Roc de Sers
Sers, Charente
The prehistoric site of Roc de Sers, has yielded the oldest known carved frieze to date. Leon Henri-Martin led the most important archaeological excavations between 1909 and 1929. The site yielded several habitations under shelters and thousands of flint tools from the Upper Solutrean (notch tips and bay leaves) and limestone plates with engravings of animals. The main interest is the discovery of a series of limestone blocks belonging to a carved frieze of parietal ten metres long. Originals are stored in the National Museum of Archaeology. Horses, bison, ibex, deer and birds, but also two schematic human figures and painted signs (points), make up this exceptional ensemble.


Multi-disciplinary research Share page with AddThis

Understanding Magdalenian societies requires a multi-pronged approach due to the range of remains discovered during excavations. The intersection of different scientific disciplines can lead to a fuller understanding of Magdalenian society.

From vestige to analysis Share page with AddThis

Rock shelters are stratified sites, the study of which takes into account the sequence of occupation layers that have accumulated. The specificity of these decorated sites lies in the stratigraphic relationship between the sculpted walls and the archaeological layers. Layer by layer, archaeologists seek a better understanding of each layer's organization and consistency with respect to the others.
Only certain vestiges have come down to us. These often consist of faint traces of Palaeolithic activities: hunting and fishing (bone and stone implements), domestic work (needles, scrapers, smoothers, etc.), habitation (hearths, paving stones, loops for light architecture or for suspension), symbolic activities (ornaments, statues, portable art, wall art), and burial.
To gain a more precise understanding of a site or a structure, archaeologists are obliged to dismantle it. This operation, although vital, is irreversible. As the sole witness to what occurred during an excavation, the data must be recorded as accurately and comprehensively as possible, and without mistaking observation for interpretation. This will allow future archaeologists to examine the data, which will be their only resource.
Practically speaking, recovery of data from earlier excavations, such as were carried out at most sculpted Magdalenian shelters, depends on choices made by past archaeologists and are influenced by the research issues of their time. In addition, not all of these documents have come down to us, unfortunately. Reopening of an excavation's archives (plans, field notes, publications, objects, etc.) accompanied by a return to the site (analysis of the wall, new surveys, and so on) allows researchers to reinterpret sites in the context of current research.
Current research, by involving a number of disciplines in the environmental, human and social sciences, produces new observations concerning the site's archaeological contexts (spatial distribution of remains) and its environment.

From analysis to interpretation Share page with AddThis

We derive understanding of a site and its society from a perspective approach and from the intersection of observation and analysis.
Interpretations can refresh our knowledge of sites and ancient societies. These hypotheses – supported, argued and demonstrated, and factoring in their limitations – are nevertheless dependent on the context of the research in which they were proposed. They develop at different scales and can be complementary.
For example, in the history of prehistoric research, early research efforts focused on the timing and sequence of occupations, whereas today they include an analysis of societies in their territories and therefore the functional or cultural relations between sites.

The formation of rock shelters Share page with AddThis

Magdalenian sculpted shelters are located in a very particular geological context – that of limestone karst , although there are different types of limestone. The phenomenon of rock shelter formation is based on the same general principles: erosion due to water followed by collapse of the wall.

Geological context Share page with AddThis

Some 150 million years ago, western France was covered by the sea. It later receded, exposing an accumulation of marine deposits. These deposits were then eroded by the widening of valleys, with streams wearing away the softer formations. The karsts constitute the fossil record.
The physical weathering of the cliffs, mainly through gelifraction, gave rise to rock shelters. Alternating periods of freezing and thawing hollowed out the softer and more porous rock banks. Over time, this created an overhang, freeing up a shelter and a terrace or rocky base. The space thus formed, known as a rock shelter, was conducive to the arrival of Palaeolithic peoples, providing them with shelter from the elements and a place to live in the light of day.
Sediments and rock fragments built up on the shelter floor, quickly covering over remains left by humans.

