Font de Gaume Cave, a rock shelter

Font de Gaume entrance

Font de Gaume Cave is situated in Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil.

Villagers have been aware of the natural rock shelter since at least the Hundred Years War.

At that time, they indeed built a defense tower by its entrance and used the cave as a storage facility!

The conflict over, the building became redundant and fell in ruins, but the marks of the beams supporting the tower are still visible in the rock face.

The site later became a playground for the local children, which explains the presence of some graffiti!

Font de Gaume, a masterpiece of Cave Art

The archaeologists Peyrony Denis, Louis Capitan and Abbé Breuil ‘rediscovered’ Font de Gaume Cave on September 12, 1901

Further excavations were conducted from 1958 to 1964 and in 1967.

They uncovered 200 polychromatic, and often superimposed, wall paintings or engravings, among which 80 bison, 40 horses and 20 mammoths!

These exceptional murals turn Font de Gaume Cave into one of the most beautiful Paleolithic sanctuaries in the world, despite their average state of conservation.

Font de Gaume map
Map of the galleries

However, it’s impossible radiocarbon-date these paintings and engravings.

Experts therefore compared their styles and similarities with other prehistoric art work.

They all came to the conclusion that they dated from the Solutrean- Magdalenian eras (17,000 BP).

Nothing is really known of the Paleolithic artists who produced this wonderful cave art.

However, experts have also established that they spent minimum time in the cave, just long enough to decorate them.

No permanent trace of habitat has indeed ever been found in these caves to this day.

Did shamans paint these murals?

And if yes, did they paint them for religious or hunting purposes?

Some experts even believe that the caves could have been a sort of ‘school’, where the artists were taught the various techniques of cave painting!

The Rubicon in Font de Gaume Cave

It’s a real puzzle, as not only is Font de Gaume Cave 120m deep, but its entrance, known as the Rubicon, is so narrow and twisty that you have to weave through!

Font de Gaume - Entrance to the Rubicon
Entrance to the Rubicon

Some sections were initially hampered by stalactites.

The most obstructive were removed in order to facilitate the investigations then the visits.

It therefore seems that Magdalenian artists were very thin and agile!

They also carried their candles made from reindeer fat in order to see in the pitch dark.

It must have been quite eerie!

Some researchers believe that the challenging corridor, the lack of light and the limited amount of oxygen could have triggered a sense of disorientation.

This could have been linked to a rite of passage, in the reverse manner of a newborn making his way out through the birth canal.

Were these distant ancestors symbolically making their way back to the Beginning of Time and Creation?

All assumptions are allowed.

Font de Gaume murals

Once in the depths of the cave, they had to study the irregularities of the walls in order to find a shape that would inspire them.

How long did they need to paint, etch or carve?

Nobody obviously knows.

We can only guess that they had to carefully time their stay because of the rarefaction of oxygen.

In spite of all the hazards, they mastered a wide range of techniques in order to produce the artistic effect they needed.

They indeed took advantage of the unevenness of the rock in order to bring forth aurochs, bison, mammoths, horses, reindeer and lions.

Often, they only needed to draw two or three lines in order to connect natural forms and turn them into animals.

They then applied the paint.

They sometimes drew a preliminary basic sketch with charcoal or etched the outline of the subject straight onto the cave wall prior to painting.

Some paintings were also superimposed.

A magic ritual or simply lack of space, no one knows?

Paleolithic artists produced an impressive number of abstract and figurative work.

Details of their drawings and engravings were often very realistic.

Two reindeer facing each other and bison

Two exceptional murals illustrate the remarkable artistic skills of the people who adorned the walls of Font de Gaume Cave.

The first represents two reindeer facing each other.

The biggest animal is dark and has large antlers.

Reproduction of Reindeer in Font de Gaume
Reproduction of Reindeer

He seems to be licking the forehead of the smaller animal, which is red-brown, has smaller antlers and seems to be kneeling.

The scene was for a long time interpreted as being the scene of a courtship.

However, visitors from Northern Europe recently gave another interesting explanation.

They indeed recognized the small animal as a female ready to give birth.

They said that male reindeer often licks the forehead of their females in order to encourage them.

Font de Gaume Cave’s second masterpiece is a striking frieze depicting brown bison against a white background.

Anthropomorphic figures and enigmatic signs

Paleolithic artists not only carved, engraved etched and painted animals, but also added anthropomorphic figures.

Tectiforms found in Font de Gaume

However, these were mostly limited to genitals and silhouettes.

They also drew enigmatic geometric signs such as points, lines, symbols, tectiforms (roof-shaped), quadrilaterals or X.

Some researchers specialized in the study of contemporary primitive societies suggest that these signs could be an elaborate system of codes.

They could indeed describe tribes’ social organization.

Perhaps the beginnings of writing?

Pigments, colours and techniques

These distant artists obtained they colours from earth natural pigments.

Ocher clay produced three basic colours: a range of reds, yellow and brown.

Manganese oxide or charcoal produced black, and calcite white.

These natural pigments were ground into a fine powder.

They were then mixed with water, reindeer fat, fruit juice, blood or urine in order to “stick” to the cave’s walls.

Our distant ancestors painted with their fingers, but also used small blocks of pigments, moss pads and brushes made with animal hairs or plant fibers.

They sprayed the liquid pigments with a small bone or hollow wood blowpipe.

Their techniques obviously evolved through time, but they left us this amazing display of Cave Art!

UNESCO listed Font de Gaume Cave a World Heritage Site in 1979.

Tips for the visit

Font de Gaume Cave is still open to the public, but only with a reservation made on the day!

Font de Gaume seen from the road
Font de Gaume seen from the road

Access is indeed limited to 80 visits per day (in groups of 10 visitors); you therefore need to get up very early and queue at the ticket office.

It doesn’t open until 9.30am, however, during the holiday season people arrive as early as 6.30am!

The waiting is worth it, though, as the cave might not be open to the public forever.

Photos are forbidden (as in most caves.)

Once at the cave’s entrance, you have to leave your belongings in a “cloakroom” set up in the adjacent gallery.

This indeed ease progress through the narrow Rubicon and avoid any contact, therefore any contamination, with the walls.

Department of Dordogne – Eyzies de Tayac Sireuil
Coordinates: Lat 44.936957 – Long 1.026971

Photo via Wikimedia Commons:  Site seen from the roadTectiforms

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