Cussac Cave Engravings (c.25,000 BCE)
A highly significant site of prehistoric art, the Grotte de Cussac is noted for its outstanding rock engravings - dating to the era of Gravettian art - as well as a number of human burials, which raises the possibility of a relationship between cave's rock art and its role as a burial site. Discovered in September 2000, in the south-western Dordogne region, the cave contains more than 150 works of Paleolithic art, most of which are engraved drawings. These include depictions of animals (woolly mammoths, bison, rhinoceroses, horses, ibex plus a few unidentified beasts with long snouts), birds, and four silhouettes of female figures, as well as a few schematic images of vulva. In subject and style, they bear a clear resemblance to images found in other caves from the Lot, like the Pech Merle Cave (25,000 BCE), Cougnac Cave (23,000 BCE) and the Roucadour Cave (c.24,000 BCE). In addition, there are a small number of abstract signs (mostly red dots) and finger markings. According to Norbert Aujoulat (1946-2011), the director of France's National Centre for Prehistory, the most impressive aspects of Cussac's parietal art are their monumental size - a single bison engraving is some 4 metres (14 feet) in length - and the depth of the carving. The cave is unlikely ever to be opened to the public, not least because of the high level of carbon dioxide. Archeologists working in the cave, for instance, are permitted to stay for a maximum of three hours before returning to the surface. Other examples of Stone Age art in the Dordogne include: the Abri Castanet Engravings (35,000 BCE); the Venus of Laussel (23,000 - 20,000 BCE); the Abri Poisson Cave (23,000 BCE); Font de Gaume Cave (14,000 BCE); Rouffignac Cave mammoths (14,000 BCE); Les Combarelles Cave Engravings (12,000 BCE).
The Cussac Cave is located in the Dordogne River valley near the town of Le Buisson-de-Cadouin, in Aquitaine, France. It is also close to two other centres of ancient art: namely, the rock-shelter at la Gravette à Bayac, the type-site of Gravettian culture; and the famous Lascaux Cave paintings at Montignac.
The Grotte de Cussac was originally discovered by the Paleolithic scholar Denis Peyrony (1869-1954), in 1950, but a rockfall near the entrance prevented any further exploration. It was rediscovered in September 2000, by a persistent amateur speleologist, named Marc Delluc, who worked his way throught the rockfall and into the first gallery beyond. Later, joined by other cave explorers from Perigueux - Herve Durif and Fabrice Massoulier, both members of the Campagnie des Beunes, a group who have been searching the Perigordian karst for caves for over 30 years - Delluc penetrated some 600 metres into the cave. In May 2001, archeologists arrived from France's National Centre for Prehistory, to examine and excavate the cave interior.
The main chamber, which contains the the Grand Panel (Le Grand Panneau), is accessed from the entrance area via a low 10-metre-long passageway. The chamber is a large room some 10-15 metres wide and 12 metres high, containing a large number of stalagmites and stalactites.
The Grand Panel is particularly impressive. About 15 metres (50-feet) wide, it contains more than twenty images of prehistoric animals (horses, bison), some of which have monumental dimensions up to 4 metres in length. It is one of the great examples of Paleolithic rock engraving. Other famous panels of art in the cave include the Bison Panel (Le Panneau des Bisons) and the Panel of the Discovery (Le Panneau de la Decouverte).
The main chamber splits into two branches: the upstream branch to the right (heading south-east), and the downstream branch to the left (heading north). The downstream segment contains a greater number of animal engravings, mostly grouped into nine evenly spaced clusters. As well as the usual animals, there are engravings of birds (believed to be geese) as well as a mysterious animal with an open mouth and elongated snout. The cave's iconography also includes depictions of female figures and genitalia which resemble those engraved on the walls of Pech-Merle Cave near Marseilles, as well as a small group of fish-like images. In addition, on friable rock surfaces close to the animal engravings, there are numerous instances of shapeless finger-fluting. (See the finger fluting in the Koonalda Cave Art for a comparison.) Lastly, there are some geometric signs engraved in the downstream section, along with some small examples of abstract art, such as red dots.
One of the reasons for the exceptional quality of Cussac's petroglyphs, is the nature of the cave's rock surface. Its hardness is ideal for preservation purposes, yet soft enough to be incised with a sharpened bone or flint tool, or even a piece of wood. In addition, the walls are covered with an ochre patina. Thus, when the surface is incised, new and contrasting colours are exposed, which help to emphasize the lines of the drawing.
At least five humans - four adults and a teenager - were found buried in the cave, with bones carbon-dated to about 23,000 BCE. (According to Cussac researchers, the non-intentional deposit of the human bones - the oldest and most complete skeletons of the time - is not plausible.) This is an extremely rare example of cave art being associated with human burials in Paleolithic Europe. Further exploration of this and other such examples might provide more clues as to the motivations that prompted modern man to enter and decorate his underground caves. For another rare instance of a burial inside a decorated cave, see: Cap Blanc Rock Shelter (15,000 BCE).
Other well-known prehistoric engravings from the Franco-Cantabrian region include the following:
Cave Engravings (37,000 BCE)
des Deux-Ouvertures (Cave of Two Openings) (26,500 BCE)
Valley Engravings (c.22,000 BCE)
Cave (c.17,000 BCE)
of La Pasiega (c.16,000 BCE)
Freres Cave (13,000 BCE)
Cave (c.12,000 BCE)
For more information about Paleolithic rock art in France, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF STONE AGE