Tuc d'Audoubert Cave Bison Sculpture
Ranked among the most important centres of Franco-Cantabrian cave art, Le Tuc d'Audoubert, is (along with the Grotte d'Enlene, and Les Trois Freres) one of three prehistoric caves that make up a single underground network hollowed from the foothills of the French Pyrenees, by the River Volp. Although the cave contains a variety of parietal art, including rock engravings, some cave painting and prehistoric sculpture - a total of some 385 individual Palaeolithic images - it is best known for its sublime relief sculpture of a pair of bison, made from clay taken from the walls of the cave. This work alone makes the Tuc d'Audoubert cave a showcase of Paleolithic art in the Ariege. Although there appears to be traces of Mousterian and Aurignacian artifacts, most of the prehistoric art in the cave dates to between 13,500 and 11,500 BCE, and matches results for similar works at the neighbouring Niaux cave, and at Altamira and Covaciella in northern Spain. For preservation reasons, the site is closed to the public. For other important sites of Paleolithic relief sculpture, see: the Venus of Laussel (23,000 BCE); the salmon carving in the Abri du Poisson Cave (23,000 BCE); the stone carving at Roc-de-Sers Cave (17,200 BCE) in the Charente; the Cap Blanc Frieze (15,000 BCE) in the Dordogne; and the limestone frieze at Roc-aux-Sorciers (c.12,000 BCE), in the Vienne. For more about the chronology of Stone Age culture, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 2.5 million BCE).
The Tuc d'Audoubert cave is located in the commune of Montesquieu-Avantes in the Ariege department of the central Pyrenees, in southwest France. It is part of a network of subterranean passageways which is divided into three caves: to the west, the Tuc d'Audoubert cave; in the centre, the Trois Freres Cave (Three Brothers); and to the east, Enlene Cave. The last two are physically connected, but there is no known link between Trois Freres and Tuc d'Audoubert, despite being separated by only a few metres of rock. The cave system as a whole has three levels: the lowest level is now unusable as it carries the River Volp. The middle level is 3 metres higher, while the upper level is 12 metres higher again, and is accessible through a natural chimney. Of the three caves, Enlene has the fewest pictographs and petroglyphs, though its occupants produced a range of engraved objects. It appears that Le Tuc d'Audoubert and Les Trois Freres were used for more ritualistic forms of activity that involved the creation of a wealth of Stone Age art of all types. Among the most famous images in Les Trois Freres cave is the famous painted engraving of the anthropomorphic figure known as the "Sorcerer".
The Tuc d'Audoubert cave has been known since the late 17th/early 18th century, although the bison reliefs were not discovered until 1912. Early excavations were undertaken by the Paleohistorian Emile Cartailhac (1845-1921), while later examinations were conducted by the archeologists Abbe Henri Breuil (1877-1961), Jean Clottes (b.1933), Henry F. Rouzaud and a team from CEA, in Grenoble. New rock art in the cave was discovered throughout the century. Since 1893, the three caves have been owned by the family of Count Begouen, whose ongoing efforts to conserve and maintain the Paleolithic contents have been exemplary. In fact, it was R. Begouen who in 1976, was the first to find the engraved drawings on the rock plinth supporting the famous bison.
Aside from the bison sculptures, the cave art includes a number of paintings and engravings, a large quantity of abstract symbols, one anthropomorphic mask and one image of a female vulva. There are no distinct hand stencils although there are a number of finger markings. Specifically, there are 103 pictures of animals (eleven species including bison (40 percent), horses (16 percent), reindeer, ibexes, felines) and more than 250 abstract signs (mostly claviforms or club-shaped symbols) and other non-figurative images - 75 percent of which are engraved. The iconographic style of the works, as a whole, is attributed to Style IV of the Magdalenian (c.13,000-10,000 BCE), as formulated by Andre Leroi-Gourhan (1911-86), and is reminiscent of figurative images at other sites in the Pyrenees, like Montespan, Niaux, Fontanet, Labastide and Bedeilhac. The cave's abstract imagery is reminiscent of symbols found at Covaciella, El Pindal, La Cullalvera and Altamira, in Cantabria.
The main galleries and chambers include the Bridal Chamber (La Salle Nuptiale), the Gallery of the Engravings (Galerie des Gravures), the Gallery of the Claviforms (Galerie des Claviformes), the Hall of Heels (with engraved signs and footprints). The most remote chamber contains the famous bison reliefs.
The bison reliefs are two feet in length, eighteen inches in height and about 3-4 inches deep. They are modelled in clay, and their surface was given a wet finish in order to make them smooth. The plastic texture is such that the sculptor's finger marks are still visible along the length of the animals. The bisons' shaggy mane and beard appear to be carved with a tool, but the jaws are traced by the sculptor's fingernail. The impression given is one of immense naturalistic beauty. The female bison is ready to mate, while the Bull is sniffing the air. Both animals are supported by a central rock, and are unbelievably well preserved (proving perhaps that there was never a passage connecting the Tuc d'Audoubert cave with the Trois Freres), although they have suffered some drying out, which has caused some cracks to appear across their bodies. Also in the chamber are two other bison figures, both engraved on the ground.
Prehistorians have theorized that the a small group of people (including a child) remained in the Tuc d'Audoubert cave with the sole reason of participating in certain ceremonies associated with the cave art. The remote location of the clay bison - beneath a low ceiling at the very end of the upper gallery, roughly 650 metres from the entrance, is consistent with their involvement in some type of ritualistic or shamanistic process.
For more information about French Paleolithic cave art, please see the following:
Castanet (c.35,000 BCE).
des Deux-Ouvertures (26,500 BCE)
Cave (25,000 BCE)
Cave (23,000 BCE)
Cave (17,500 BCE)
For more about Magdalenian sculpture and rock engraving in France, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF STONE AGE