Trois Freres Cave
Famous for "Sorcerer" Rock Engraving in the "Sanctuary".

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Fig 1. The Sorcerer
Shamanistic Figure
The Sanctuary,
Trois Freres Cave.

For the world's earliest
rock engravings, see:
Oldest Stone Age Art.

Trois Freres Cave (c.13,000 BCE)

Fig 2. Panel of engravings on the right hand wall of the Sanctuary



Trois Freres Cave Art
"The Sorcerer" in the "Sanctuary"
Other Sites of French Cave Art



Long recognized as an important centre of prehistoric art in southwestern France, the Cave of Les Trois Freres ("Three Brothers Cave" - named after the three sons of Count Begouen who discovered it in 1914) was ranked among the six greatest sites of Franco-Cantabrian cave art by the renowned archeologist and prehistorian Abbe Henri Breuil (1877-1961). Its Paleolithic art - made famous by the Breuil's studies of the cave - includes a spectacular array of rock engravings as well as cave painting, including the famous image of "The Sorcerer" (fig 1), and the life-size engraving of a lioness in the "Chapel of the Lioness" gallery - two of the best known examples of Magdalenian art in France. The earliest art in the cave has been dated to about 13,000 BCE. Other sites of Paleolithic art in the French Pyrenees include: Gargas Cave (25,000 BCE), and Niaux Cave (12,000 BCE). Other important Magdalenian-era sites include Lascaux Cave (15,000 BCE), Font-de-Gaume Cave (14,000 BCE) and Les Combarelles Cave (12,000 BCE). To see how Trois Freres fits into the development of cave art within the Franco-Cantabrian region, please see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (2.5 million BCE).


Les Trois Freres is located in the Commune of Montesquieu-Avantes, Ariege department, in the Midi-Pyrenees region of southwestern France. It is one of three Volp caves (the others being Enlene and Tuc d'Audoubert Cave) that together make up a single underground complex, that was hollowed out of a limestone hill by the small Volp River. Enlene (to the east) is 200 metres in length; Trois Freres (in the centre) is 430 metres long; while Tuc d''Audoubert (to the west) is 640 metres in length. Trois Freres is linked to Enlene via a 65-metre passageway, but there is no physical connection between Trois Freres and Tuc d'Audoubert. Even weirder, while Trois Freres and Tuc d'Audoubert contain numerous examples of Stone Age art, Enlene has practically none. One possible explanation is that, while Enlene was occupied regularly by humans ever since the era of Gravettian art (c.25,000 BCE), both Trois Freres and Tuc d'Audoubert were sanctuaries used only for spiritual or ritualistic activities. A modern equivalent might be a block of flats joined to a church and a courthouse.


The cave of Les Trois Freres was first explored in July 1914 by Max, Jaques and Louis, the three sons of Count Henri Begouen, and two friends. After the war, Henri Breuil surveyed the cave during the periods 1920-22 and 1928-38, making copies of the engravings that were widely published. In 1958, a detailed study was published by H.Breuil and R.Begouen of the hundreds of engraved drawings in the deep gallery known as the "Sanctuary". In 1964 a systematic photographic survey was made of the rock art by R.Begouen and J.Vertut. Further investigations were conducted by R.Begouen and Jean Clottes in 1979, while a precise topographical study was prepared by M.Henry. In 2014 a new monograph on the cave art was published, summarizing the results of a century of research, since its discovery.


Twisting and turning for more than 400 metres, Trois Freres cave contains a number of galleries. They include: the "Hands Gallery" (Galerie des Mains), with its 5 red hand stencils, a black bison and an engraving of a horse's head; the "Theatre Chamber" (Salle du Theatre); the "Gallery of Dots" (Galerie des Points) with its rows of dots and engravings; the "Chapel of the Lioness" containing a large black-painted engraving of a feline flanked by abstract signs, plus other felines, two bird heads and a stone carving of a horse; the "Hall of the Fallen Rocks" (Salle du Grand Eboulis) decorated with the engraved heads of two cats; the "Sanctuary" a small remote room whose walls are covered with overlapping engraved drawings (mostly of reindeer, bison, horses, accompanied by goats, bears, mammoths, various signs and anthropomorphic figures), all dominated by the famous composite 'shamanistic' figure of "The Sorcerer"; the "Gallery of Owls" (Galerie des Chouettes), its walls covered with finger fluting, engravings of three owls, a mammoth, several bison and two abstract signs.

