La Madeleine inhabited for 17,000 years
La Madeleine rock shelter is located on the northern bank of the Vézère River, opposite the village of Tursac.
La Madeleine is a unique and fascinating site, as it has three different levels of occupancy.
The prehistoric rock shelter is at river level, while the troglodyte medieval village is half-way up the cliff and the medieval castle atop the cliff!
La Madeleine is also the only site of Périgord that was inhabited for a period of 17,000 years without interruption!
This unique characteristic, along with the importance and style of the artifacts recovered from the various excavations, led the archaeologists to name a phase of the Upper-Paleolithic after it (Magdalenian).
Formation of La Madeleine rock shelter
Four million years ago a vast sea covered the south west of France, then retreated over the millennia.
The rivers it left behind, carved the limestone plateaux, created valleys and meanders and hollowed galleries and shelters in the cliffs.
Our distant ancestors immediately saw these rivers as natural defense.
They also considered the rock shelters as secure settlements against predators and cold weather conditions.
Game roamed the rich alluvial plains and the forests produced wood.
Rivers provided plenty fish and water.
First colonization, 17,000 years ago
All conditions were therefore gathered in this privileged environment for the first humans who colonized the area 17,000 years ago.
They settled in a natural rock shelter of the south-facing cliff nestled in a narrow buckle-shape meander of the Vézère.
La Madeleine was then only accessible by the riverside and therefore provided the best natural defense against predators and intruders.
It had all the conditions needed for men to settle and thrive.
The study of the three successive periods of occupation indeed shows that Magdalenian men did thrive though the millennia.
They overcame the rise of temperatures that forced mammoths to move farther north.
They adapted to new game, developed new methods of hunting and new weapons.
A new culture was arising!
Traces of Magdalenian culture were indeed found all over Western Europe.
These attest the level of sophistication of these populations who inhabited our regions from about 17,000BP to 7,000BP (end of Ice Age.)
Traces of their everyday life resurface with the many artifacts, cave art and remains discovered in the caves of Périgord.
The discovery of La Madeleine rock shelter
The paleontologist Edouard Lartet and his sponsor Henry Christy discovered La Madeleine prehistoric rock shelter in 1863.
The two men were on their way back from excavating at the nearby Moustier Neanderthal site, when they noticed a rock shelter nestled in a narrow meander of the Vézère.
The superficial excavations they conducted on the spot revealed countless artifacts.
Magdalenian men indeed mastered cave paintings and engraving.
However, they also mastered the making of ivory, horn and bone tools, weapons and jewels, which they often engraved or decorated.
These left therefore no doubt about the importance of the site, which underwent thorougher exploration the following year.
The Age of the Reindeer
The extensive representation of reindeer led the archaeologists to refer to the Magdalenian era as the Age of the Reindeer.
As the excavations progressed it was later found that Magdalenian men were not only reindeer hunters.
Indeed, they also hunted red deer, horses and much larger mammals.
Their animal paintings were realistic in colours and shapes.
These distant artists also used the natural declivity of the caves’ walls, which they adapted and incorporated into their design.
The specificity and sophistication of the techniques they used reflect a high level of skills and an acute understanding of the surrounding world.
The discovery that confirmed the importance of La Madeleine site was that of five fragments of an ivory blade engraved with an exceptional representation of a mammoth.
The animal was depicted with such realism and details that it was obvious that the artist depicted an animal he had seen in the flesh, an animal which was contemporary with him.
It was then easy for the experts to date the engravings and authenticate the age of the cave as they indeed knew when mammoths disappeared from Southwest France.
Another interesting fact about this extraordinary culture is that Magdalenian men didn’t live in caves anymore, but built tents.
All the fascinating findings made at la Madeleine therefore led in 1868 to a redefinition of the time-line of prehistory!
A phase of the Upper-Paleolithic – Magdalenian epoch – was therefore named after the site.
In 1926, further excavations led to another major discovery – the skeleton of a 3-year child wearing shell jewellery and died about 10,000 years ago.
The quality of the jewels leads to think that he was the son of an important member of the tribe.
As in La Laugerie Haute, traces of ocher pigments revealed that the body of the Child of La Madeleine (L’enfant de La Madeleine) was painted prior to burial.
Most of the artifacts found in La Madeleine are exhibited in the National Museum of Prehistory in Les Eyzies de Tayac Sireuil (including the Child of La Madeleine) and in the Museum of National Antiquities in St-Germain-en-Laye near Paris.
