Known as the "Lascaux of sculpture", Roc-aux-Sorciers is a rock shelter that was occupied at various points during the Magdalenian Period, some 15,000 years BP. It is in the département of Vienne near Angles-sur-l’Anglin, one of the most beautiful villages in France. The shelter, which is located at the foot of tall limestone cliffs on the right bank of the Anglin, is famous for a series of outstanding wall sculptures that extend for more than fifty metres. They are part of a Magdalenian habitation site in which wall art and daily life were closely connected.
Lucien Rousseau discovered the site in 1927 and published his findings concerning the Magdalenian occupation he identified (Rousseau, 1933). In 1948, Suzanne Cassou de Saint-Mathurin reopened the site, excavating it intensively until 1957. Working with Dorothy Garrod, she discovered the sculpted frieze in 1950 and published several articles about it. The site was made a listed monument on 18 January 1955. At her death in 1991, de Saint-Mathurin donated the site and her collections to the French State. At her request, Geneviève Pinçon carried on the excavations, and in 1997 published – with Ludmila Iakovleva – the part of the sculpted frieze still in situ, carrying out the work with a multi-disciplinary team of young researchers.
The shelter sits at the foot of forty-metre-high limestone cliffs and faces south. It is nearly fifty metres long and can be divided into three sections. The southeast end of the shelter, known as the Taillebourg Cave, features a large, cave-like overhang whose decorated ceiling collapsed during the Magdalenian Period. Next to it, an intermediate zone has been kept as an archaeological reserve. Finally, there is a shallow sculpted rock shelter, known as the Bourdois Shelter, some twenty metres in length.
The occupation of the site can be traced in the two excavated sections. The most elaborate stratigraphy is the one uncovered by Suzanne de Saint-Mathurin below the sculpted frieze that is still in situ. It provides a long sequence, including an initial grouping dating to the Upper Magdalenian (ca. 12–10,000 BP), with occupation traces that appear to indicate brief visits by hunter-gatherers. The second, which was sealed by the overhang's collapse, has been attributed to the Middle Magdalenian (some 15,000 BP), and is also found in the Taillebourg Cave. The occupation traces are denser for the Middle Magdalenian, when the site was sculpted.
Several archaeological occupations have been described but unfortunately, since they were excavated many years ago, their length and frequency cannot be precisely stated. The thinness and the discontinuity of the Upper Magdalenian layers and the nature of the archaeological material associated with them suggest infrequent visits by hunters. Nevertheless, the thickness of the layers attributed to the Middle Magdalenian, combined with the study of the fauna, indicate long-term occupations. The close connection between traces of domestic occupations and the symbolic elements (decorative elements, art material and wall art) give a specific function to this shelter, different from that of "sanctuary", a term with which deep decorated caves are often tagged.
The wall art at Roc-aux-Sorciers is basically found in two areas: on the ceiling of the Taillebourg Cave (unfortunately collapsed) and at the head of the Bourdois Shelter. This division is connected with the excavated sectors. A sondage by Suzanne de Saint-Mathurin revealed traces of wall sculptures between the two areas, at the level of the archaeological reserve. Farther downstream, a sculpture has not been completely excavated, leaving the impression that the wall art continues further and deeper than the 50 metres uncovered to date.
A separate set of wall engravings lie beneath the monumental sculptures. An analysis of the sculpted ensemble shows that it was organised by register and by theme, both at the back of the shelter and on the ceiling. Several re-cuts reveal that the images have been reworked.