Methods for analysing rock art Share page with AddThis


Analysis of rock art is based on methods that must be adapted to the sites being studied and to the archaeological issues identified by the research teams. For sculpted shelters, after the necessary steps of photographic recording  and analytical mapping , the use of 3D technology has helped to ground hypotheses concerning the interpretation of works and to enhance sites. Dating of wall ensembles  allows for an inter-site approach to sculpted shelters.

Photographic recording Share page with AddThis

Perception of works Palaeolithic rock art, and sculptures in particular, varies greatly depending on lighting, scale and the angles from which they are photographed. This is why it is critical to vary these factors when photographing the walls.
Photographs of sculptures and engravings are taken by placing the camera parallel to the mean plane of the wall to limit the effects of convergence of horizontal and vertical lines. The images are then corrected using a computer application to adjust for geometric distortions caused by the lens.
Modern sources of light (cold light spotlights, flash) cannot factor in the Palaeolithic lighting of the sculptures: sunlight is excluded, as three of the four sites studied have been darkened for conservation reasons, as well as hearths, which have been found and reported at the base of the wall in every one of these shelters. 3D modelling , however, allows researchers to simulate light sources and thus fill in some of these gaps.
At Roc-aux-Sorciers  and Cap Blanc , traces of painting found on wall elements can be seen in photographs taken under white light and then given colorimetric treatment by computer.

Analytical mapping Share page with AddThis

Analytical mapping is the first step that is essential to any scientific study of rock art. Through analysis of stigma affecting the wall (natural and man-made, old and new), it allows for a correct reading of the artworks. It is a genuine cartographic effort that requires a caption for each type of record found. The intersection of several views of a single mapping is needed to ensure greater objectivity.
Two separate techniques are used, depending on the sites studied.
Data can be recorded on sheets of polyethylene film, as was done at Roc-aux-Sorciers. The sheet is placed on a light structure positioned close to, but not touching, the wall. For stone blocks, the sheet it is placed directly on the surface, after agreement by the restorers. Each element to be noted, illuminated by a portable light, is plotted on the film. The map is then imported into drawing software and broken down into layers depending on the nature of the stigma. It is sometimes accompanied by a 3D model that reproduces the sculpted shapes.
For preservation reasons, digital mapping via video-projection was used at the three other sites. The information is entered using a graphic tablet connected to a laptop computer, which is itself connected to a video projector projecting onto a plane parallel to the wall. The mapping is conducted by at least three people (one to work the graphics tablet, one to adjust the lighting, and one to indicate which elements to map), which means comparison of viewpoints.

3D mapping and restitution Share page with AddThis

Since restitution of the volumes of wall art and their supports has become one of the essential requirements of mapping, recording techniques have evolved in recent years. Driven by scientific concerns, 3D technologies now allow the acquisition of data useful for the analysis of works (measurements, cross-sections and profiles of objects, highly accurate assessments of both walls and works of art and simulations, including virtual repositioning, variation of light sources, virtual connection of decorated stone blocks, and homothetic comparisons of forms). It also allows works to be given back to the public , but without replacing the analytical mapping , which does not fulfil the same function.
The four sculpted shelters benefited from 3D scans of their overall topography and of their walls and blocks. This is carried out at different levels of accuracy based on the nature of the scanned areas (natural, sculpted, engraved). A laser distance meter performs a spatial measurement by emitting a beam that scans the surface. It provides a scan in the form of files of X Y Z coordinates. A digital camera captures colour images used in the initial mapping, supplemented by photographic images. A digital surface model (DSM) is then created by assembling the harmonised files, and the reference database can be exported in various file formats.