Trois Freres Cave Art

The Paleolithic art at Trois Freres is dominated by the numerous fine engravings - typically found in large groupings on the walls. In total, about 350 figures have been identified, including: 84 horses, 170 bison, 20 ibex, 40 reindeer, 8 bears, 6 felines, 2 mammoths, 1 woolly rhinoceros, 6 birds, 7 anthropomorphic and therianthropic figures, 5 hand stencils, plus a variety of abstract signs such as dots, tectiforms, semi-circles and others.

The two best known galleries at Trois Freres are the "Chapel of the Lioness" and the "Sanctuary". The former is a small cavern that contains a large drawing of a lioness which is engraved on a natural "altar". Carefully placed in crevices below the altar and on the walls around it, are numerous (probably) votive objects such as shells, animal teeth, and flint tools.

The Sorcerer in the Sanctuary

The "Sanctuary" is the most remote and most important chamber in the complex. It contains most of the animal images in the cave, plus some of the humanoid figures. Its walls are filled with some 280 engraved (often superimposed) images (see Fig 2) of bison, horses, stags, reindeer, ibexes, and mammoths, most of which date to the middle Magdalenian period (c.12,000 BCE). Moreover, the prehistoric artists who created the chamber's parietal art took great pains to exploit the natural relief and morphology of the walls, in order to enhance the three dimensional effect of their drawings. Of course the Sanctuary's most famous and enigmatic figure is a small painted engraving, known as the "Sorcerer" or "Horned God", dating to about 13,000 BCE, which is located some 4 metres (13-feet) above the floor of the cave. It portrays a human figure with the features of several different animals, although its exact characteristics remain a matter of debate.

The Sorcerer engraving was first studied and copied by Henri Breuil while making his sketches of the cave art, back in the 1920s. He drew a human-type figure with a headdress that resembled antlers, and it was this sketch - published in the 20s - that influenced many subsequent theories about the Sorcerer. Breuil himself believed that the picture represented a shaman or magician, and that its presence in the Sanctuary indicated that the chamber was used for shamanistic or ritualistic ceremonies. [Note: the presence of a single prominent human figure is unknown in the cave art of the Upper Paleolithic.]

However, modern prehistorians question the accuracy of Breuil's sketch, claiming that modern photographs do not show the famous antlers. They believe that Breuil mistook natural cracks in the rock surface for man-made markings. But this viewpoint has also been challenged on the basis that the fine lines of the engraving are sometimes very difficult, if not impossible, to view from photographs, due to the quality of the light source. (Note: Even visitors to the outdoor, sunlit site of the Coa Valley Engravings, Portugal have complained that some of the petroglyphs are impossible to make out.) Jean Clottes, one of the leading French paleolithic scholars, has no doubts that Breuil's sketch is accurate, claiming to have seen it personally some 20 times over the years.

Articles About French Cave Art

For details of other important centres of prehistoric rock art in France, see these articles:

Abri Castanet Engravings (35,000 BCE)
Aurignacian rock shelter famous for its engravings of female vulvas.

Cosquer Cave (c.25,000 BCE)
Underwater cave with petroglyphs of animals, fish and seals.

Cussac Cave Engravings (25,000 BCE)
Grouped with Pech Merle, Cougnac, Roucadour; noted for its large engraved drawings.

Abri du Poisson Cave (c.23,000 BCE)
Famous for its unique bas-relief of a salmon.

Cougnac Cave Art (c.23,000 BCE)
Noted for abstract signs and wounded human figures.

Le Placard Cave (17,200 BCE)
Type-site for the bird-like symbols at Cougnac and Pech Merle.

Roc-de-Sers Cave (17,000 BCE)
Benchmark site for Solutrean rock carving, engravings and relief sculpture.

Rouffignac Cave (14,000-12,000 BCE)
Famous for its black paintings and engravings of mammoths.

Font-de-Gaume Cave (c.14,000 BCE)
Important cave, noted for its "Bison frieze" and "Licking Reindeer".

Roc-aux-Sorciers (c.12,000 BCE)
Famous for its prehistoric frieze of reliefs and engravings.


• For more about pictographs and petroglyphs in Stone Age France, see: Homepage.

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