La Madeleine prehistoric shelter is not open to the public.
However, you can visit the troglodyte village and have a close look at the ruined castle.
La Madeleine troglodyte village
La Madeleine village was built during the Saracens (Arabs) and Vikings’ incursions in the 8th and 9th centuries.
The troglodyte village is therefore a purposely built fortress.
The steep access path indeed allowed space only for one person at the time, thus preventing any group attack.
A fortified guard post defended the village entrance and a suspended footbridge span a wooden platform.
This platform, tilted towards the river, cleverly allowed the guard to push down any intruder.
A narrow lane protected by a parapet – the village street! – ran between the edge of the cliff and the dwellings.
A section of the village was allocated to the tradesmen and their families; traces of their equipment can still be seen in the ground or in the rock.
The natural rock shelters proved to be ideal dwellings, because they already had a natural ceiling and floor.
All they needed was an external wall!
The surrounding forests provided the beams needed for the frame, and the cliff unlimited supply of stones.
All that is left today of the beams that were anchored straight into the rock face are small aligned cavities.
Internal walls were made of cob, a mixture of mud, straw and wood locally known as torchis or pisé.
Troglodyte dwellings had two levels, however, the shape of the rock dictated their layout.
Goats, sheep, pigs and poultry lived in the barn at ground level; the heat they produced rose to the upper level where the family lived.
A handful of houses have retained their walls.
You’ll therefore be able to discover traces of occupation and smoke traces on the ceiling will show you where the hearth was located.
Villagers also adapted the cliff to their needs.
They often cut into the rock in order to enlarge, reshape and create niches, cupboards and beds often closed with wooden doors.
They carved a rainwater butt straight into the rock above their dwellings in order to collect water.
Almost water on the tap!
There also carved gutters in order to evacuate the excess rainwater and human and animal waste.
You indeed have to imagine hens, pigs, goats and others animals running free in the narrow ‘village street’!
Finally, there was a vegetable garden in the enclosure of the fortress, atop the cliff.
Access to this garden was always possible, even in time of siege.
The importance of the river
Villagers cut a set of steps into the cliff in order to easily go down to and from the river.
Traffic on the river was busy, as troglodyte villages were supplied by boat.
Wood, hemp, food, drinkable water, weapons and others arrived by flat bottom boats or gabares.
The supplies were then uplifted to the cliff by a system of pulley.
Finally, small embarkations and rafts allowed people to cross the river as there was no bridge.
Chapel of Sainte Madeleine
As in any traditional village, there was a chapel.
Lord Beynac built Sainte Madeleine Chapel in 1354 on the foundations of a previous chapel.
The tiny building has retained its superb Gothic arches and two Romanesque altars.
However, all the frescoes were lost, except for an intriguing indoor Cadran Solaire (sundial), which purpose is unknown.
The watchman hole
Finally, each troglodyte village along the Vézère (and the Dordogne) had a watchman hole or cluzeau.
This small cavity in the rock face was only accessible by a ladder or a rope.
These guard posts were placed at regular intervals along the river.
This allowed the watchmen to communicate with each others by blowing a horn or by visual signals.
Their signal indeed warned the farmers who then gathered their animals grazing in the valley and brought them in the safe shelters.
Château fort du Petit-Marzac
Petit Marzac was also built during the invasions of the 8th and 9th century in order to offer protection to the villagers of the valley.
It stood atop the cliff and was encompassed within a dried moat, which is still partially visible.
The Sireuil Family reinforced the castle fortifications in the 13th century.
The village and its fortress were often under siege or attacked during the Hundred Years War and villagers had therefore to fend for themselves and be self-sufficient.
However, the English seized the church of Tursac and Petit Marzac in 1335 and used it as a base for raiding Périgord.
Lord Beynac recaptured it in 1354 and the fortress remained in his family until the 17th century.
All that is left are ruins (non accessible for safety reasons) as this impressive fortress burned in 1620.
Not only was it never rebuilt, but it was also quarried.
However, a few walls and the Tour Saint Martin survived total destruction.
La Madeleine village was abandoned at the same.
Only the cloth-maker’s family and occasional farmers and shepherds sojourned afterwards; the village was eventually deserted in the late 19th century.
La Madeleine is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Department of Dordogne – Tursac
Coordinates: Lat 44.96185 – Long 1.041255