Dating Share page with AddThis

Attribution of the wall ensembles to the Middle Magdalenian was rendered possible by directly linking them to occupation layers. On the one hand, sculptures being enclosed in archaeological layers and fragments of decorated wall at Roc-aux-Sorciers, Chaire-à-Calvin  and Cap Blanc  led archaeologists to conclude that the works were completed prior to the elements that concealed them. On the other hand, the presence of artists' tools and fragments of recut sculptures in occupation layers allowed them to associate wall art with them, as at Roc-aux-Sorciers.
However, these clues don't allow archaeologists to be absolutely certain about the dates of the wall ensembles: chrono-stratigraphic uncertainties (number, location and extent of archaeological layers, location of objects within the stratigraphy) related to the age of the initial excavations of the shelters do not provide indisputable evidence. Similarly, stylistic similarities between works only allow for hypotheses as to chronological connections between sites. The wall art itself at these sites cannot benefit from radiocarbon dating, because the only traces of black paint discovered at Roc-aux-Sorciers are manganese oxide-based, not charcoal.

Soil archaeology Share page with AddThis

The study of rock shelters is part of a broader approach to the environment and to the landscape, i.e. an analysis of the impact of prehistoric occupation on the ecosystem. Soil archaeology provides an account of the various ways natural resources were used by Palaeolithic peoples. These methods of analysis provide an understanding of sustainable development on a regional scale, but also at site level via the study of its objects and structures.

The soil as habitation support Share page with AddThis

The Magdalenian settled spontaneously into sites that provided a satisfying living space: near a river, in the shelter of a wall exposed to the sun that provided warmth and protection, and at a clearly identifiable location in the landscape (shape of the cliff, near the confluence of a river, etc.).
The ground at these sites, which supported the various activities carried out there, enclose valuable information as to habitation, material culture and the natural environment (food waste, pollens, charcoal, etc.) as well as climatic conditions (frozen ground, and so on).
The study of these soils allows for a spatial analysis of structures and vestiges. It also permits archaeologists to identify contemporary activities (flint knapping, tanning, creation of adornments, and so on) associated with them. Hearths are fundamental structures with multiple functions (lighting, heating, cooking), around which activities are organised and social relations are structured.
Loops found on walls and stone blocks on the ground could have been used to attach hides to protect the shelter and its occupants against the elements, or to delineate family groups or perhaps divide the interior space in various activity areas (food preparation, hide working, sleeping, etc.).

Raw material resources Share page with AddThis

Palaeolithic people dug into the ground for raw materials. Supplies may have come from nearby sites: Grand Pressigny for the flints at Roc-aux-Sorciers (about 20 km away) and Bergeracois for those at Cap Blanc (50 km); the shelly deposits at Touraine for the shells used in adornments at Roc-aux-Sorciers; pigments and dyestuffs, etc.
But they also came from further afield, such as shells from the shelly deposits at Gironde for Cape Blanc (about 100 km away), or even from the Atlantic and Mediterranean, as certain exogenous flints reveal circulation over large areas or transmission between neighbours.

Archaeology and landscape Share page with AddThis

The Palaeolithic landscape remains elusive despite the progress made in palaeo-environmental analyses in recent decades. The shrinking of the cliff, reducing canopies, the shift in the course of rivers, erosion, and different ground cover means that the present landscape no longer resembles its Magdalenian predecessor.
However, studies suggest an open landscape and a cold climate, similar to Nordic countries, for the period that the Magdalenian rock shelters were occupied .
No trace of these earlier periods can be detected in the landscape, except through elements trapped in ground sediments, contrary to what makes landscape archaeology possible in relation to medieval times. The wall art is, in this sense, an extraordinary witness to the surrounding wildlife, some of whose subjects are more characteristic of a cold climate (such as the saiga antelope). Although the Magdalenians did not deliver an accurate picture of their environment, the species they included in their symbolic representations were clearly a part of it. These depictions provide a window, albeit truncated, onto their ecosystems, complementary to that provided by the animal remains found at habitation sites.
In addition to the decisions to depict the surrounding wildlife, the Magdalenians also sought to leave their mark on the landscape through the sculptures of these rock shelters, which were visible to all.

