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.

Wall sculpture

A unique ensemble Share page with AddThis

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.

Sculpted shelters Share page with AddThis

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.

La « Dame à la Capuche » de Brassempouy La « Vénus » de Sireuil Le « petit Cheval » de Lourdes

Solutrean sculpted wall art Share page with AddThis

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.

femme Représentation féminine dite Petit cheval du Roc de Sers

Sculpting of the wall Share page with AddThis

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.

A favourable geological context? Share page with AddThis

The geological conditions in the Anglin Valley are unique. At Roc-aux-Sorciers, the Jurassic marine limestone cliff was carved out during the creation of the Anglin Valley during the Quaternary. The river cut through the powerful reef formation of the Upper Oxfordian, some forty metres thick, consisting mainly of hard, massive limestone reefs and, in places, soft, homogeneous shelly limestone.
At its base, the cliff consists of a shelly limestone, rich in rolled coral debris and various fossils some 50 cm thick, on top of which is a relatively fine layer of porous, soft shelly limestone that is about 3 m thick. This limestone was originally sand deposited between the reefs. It was modified during its deposit by earthquakes that created structures known as Problematica. They are clearly visible today on the flank of the ibex in the wake of weathering of the carved wall. Above, some 20 metres tall, is a limestone cliff with hard to very hard recrystallized corals, which form the bulk of the cliff.
The exposure of the cliff provided an excellent occupation site, sheltered from the north winds. The presence of an unbroken 3-metre high layer of fine, soft and homogeneous shelly limestone at the foot of the cliff was the determining factor for the realization of the great frieze in the Bourdois Shelter at Roc-aux-Sorciers, and for the sculptures on the ceiling of the Taillebourg Cave.

An adapted support? Share page with AddThis

Large-scale sculpture in the round requires a large surface with minimal fracturing. Thus the Magdalenians had to get rid of fractured surface elements caused by decompression of the ground and gelifraction. They could do nothing about tectonic fracturing affecting the rock mass. The sculptors sought to reach clean, non-fractured bedrock that could be engraved and sculpted.
To start, the gelifracted limestone was easily cleared, and the occupants reached the limestone mass that had decompressed into large sheets. On these, they laid down a multitude of intertwined figures etched with fine lines.
In a second step, in order to have a sufficiently large, even surface to sculpt in the round, particularly in the Bourdois Shelter, the Magdalenians removed every loose stone block and pulled off scales through hammering and widening decompression cracks. These efforts to clear the wall are evinced by the presence of shell pieces in engraved surfaces, found in occupation layers from the Middle Magdalenian. As the wall was cleared, to remove increasingly large decompression scales and tectonic dihedrals, the inhabitants enlarged fractures and cracks in the form of vertical grooves and corners.
The surface preparation was impressive: only few natural surfaces remain, and almost everything else has been worked. The original surface is found only in a very few areas. After pulling down blocks, a smooth wall surface was achieved by systematic picking and hammering of the rock. This would have been relatively easy on a freshly cleared surface free of calcium deposits.

Humans and animals Share page with AddThis

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.

A human presence Share page with AddThis

Human images are not a major theme in the Palaeolithic. Figurative art is dominated by animals, primarily bison and horses. This scant appearance of human figures was a deliberate choice, which likely changed over time and space, and thus it is very difficult to determine rules and social codes.
The heightened realism of silhouettes and the detail of the forms reveal not only anatomical knowledge of the human body but also a desire to represent it on walls.
Silhouette humaine du Roc-aux-Sorciers

Observed animals, depicted animals Share page with AddThis

Every species has its own status, whether it is hunted or not. And yet Palaeolithic peoples chose to depict, in a permanent manner, only certain species on walls.
Thus, the archaeological vestiges found at Roc-aux-Sorciers contain abundant fauna, dominated by the reindeer. Reindeer was the most-consumed animal, an excellent source of meat and raw materials (antlers, hides, etc.). However, reindeers are never represented in wall sculptures.
Ibex remains, however, are few. This species, which was hunted only on occasion, is very much present on sculpted walls, appearing in herds.

Living subjects Share page with AddThis

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.

Realism Share page with AddThis

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.

Details Share page with AddThis

The Magdalenian sculptors respected proportions and anatomical details, and translated their knowledge of the animal world. Many details are included, such horns, eyes and tongues, which render the subjects even more realistic.
At Roc-aux-Sorciers, for example, a male ibex is shown sticking out its tongue, the eyes of the horses and ibex are very detailed, and we can clearly distinguish the eyelid and lacrimal caruncle. One can also make out the anatomical detail of the limbs of bison and ibex – including tendons, muscle and joints – down to their cloven hoofs and the detail of the soft flesh at the base of the hoof known as the bulb.
At Chaire-à-Calvin, the eye of the horse is treated the same way as the one at Roc-aux-Sorciers.
At Cap Blanc, the details are less accurate because the artists' attention focused on the volumes.

Dynamism Share page with AddThis

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.

At the crossroads of space Share page with AddThis

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.

An artistic tradition Share page with AddThis

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.

Two distinct groups Share page with AddThis

Within this tradition of wall sculpture, two groups may be distinguished. One group extends from Vienne to the Charente. The sculptures are rather shallow, with very little removal of material. Ibex take pride of place. The figures are highly detailed, and the main organs, bones and muscle masses are carefully depicted. They are also very dynamic, portrayed in classic poses. This group includes the friezes at Roc-aux-Sorciers and Chaire-à-Calvin.
Cap Blanc is distinguished by deep sculptures with very pronounced modelling obtained by extensive clearing away of the surrounding rock. The in situ sculptures at Reverdit share this technique, perhaps only because of the homogeneous medium that made such clearing possible. The figures at Cap Blanc are somewhat more schematic. They are linear, often incomplete and less detailed (hoof, bone and muscular outlines); in particular, stylised rendering of muscle is replaced by modelling work. The stiffness of the silhouettes is in line with this static treatment.
The chronological relationship between these two groups remains unclear: were they contemporaries? The chrono-cultural contexts of the friezes at Cap Blanc and Reverdit are too unclear to resolve this issue.

Itinerant artists? Share page with AddThis

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.