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.

Sanctuaries and habitats

Visible art, hidden art Share page with AddThis

Decorated Palaeolithic sites are generally called "sanctuaries" as they are viewed as sacred spaces, distinct from those that served as backdrops to daily activities. However, the variety of archaeological contexts suggests that these sites cannot all be reduced to this single function. In rock shelters, works open to the light of day were visible to all, and played a different role for groups – but not necessarily excluding the concept of "sacred" that we associate with "sanctuaries".

Accessibility Share page with AddThis

Wall art can be found in very diverse places. The choice of location is not insignificant. Whether visible to all or only by initiates, they probably reflect the existence of two styles of art: one more collective and one that was "private."
 
The Magdalenians created art in caves and at open-air sites. Deep caves, for the most part interpreted as sacred, rarely contain vestiges of occupation. They were visited from time to time, sometimes for long periods. At some sites, the entrance can clearly be seen based on the topography, as at Niaux (Ariège) or Font-de-Gaume (Dordogne). At others, access was not so simple, and the works are located both near the main pathway and visible to all, and in more out-of-the-way locations such narrow side chambers and even camarins.
 
On the other hand, open-air decorated sites – which contain traces of occupation and are thus generally related to the daily life of the Magdalenians – are easily accessible and the works are visible to all. Nevertheless, the artists' graphic choices  do not always allow researchers, even here, to interpret every image; some of them appear, even in these settings, to be created only for a limited number of initiates.
 

Different techniques for different results Share page with AddThis

In addition to the location  of wall art, the Magdalenians' graphic choices when creating their works underscore whether the images were for public or private viewing.
 
Among these choices, the size of the works plays an important role: large-scale depictions are visible to all, unlike smaller, more discreet images.
 
The Magdalenians chose their techniques according to the placement of the works. Painting, through the contrast between the colour and the support, offers greater visibility, as does sculpture and deep engraving through the play of shadows that they create. On the other hand, finely engraved lines – where they are not enhanced with paint – are more difficult to make out.
 
Deciphering some works is also made difficult by compositions in which images are juxtaposed, superimposed or overloaded with lines, which lessens readability.
 
Le « Sorcier » ou le « Jocond » du Roc-aux-Sorciers

Decorated sites, occupied sites Share page with AddThis

During the Magdalenian, there were different types of occupied sites. These may be divided according to their geomorphology (outdoor sites, rock shelters and caves) and their ostensible functions, based on the vestiges and structures that have been unearthed (habitat, hunting stop, "sanctuary", etc.). Magdalenian sculpted rock-shelters are difficult to define as the vestiges they contain fulfil all of these various functions.

Visits Share page with AddThis

During the Magdalenian, rock shelters were visited repeatedly. The accumulation of archaeological layers reflects multiple occupation of the same site.

These visits, however, should not be thought of merely in terms of length; on certain occasions, a number of Magdalenians came at once. This can be seen at the Roc-aux-Sorciers site, whose layout and wall art – located in an imposing setting and intended for remote viewing – appear to be destined for larger groups. The major extension to the rock shelter could accommodate several dozen individuals simultaneously. Roc-aux-Sorciers fulfils most of the criteria for an aggregation site as defined by Margaret Conkey: a large surface area, a strategic location, a density of individuals, a quantity of symbolic creations (portable art, ornaments, wall art) and the reuse of the site.

Long-term occupation Share page with AddThis

These sculpted shelters are characterised by occupation traces that indicate stays by Magdalenians. An accumulation of vestiges, such as animal remains and large amounts of waste products from flint knapping, reflect time spent at the site. The refurbishment of hunting weapons but also the remains of every stage in the creation of these weapons is indicative of continuous occupation during one or more seasons. In the same way, several elements, such as large hearths and changes to the shelter floor attest to these stays. The occupants organised the site and looked after their living arrangements.

Loops Share page with AddThis

Since the Aurignacian period (Castanet Shelter), loops were carved into rock walls and stones. The rock was pierced to allow a line to be threaded through, and their placement was deliberate. In the Magdalenian era, at Roc-aux-Sorciers for example, these loops are located on the vertical edges of walls and sometimes on horizontal ridges, and are grouped in series from the top to bottom of the frieze, from the vault down to bedrock. Loops may have played a role in the installation of enclosing structures for protecting and closing off various living areas. Beyond this functional aspect, the rings play a part in the organization of figures by making separations between various thematic registers. They frequently are associated with figurative sculptural elements, including bison at Roc-aux-Sorciers and horses at Cap Blanc.

Recuts Share page with AddThis

Evidence of recutting has been observed at several sculpted shelters. These involve partial or total destruction of figures – more than once in some cases. At each site, various successive wall registers emerge. Bison, which are the most frequently recut figures, are transformed into horses (Cap Blanc, Roc-aux-Sorciers and Chaire-à-Calvin) or ibex (Roc-aux-Sorciers). Recutting scraps found in archaeological layers allow us to date these interventions. The different phases of wall redevelopment reflect an ongoing appropriation of the wall by the Magdalenians. These interventions alter the species represented and the distribution of the different themes found in the frieze. The symbolic elements in Magdalenian sculpted shelters evolved independent of any identifiable technological innovation based on the archaeological evidence.