Combarelles Cave, a major Sanctuary of the Magdalenian Culture


Tools found in the Combarelles Cave

The Combarelles Cave is situated in the village of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil.

It is at the confluence of the Petite Beune and Grande Beune Rivers and along the D47, the road leading to Sarlat-la-Canéda.

The locals had always been aware of its existence.

It was converted into a stable to farm the animals of the troglodyte farm built against its entrance.

Countless artifacts were regularly found and the entrance section had been superficially excavated in 1892.

Nobody though had really been interested in the site until 1901 when it was officially “discovered” by the archaeologists Louis Capitan, Abbé Breuil and Denis Peyrony.

The old farmhouse now serves as a reception centre for visitors.

The Combarelles Cave consists of two galleries.

The only gallery open to the public is a 240m long winding corridor whose height ranges from 50cm to 2m, and width from 1m to 2m.

What made the international fame of Combarelles Cave and earned it the epithet of major Sanctuary of the Magdalenian Culture are the 600-800 engravings whose remarkable quality reflects the high level of skills of the artists of that epoch (14,000BP to 9,500BP).


Sketch made during the initial excavations

When Dr. Capitan and the Abbé Breuil began their excavations in 1902 they discovered 109 representations of various species of animals located 125m from the entrance of the cave and spreading over 100m.

These representations are essentially engravings of an exceptional finesse and precision, some of which being 4/5mm deep.

The few drawings depict animals whose outlines have been highlighted in black.

The Magdalenian artists represented horses alone or in groups or mixed with other animal species such as bison, mammoths, cave bears, cave lions, reindeer, ibex, rhinoceros and Bovidae.

An extremely diverse bestiary!

The animals are mainly depicted in life size – however, sometimes there is just the head – and always in profile, either at rest or walking and sometimes running.

The engravings are often intertwined and superimposed (ritual context or simple lack of space?) but are always produced with a surprising degree of precision and realism which leave no doubt about the animals identification and reflects a sophisticated level of artistic skills.

Traces of pigments indicate that the engravings were originally painted.

Among the most intriguing engravings are those of four horses represented with lines which undoubtedly depict harnesses and with animal skins on their back.

This clearly indicated that they were domesticated!


Entrance to the site

There is also a mammoth represented with signs (2 brackets inclined towards each other) on his flanks.

These signs could either be the seal of the artist or a seal of ownership?

Tools and weapons such as assegais and bone harpoons were also found in the Combarelles Cave.

Carbon dating of the bones established that it was occupied from around 13.680BP to 11.380 BP.

This dating is corroborated by the fact that ibex and reindeer disappeared from the region in the last phase of the Magdalenian epoch, and mammoths at an earlier stage due to major climate changes.

Magdalenian art remains a major mystery to the experts as no one to this day can explain how and why it suddenly appeared then disappeared just as suddenly?

We are just left with these magnificent caves!

Les Combarelles Cave is open to the public only by reservation, preferably by Internet but the waiting list can be as long as 3 months during the holidays.

The other option is to queue at the ticket office of Font de Gaume Cave in town.

I would then recommended to arrive at least a couple of hours before the opening of the ticket office to secure tickets for the day as it is not possible to buy ticket for another day.

Coordinates and map for Combarelles Cave: Lat 44.936085 – Long 1.017341

Photos via Wikimedia Commons: Prehistoric tools  and Combarelles  Attribution and license  –  Animal sketches Public Domain