We know of a great many rock art graphic depictions, and they are present on every continent. They primarily use either engraving techniques of varying depth or painting, sculpture remains the exception. In the Palaeolithic, it is rarely used for works to adorn the walls and floors of caves and rock shelters, bur rather more often for small portable objects.
Sculpture in the round has been present from the very beginning of symbolic expression in the Aurignacian period, some 32,000 years BP, for movable objects. Ivory statuettes found in the southwestern Germany (the Swabian Jura) feature images of horses, bears and lions. The discovery of the Venus of Hohle Fels in 2008 was exceptional for its subject matter: a woman with exaggerated sexual organs. This type of representation is reminiscent of the many Venuses produced in the subsequent culture.
The female statuettes of the Gravettian period, incorrectly referred to as "Venuses", were the first symbol that was shared across Europe, from the Atlantic shore to Russia. The "Lady with the Hood", a masterpiece of Palaeolithic art found at Brassempouy, offers a perfect illustration of the representation of anonymous individuals.
It was also during the Gravettian that, in the Périgord region, the first simple sculptures appeared on walls and decorated stones (Laussel). Actual carved decorations developed about 19,000 years BP in Solutrean wall art (Roc de Sers). During the Magdalenian, the practice of wall sculpture spread widely throughout southwestern France (Chaire-à-Calvin, Roc-aux-Sorciers, etc.).
Across thousands of years, sculpting techniques changed little. However, themes and forms varied depending on the group and the culture, and across both space and time.
The first evidence of monumental wall sculpture appears starting in the Solutrean. However, the largest amount of evidence dates to the Magdalenian: Roc-aux-Sorciers, Cap Blanc, Reverdit, Chaire-à-Calvin, etc. Two Solutrean sites provide a good illustration of these origins.
The major Laussel Shelter in the community of Marquay (Dordogne) opens onto the Grande Beune valley, a few hundred meters upstream from the Cap Blanc Shelter.
Excavated by Gaston Lalanne in 1908, the deposit contains the longest stratigraphic sequence in the Périgord, with occupations from every culture in the Upper Palaeolithic (some 25,000 years).
In 1910, five wall sculptures on fallen limestone blocks were found. They include the "Venus with horn", the "playing card", the "Berlin Venus" (since lost), the "Venus with a gridded head" and the "hunter". They have been attributed to the Gravettian period (about 25,000 years BP).
These sculptures were cut from the collapsed blocks to ensure, in particular, their conservation. The "Venus with horn" is currently on display at the Musée d'Aquitaine.
Roc de Sers
The prehistoric site of Roc in the community of Sers (Charente), commonly referred to as Roc de Sers, has yielded the oldest known sculpted frieze to date. Archaeological excavations were carried out in the early twentieth century. The most significant were led by Leon Henri-Martin between 1909 and 1929. The site yielded several habitats beneath shelters and thousands of flint tools specific to the Upper Solutrean (shouldered points and laurel leaf points) and limestone slabs with engravings of animals. Carbon dating of burnt bone (19,230 + 300 years BP) confirms that the site belongs to this culture.
The principal interest of the site consists of a series of limestone blocks belonging to a sculpted wall frieze some ten metres long. The originals, each weighing several hundred kilograms, are now in the Musée d’Archéologie Nationale. In 1951, the discovery of sculptures still fixed to the rock confirmed this hypothesis.
Horses, bison, ibex, deer and birds, as well as two rudimentary human figures and painted signs (dots), make up this exceptional ensemble.
About 15,000 years old, rock shelters at the foot of cliffs were occupied by Magdalenians, whose used their technical skills to create surfaces suitable for sculpting. The Roc-aux-Sorciers site is a excellent example of this use of rock walls. Practices observed at Roc-aux-Sorciers can be found at other sites, including Cap Blanc, Chaire-à-Calvin, Reverdit, etc., even though each site has its own specificities. From this point of view, Roc-aux-Sorciers can be seen as a model.
Sculpted representations on rock shelter walls are not only testimony to the sculptors' extraordinary skill, but also reveal how Palaeolithic societies rendered their environment. Using their knowledge of the natural environment, the Magdalenians interpreted their world through the images they produced. The Palaeolithic artists' act was both claim and testimony, producing visual proof of the surrounding world.
The proportions of the figures depicted are similar to those of living animals, with precise anatomical detail and lifelike positions. Both animals and humans are highly realistic and very dynamic. Their poses were selected according to the species in order to render real-life situations such as the search for food, a position of rest or the depiction of several behaviours within the same herd.
The Palaeolithics often chose to represent animals life-sized, with anatomical details that are true to life in shape and proportion. The realism of these figures allows us to determine the animals' age, sex and behaviour.
Different poses can be seen depending on the species: horses grazing and walking, bison in an aggressive stance, ibex facing each other, and so on.
At Cap Blanc, where the volumes and outlines of the sculptures are highlighted, the horses are depicted with great realism.
At Roc-aux-Sorciers, where the artist took care to depict the figures in great detail, there is a very realistic depiction of a moving herd of ibex in which one can distinguish males, females and young.
Sculpted art becomes a teaching tool, describing the special relationship between the Magdalenian populations and the animal kingdom. Horses with lowered or turned heads also show a desire to capture the animal's pose and dynamism. The twisting of a body to render anatomical details visible reflects the artists' willingness to show, through form, their vision of animals.
Although they do not all have the same degree of preservation, these four wall ensembles have multiple similarities indicating a common cultural background. At the same time, specificities set them apart and highlight local preferences.
The four sites are similar in many ways, proof that they shared a common culture, one expressed in the techniques used, the themes, and the form given to the composition of the ensembles. All types of sculptural relief techniques were used and combined, highlighting certain anatomical features (breast, muzzle). The sculptures are strictly figurative, depicting animals and, to a lesser extent, humans. A register of abstract painted and/or engraved patterns could also play a role. The sculptures are characterised by their monumentality (50–220 cm long). Their shape is governed by two basic formal concepts. A strong tendency to realism expresses itself in complete, well-proportioned and modelled silhouettes, and in a wealth of anatomical detail. The animals' power of the animals is evoked in the emphasis on forequarters and muscle masses, and by internal modelling and the contour of the volumes. The graphic images are structured into friezes: they share the same format, and their identical orientation creates a horizontal alignment. At Roc-aux-Sorciers and Cap Blanc, two vertical registers coexist, corresponding to a thematic, technical and dimensional differentiation. Nevertheless, the compositions are largely based on the topography, which helps make each site unique.
The sculptures at Roc-aux-Sorciers and Chaire-à-Calvin share many similarities in terms of technical, themes and form, as well the calibre of the images. Homothetic analyses performed on two three-dimensional mappings are particularly instructive, because they allow researchers to compare the shapes and volumes of sculptures by calculating their margins of difference. They reveal that the templates are nearly identical (fig. 1). Such similarity is exceptional in Palaeolithic cave art.
Were the sculptures the work of the same "artist" or of different "hands"? Currently, studies attempting to differentiate specific artists behaviours have led to contradictory conclusions. The hypothesis of different hands would reveal the transmission of very strict iconographic standards, with little freedom given to artists. However, if the same individual sculpted the two friezes, which are more than 100 km apart, was the mobility between the two sites collective or individual? Individual mobility implies the existence of "artists" or specialised itinerant craftsmen, which speaks to both the special social status of people and a cultural (and economic?) influence of certain sites – a theory already posited for some Magdalenian portable art sites.