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Art has been around since the dawn of time; prehistoric cave paintings can be found in grottos and on cliffs around the world. However, intact prehistoric sculpture remains a rare find for archeologists, though not impossible. And when discovered, they provide a fascinating insight into the lives of the earliest cultures. In southwest France, a system of
The River Volp flows through the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains range which separates France and Spain. Near the commune of Montesquieu-Avantès in southwestern France, the river flows under rocks for some length. The river actually disappears into caves, which were first explored in 1912 by Henri Bégouën and his three teenage sons. The system of caverns is technically three separate caves, only two of which are connected. Called Trois-Frères (three brothers), Enlène, and Tuc d’Audoubert, the three caves contain three levels. The river flows through the lowest, while the other levels host rooms of varying sizes. It was inside Tuc d’Audoubert that the young men encountered cave walls engraved and painted with paleolithic art. Under the direction of a family friend and archeologist, Émile Cartailhac, the caves began to be researched to see what other treasures they might hold.
Careful exploration of the caves turned up hundreds of
The Enlène cave contained relatively few examples of wall art; however, the other two caves provide rich engraved and painted examples. At
Some of the mysterious figures shown on the walls have captivated scholarly interest while their meanings remain elusive. Known as “the sorcerer,” a painting of an animal hybrid walking upright with horns is one of the most famous examples of the art within the cavern system. Found in the Trois-Frères cave, the design was initially recorded by Henri Breuil. He sketched what appears to be a man-animal mystical figure. Hence, the painting received the name “the sorcerer” as Breuil believed the design indicated a magical figure or magician. Theories abound as to the identity and importance of this figure. Given the big game depicted elsewhere on the walls, perhaps the figure was a lucky symbol for a successful hunt. Perhaps it is some mythical king of the beasts. In its unusual form and prominent position, scholars feel certain that “the sorcerer” must be an important part of Magdalenian culture and relate to the use of the caves.
Perhaps the most exciting discovery of the caverns is a small clay statue in the deepest room of the Tuc d’Audoubert cave—now known as the Room of the Bisons. Supported by a rock in the floor of the cavern is a small clay statue of two bison sculpted in relief. The work is only about 18 inches tall but remarkable for the detail with which it depicts a male and female bison who appear to be close to mating. Thier very realistic appearance was created using a combination of hand and tool. The clay used was clearly carved from the wall of an adjoining cavern. Despite the almost 15,000 years which have passed since its creation, the sculpture is still in generally good condition. This is in part due to the restricted access policy—since almost the day of its discovery—which only allows researchers to enter the caves.
While the beauty of the
The world of the Magdalenians who inhabited the three caves along the River Volp remains partially shrouded in the thousands of years which stretch between their lives and modern researchers. Modern science can analyze the genetics of these early humans, and archeologists can document the cave art they leave behind. However, the lives that correspond to the