Protection, preservation, display Share page with AddThis

These prehistoric sites are both fragile and vulnerable. Excavation and study have radically altered their storage conditions. This calls for heightened care and the implementation of protection measures so that they can be handed down to future generations. These open-air sites are now closed for preservation reasons, which thus profoundly changes their original appearance. For those that are still open to the public, their fragility means that the number of visitors must be limited, and that awareness-raising actions are required via heritage activities and mediation involving researchers.

Protecting and studying sculpted shelters Share page with AddThis

Sculpted Palaeolithic shelters are a specific type of archaeological site, which combine the constraints of studying rock art with those of examining a layered occupation site. Their protection and study form part of a specific national institutional framework.
Historic Monument listing
Under the terms of the Act of 30 March 1887, decorated shelters are considered to be immovable assets and their legal protection is governed by the Historic Monument Act of 31 December 1913.
The time between discovery and listing as historical monuments varies: the Cap Blanc shelter was discovered in 1909 and listed in 1926; the Reverdit Shelter was discovered in 1923 and listed in 1924, Chaire-à-Calvin was discovered in 1927 and listed in 1986, and Roc-aux-Sorciers was discovered in 1947 and listed in 1955. Any work, alterations or restorations to listed monuments requires permission from the prefect of the region, operating on behalf of the Minister of Culture and Communication. The vicinity of a site is also protected, up to a 500-metre radius.
Study and archaeological research
Archaeological excavations are subject to government control (Heritage Code). Planned excavations (dependent on research programs) are examined by interregional archaeological research commissions (CIRAs). Authorization is then granted by the Minister or the prefect. Rescue archaeology operations are proposed when outdoor works are planned. Proposals for these are also considered by the CIRAs.
These interventions can be of various types: wall mapping, prospection, environmental assessments, even excavation if it is deemed essential, taking care to preserve the site for future generations.

Preservation of sculpted shelters Share page with AddThis

When sites are discovered and excavated, the decorated walls of sculpted shelters are subjected to the action of natural physico-chemical and/or biological agents, as well as to human vandalism.
The site of Chaire-à-Calvin (property of the département of Charente), is protected by Lippi fencing (fig. 1), whereas Cap Blanc (which is government property, managed by the Centre des Monuments Nationaux) Reverdit (private property) and Roc-aux-Sorciers (government-owned) are protected by a roof and/or a wall (fig. 2). In addition to providing physical protection against possible vandalism, roofing helps mitigate thermal swings and protects the wall against direct sunlight and water runoff that can result in loss of material from the decorated walls.
The presence of the owners themselves (Reverdit), guides (Cap Blanc) and responsible individuals (Roc-aux-Sorciers, Chaire-à-Calvin) makes it possible to control and guide visitors as well as constantly monitor a site's state of preservation: visual inspection can reveal variations on the walls, such as mineral or organic appearances or loss. Supervisory staff also perform routine site maintenance.
More in-depth surveillance is usually carried out. Climatic and biological monitoring provide indicators of the site's stability, particularly if it is open to the public. These include temperature increases, changes in relative humidity (fig. 3) and fluctuations in internal biological pollution. These readings are used to trigger appropriate actions, such as treatments to be applied (Reverdit) or work to be carried out (Chaire-à-Calvin). Monitoring of the sites' surrounding environment (agriculture, urban planning, roadworks, etc.) is also vital because these shelters are open environments in constant contact with their karstic context and the landscape (water runoff, fracturing, vegetation, etc.).
Finally, all development work for the purpose of enhancing the site or making it available to the public is subject to strict specifications that must specify:
- The nature of the materials to be used in order to ensure their harmlessness
- How the works will be performed and how their impact will be monitored
Thus, although a few years ago, as part of efforts to highlight a site, casts could be made (Roc-aux-Sorciers), today's 3D topographic digital recording techniques means that direct impact to walls can be avoided (Chaire-à-Calvin).

