The Chaire-à-Calvin shelter is found near the village of Mouthiers-sur-Boëme in the département of Charente, about ten kilometres south of Angoulême. The shelter is located on the left bank of the Gersac River. This deep indentation – also known as the La Rochandry Shelter, La Papeterie Grotto and Mouthiers Grotto – takes its name from a local legend, according to which John Calvin preached a sermon nearby in the 16th century. The shelter has been the property of the Charente General Council since 1980, and it became a listed monument in 1986.
The site was discovered by Alphonse Trémeau de Rochebrune in 1864, and it was excavated on and off until the early 20th century. In 1924, Pierre David reopened the site and in 1926 and 1927 discovered the frieze, which had been covered over by deposits. In 1960 or 1961, Denise de Sonneville-Bordes and François Bordes carried out a sondage of the embankment and excavated the shelter's interior, work that was carried on by Jean-Marc Bouvier and André Debénath between 1966 and 1972. An overall study was begun in 2005 under the leadership of Christophe Delage (occupations) and Geneviève Pinçon (wall art).
The shelter, which faces south, is a small semi-circular cavity at the base of a cliff. It is 12 metres long, extends back 7.5 metres at its deepest point and has a maximum height of 4.1 metres. The cliff rises five metres above the shelter's vault. A terrace, extended by an embankment, spreads out for several metres in front of the shelter. The terrace, which today stands only a few meters above the current level of the river, was at a higher level in Palaeolithic times.
Although the stratigraphic studies of Pierre David, Denise de Sonneville-Bordes, Jean-Marc Bouvier and André Debénath revealed a number of different archaeological layers, current research distinguishes two occupation phases for the site. The first was certainly during the Middle Magdalenian, and the second during either the Middle or Upper Magdalenian. Ongoing work on the archaeological material will definitely allow researchers to precisely date these chrono-cultural attributions.
The site, whose shelter and embankment were the site of a large-scale occupation in the Palaeolithic period, was found to contain a wide range of archaeological material. Middle and Upper Magdalenian cultures can be ascertained by the presence of groups of material that are characteristic of this period (flint knapping, bone working, decorative objects). The wall art, which was partly covered over by the layer in which Upper Magdalenian occupation traces were found, can be dated to the initial occupations in the Middle Magdalenian period.
The wall art at Chaire-à-Calvin consists of a frieze sculpted in situ and a decorated block that was discovered by Pierre David in 1929, shortly after the discovery of the wall art, which is now in the collections of the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Angoulême. The wall sculptures, which were open to the elements, were gradually covered over by a series of mineral and plant material deposits. Their visibility was also affected by modern human intervention.