Sunday, November 13, 2011

Bringing Home Rouffignac Cave Art

Rouffignac Mammoth (copper etching)
On our trip to France, we visited Rouffignac Cave to see the 13,000 year old cave paintings.  This was the first time I'd been in a cave or seen Palaeolithic art with my own eyes.  It was an incredible experience.  We had a few upper palaeolithic sites on our agenda and we thought we might get "caved-out" at some point and want to move on to something else.  I don't think that can happen.  Once you see one cave, you want to see them all.

Me and my Rouffignac Mammoth
The paintings and etchings in Rouffignac are known especially for their depictions of mammoths.  According to the visitor's guide to the cave; of the 254 works in the cave, 157 (or 61.8%) of them are of mammoths.  I was especially interested in seeing them, because I used one of the mammoths from Rouffignac as the model for a tattoo of a mammoth that I have inside my right arm. Its part of a band of cave art that goes around my arm, and includes a wooly rhino from Rouffignac as well.

Copper etching of the Three Rhinoceros Frieze, Rouffignac. Atelier Tara.

Print Shopping in the gift shop
Photos aren't allowed inside the deepest part of the cave, where the paintings are located, but the gift shop and information desk are located inside the mouth of the cave and photos are allowed there.  I don't have any shots of the actual paintings,but you can see some images on the official website.  The depictions of Rouffignac art illustrating this blog are from prints that we purchased in the gift shop.

Glass mammoth skull and tusks by Jean-Paul Raymond

Glass axe, even the lashings are glass
While we were visiting, there was an exhibition of blown glass objects by Jean-Paul Raymond called Fragments de Temps inside the cave.  The glass was worked into horns, wood, bones, and stone objects from the Upper Palaeolithic. Visitors pass Raymond's intricate and accurate reproductions as they walk deeper into the cave.

Glass spear head in foreshaft.  Notice the flint nodules poking through the chalky walls around it.

Everything is hollow glass

The deepest paintings in the cave that are accessible to the public are a kilometre from the entrance, so the tours are done by train.  Much of the trip is in the pitch black darkness of the cave.  The tour guide has a small flashlight and will turn on lamps at specific stops along the way.  The art is either etched into the wall or painted on in black manganese.  Some of the wall surfaces are so soft, that the etchings were done by fingertip, perhaps even by children. We saw the caves with a trainload of kids - perhaps that's the way they were always meant to be visited.

The Ten Mammoth Frieze.  The original painting, inside Rouffignac, is 29 feet long and each mammoth is about 3 feet long.  The colours shown in the copper etching are also seen in the cave.  A band of white calcite has formed over the lower half of the wall, covering and obscuring the legs of the two groups of mammoths, meeting face to face in the middle.  The band of calcite, is one of the clues that helped establish the authenticity of the cave - it obviously formed slowly, over time after the paintings were put on the walls.  Copper Etching from Atelier Tara.

Approaching the train
The cave itself is a long narrow tunnel formed by water action over the past 70 million years.  In parts of the cave the floor has been dug out to accommodate the train tracks, but for the most part the passages are very uniform.  You can see the walls on either side and it feels like you are travelling down a long dark tunnel with chalk and flint walls.  Descending into the cave there are cave bear claw marks on the walls and several hundred metres of bear lairs; hundreds of giant nests scratched and wallowed into the clay floor.  Many of the paintings are located on the far side of these bear lairs.  The painters (and their kids!?) would have had to crawl through these still warm bear beds on their knees and bellies to reach the galleries in the deepest reaches of the caves.

This is a section of the Great Ceiling, located a kilometre deep in the cave.  The painters would have lain on their backs and painted the ceiling above them by lamp light.  (Copper Etching from Atelier Tara)

Cave Art Prints, Rouffignac and Pech Merle
On the way out we stopped in the gift shop and loaded up with books, photos, and craft documenting the cave, including the copper etchings that have illustrated this post.  The four prints came from the Atelier Tara, a workshop in southern France.  Having just gone through the cave, we were impressed by how accurately the prints captured the 13,000 year old artwork and now that they are framed and hanging in our stairwell, it feels like we have a little bit of Rouffignac here with us.

Photo Credits:
1, 3-8, 10-13: Tim Rast
2: Lori White
9: Rouffignac Interpreter (Sorry, I didn't get your name, but you did an awesome job! Thanks.)


  1. Nice post! The prints look awesome framed. We need to get ours done.

  2. Thanks. I'm very happy with the look of the prints too. Hanging them in the stair well means you can see them from lots of different angles. I like coming out of my office and looking down at them - it reminds me of the first glimpse we had of the spotted horses down and across the big gallery in Pech Merle.

  3. That must have been a tremendous trip. Very nice write-up about it too...Made me feel I was there.

  4. Looks amazing, reminds me of my undergrad archaeology days.

  5. Very cool! I have a sleeve on my left arm with one of the mammoths on it.


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