Public access and information Share page with AddThis

The Reverdit, Cap Blanc and Chair-à-Calvin site are now open to the public, and some of their archaeological objects are on display in museums. In contrast, Roc-aux-Sorciers is closed for conservation reasons, but an Interpretation Centre provides the public with a clear vision of the site and its Magdalenian context.
Research on sculpted shelters have also been published in both French and international journals, many of which are available online  .
Finally, news programmes also inform the general public about the research carried out at these shelters: a documentary, Grands maîtres de la préhistoire. Le génie magdalénien, directed by Philippe Plailly, was shown on the Franco-German television channel Arte in 2009.

The Roc-aux-Sorciers Interpretation Centre Share page with AddThis

The Interpretation Centre allows the public to discover the Roc-aux-Sorciers sculpted frieze, via two different renditions: an archaeological presentation and a second one that appeals to the imagination. The emotional encounter with the frieze's artistic dimension is at the heart of the encounter. The idea is not to propose a single explanation of the meaning of the frieze, but rather to provide, over the course of a visit, contextual elements (space, time, link between art and habitation), so that visitors can accumulate knowledge and better capture the essence of the site.
This is how the Interpretation Centre came about. It is neither a conventional facsimile nor a museum. The two proposed reconstructions of the carved frieze (one physical and the other digital) are used as a means and not an end. Through the frieze, and the accompanying support, visitors are invited to make their own discovery, and to raise questions that this testimony of humankind elicits.
Through these choices, the Interpretation Centre seeks to turn visitors into participants in "their" encounter with the Roc-aux-Sorciers site.

Museum collections Share page with AddThis

The collections of the four sculpted shelters – Roc-aux-Sorciers, Cap Blanc, Chaire-à-Calvin and Reverdit – are stored in different institutions depending on the history of their discovery and study.
Lucien Rousseau discovered the Roc-aux-Sorciers site (in the département of Vienne) in 1927 and carried out several excavations between 1927 and 1939. He identified the Middle Magdalenian culture via Lussac-Angles sagaies. The collection, along with archaeological documentation (books, photographs, maps, etc.) was given to the Musée d'Archéologie Nationale in 2012 by Jacques Lemounier, grandson of Lucien Rousseau.
Excavations by Suzanne de Saint-Mathurin from 1947 to 1957 and, less intensively, until 1964, revealed a series of knapped flint, worked bones, portable art and – something that is very rare – exceptional wall art. Initially, in 1973, Suzanne de Saint-Mathurin gave the Musée d'Archéologie Nationale nine sculpted and engraved stone blocks, three statuettes in the round and an engraved plaque. Later, at her death in 1991, she bequeathed to the museum the rest of the archaeological vestiges and all the related documentation, as well as her archives and library.
The Roc-aux-Sorciers site occupies a significant place in the museum's Palaeolithic Gallery. One showcase is dedicated to the rock art at Angles-sur-l'Anglin. In addition, in the Upper Palaeolithic vitrine, the section devoted to art and its interpretations features a sculpture in the round and an engraved plaque.
The Cap Blanc collections are located in different places: the Musée d'Aquitaine (G. Lalanne Collection), the Musée de l'Homme (Vésigné Collection), the Musée Nationale de Préhistoire (the Peyrony, Roussot and Castel Collections), and the Field Museum in Chicago for the skeleton and the material excavated from the burial site.
The collections from the Reverdit Shelter are kept in the museum of the site's owners, the Castanet family, as well as in the Musée National de Préhistoire.
The collections from the Chaire-à-Calvin site were recently brought together at the Musée d'Angoulême.
Rondelle découpée à la vache et au veau du Mas d’Azil

World heritage Share page with AddThis

Several caves or groups of French and foreign prehistoric sites are part of UNESCO's World Heritage List , as they "represent a masterpiece of human creative genius" but also "unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization (…) which has disappeared". This is the case with the Spanish "Cave of Altamira and Palaeolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain", but also "Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vezere Valley", which have been part of the World Heritage List since 1979 . The listing currently covers fifteen sites including the sculpted Cap Blanc Shelter.
The interest of such a listing, in addition to creating a reputation that can draw large numbers of tourists, commits the State to maintaining a site's integrity and authenticity and ensuring both protection and management.