Roc-aux-Sorciers (c.12,000 BCE)
A unique site of parietal art from the Middle-Magdalenian, Roc-aux-Sorciers is a rock shelter situated in the French commune of Angles-sur-l'Anglin, in the Vienne. Consisting of two niches known as Cave Taillebourg and Abri Bourdois, the shelter features a range of Stone Age art, although it is best known for its prehistoric sculpture - that is, its frieze of relief sculpture of numerous animal and human figures. Along with the Solutrean Roc de Sers Cave (c.17,200 BCE) in the Charente, and the Mid-Magdalenian Cap Blanc shelter (c.13,000 BCE) near Perigueux, Roc-aux-Sorciers ranks among the top sites of stone sculpture, within the region of Franco-Cantabrian cave art during the Upper Paleolithic. For reasons of conservation the original site is no longer open to the public. However, an interpretive centre in the nearby village offers visitors a multimedia spectacle of the famous frieze, its content and sculptural techniques, complete with interpretations. For more about the chronology and evolution of this form of Paleolithic art around the world, please see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 2.5 million BCE).
The Roc-aux-Sorciers (Sorcerer's Rock) site is located at the foot of a limestone cliff, on the right bank of the River Anglin, roughly 1.5 kilometres from the village of Angles-sur-l'Anglin, in the Vienne department of the Poitou-Charentes region of western France. Other prehistoric caves in the area include the Grotte des Cottets - some two kilometres distant - noted for the excavations of Roche-Brune in 1881, and those of Henri Breuil in 1905. The Roc-aux-Sorciers site actually consists of two separate and distinct niches: a lower niche, called Abri Bourdois; and - some 30 metres upstream - a slightly elevated and deeper niche known as Cave Taillebourg. The latter is some 8-9 metres deep, and roughly 5-6 metres wide.
The first excavations in the vicinity of Roc-aux-Sorciers were carried out between 1888 and 1892 by Mr. Sabourin and Father Pingeault, in the Mousterian sediments downstream of the site. Then, in 1927, a local archeologist named Lucien Rousseau discovered a Paleolithic occupation site in the Taillebourg cave, from which he recovered a stone block with a mammoth engraved on it. In 1933 he published the details of his discovery. In 1947, the renowned French prehistorian Suzanne de Saint Mathurin read Rousseau's article and, together with her friend, the English prehistorian Dorothy Garrod, resumed Rousseau's work at the cave with a view to perhaps unearthing the type of rock art excavated not long before at the neighbouring site of Lussac-les-Chateaux, also in Vienne. As it transpired, Saint Mathurin and Garrod would continue investigating Roc-aux-Sorciers on and off for the next 17 years.
During their early excavations Saint Mathurin and Garrod found numerous fragments of stone, decorated with rock engravings or carvings of animals - several of them painted - that had fallen from the ceiling and walls of the Taillebourg chamber. The discovery of these petroglyphs was followed in 1950 by another find, this time in the second niche known as Abri Bourdois. Here, they uncovered the bas-relief of a horse still on a wall at the rear of the chamber. Further examination led to the discovery of a huge 18-metre (60-feet) frieze of relief sculpture, featuring bison, horses, ibexes, felines, as well as several carved reliefs of female nudes, in the style of venus figurines such as the Venus of Laussel (c.23,000 BCE).
Combined with the fragments found at Cave Taillebourg, the discovery of the frieze led archeologists and prehistorians to see Cave Taillebourg and Abri Bourdois as producing a single work of prehistoric art, divided in two sections. In total, they believe the frieze was about 30 metres in length: 18 metres (still almost intact) at Abri Bourdois; about 12 metres (now collapsed and in fragments) in Cave Taillebourg. It contained a total of 34 figures, including: 7 horses, 8 ibexes, 6 bison, 1 reindeer, 4 felines, 1 unidentified animal, 4 anthropomorphic heads, and 5 stylized female figures.
Based on the analysis of the French archeologist Andre Leroi-Gourhan (1911-86), which compared the various styles and themes used in cave painting and carving across the Franco-Cantabrian region, the frieze at Roc-aux-Sorciers has been assigned to Style III (18,000-14,000 BCE). Radiocarbon dating of sediments has narrowed the date to about 14,000-12,000 BCE.
The frieze provides clear evidence of the technical mastery of the cave's sculptors, not least for their exceptional ability to depict animal anatomy and to convey the volume and power of the figures in the firelight of the chamber. The degree of realism achieved is a rarity even in Magdalenian art of the time, and only confirms the unique value of the site.
Investigation of the cave walls showed signs of extensive preparation of the limestone surface before any carving was done. Hammering and scraping had removed nearly all the original surface. Furthermore, both the animal and human carvings may have been painted, as traces of red ochre, charcoal and black manganese have been found in several crevices. Alternatively - as at Roc de Sers - some of the black pigment might have been used to make charcoal drawings prior to carving.
Animals (eg. bison) are depicted in a variety of positions, including standing, lying down or curled up. Gender characteristics are clearly shown, and some animals (eg. ibexes) are rendered in remarkable detail, in respect of ears, muzzles and hooves.
But perhaps the most unusual feature of the frieze is the presence of human females. They include a group of three headless figures carved with emphasis on the vulva, in the general style of venus mobiliary art - although the lack of breasts is unusual - but see the Venus of Eliseevichi (c.14,000 BCE), and also the Late Magdalenian Venus of Monruz-Neuchatel (c.10,000 BCE). A fourth female figure is superimposed on the image of a bison, while the legs of a fifth woman can be seen under a superimposed ibex.
In addition to the sculptural frieze and the engravings, excavations also brought to light several other examples of ancient art. These included the portable sculpture of a horse's head; the sculpture of a human head carved on fossil madrepore; and a large quantity of primitive jewellery art, in the form of engraved ivory carvings (mammoth tusks), carved ivory beads, animal teeth and bones.
The two shelters "Bourdois" and "Taillebourg" were named after their owners. Both shelters were later purchased by Suzanne de Saint Mathurin, and on her death in 1991 she left the whole site of Roc-aux-Sorciers to the French State. Many of the stone carvings recovered from the site are now part of the permant collection of the French National Archeological Museum, housed in the 16th-century royal castle at St Germain-en-Laye, just outside Paris.
For more information about prehistoric cave painting and sculpture in France, see the following:
Cave Paintings (30,000 BCE)
des Deux-Ouvertures /Cave of Two Openings (26,500 BCE)
Cussac Cave Engravings
Cave Paintings (17,000-15,000 BCE)
d'Audoubert Cave Bison (13,500 BCE)
Freres Cave (13,000-12,000 BCE)
Cave (14,000 BCE)
Combarelles Cave (12,000 BCE)
For more information about Paleolithic sculpture in France, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF STONE AGE