze

Originally, the stone frieze occupied roughly 13 metres or roughly threequarters of the entire back wall of the shelter. It includes images of reindeer, bison and horses, and the central horse measures about 2 metres (7 feet) in length, and dates to about 15,000 BCE. In total, the frieze contains 14 horses (or parts thereof), 13 bison and 2 reindeer, along with more than a dozen unidentified animals.

As with all Stone Age friezes, traces of red ochre pigment were found, indicating that the colourful carvings must have been visible from some distance. The first two animals on the left are large horses, facing right; one has a ring carved into the limestone above it, presumably for hanging or fastening something. To the right is the largest and most imposing figure of the frieze: a great horse more than 2 metres long and facing left. Above it can be seen two small reindeer heads. To the right are a possible depiction of a human hand, two more horses, much damaged and facing right, and two probable bison facing left. In both pairs of horses facing right, the head of the first masks the rump of the second. As at La Chaire a Calvin (Calvin's Pulpit), a rock shelter near Angouleme, there seems to have been some recarving of the frieze, with changes of animal.

Two fragments of the frieze (a horse's head and a bison), along with many of the cave's tools and artifacts, are now housed in Bordeaux's Musee d'Aquitaine, but these fragments have been replaced in the frieze by plaster casts.

In front of the frieze lies the cast of the skeleton of a Magdalenian girl, who was buried here seemingly in a place of honour, in front of the great horse. (The original skeleton resides in the Field Museum, Chicago.)

Related Articles

Lascaux Cave Paintings (17,000-13,000 BCE)
Perhaps the finest site of Solutrean/Magdalenian cave art.

Font de Gaume Cave Paintings (14,000 BCE)
Another Magdalenian site of prehistoric art in the Dordogne.

Rouffignac Cave Art (14,000-12,000 BCE)
Largest site of Franco-Cantabrian rock art in the French Dordogne.

Tuc d'Audoubert Cave Bison (13,500 BCE)
Famous for its beautiful unfired clay reliefs of three bison.


• For more about Paleolithic relief sculpture, see: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.