Art has always existed; Prehistoric rock paintings can be found in caves and on cliffs around the world. However, intact prehistoric sculptures remain a rare, if not impossible, find for archaeologists. And when discovered, they provide a fascinating insight into the life of the earliest cultures. In south-west France, a system of three large caves beside the River Volpe is one of the finest examples of Paleolithic art in Europe.
Among the wonders of the caves is a small, intricate clay sculpture of two bison. This work of art dates from around 13,000 BC. and provides a cryptic clue for scholars interested in early Magdalenian culture.
The Volpe flows through the foothills of the Pyrenees chain that separates France and Spain. Near the commune of Montesquieu-Avantes in south-west France, the river flows a little under the rocks. The river practically disappears into the caves, first explored in 1912 by Henri Begouin and his three teenage sons. The cave system is technically three separate caves, only two of which are connected. The three caves called Trois-Frères (three brothers), Enlène and Tuc d'Audoubert consist of three levels. A river flows through the lowest level, in the other levels there are rooms of different sizes.
Inside the Tuc d'Auduber, young people came across the walls of the cave engraved and painted with Paleolithic art. Led by family friend and archaeologist Emil Kartailak, exploration of the caves began to see what other treasures they might contain.
Careful exploration of the caves has uncovered hundreds of works of art by the Stone Age Madeleine peoples. These early humans are known to have hunted reindeer, horses, and other large game during the declining Ice Age. Their ancient habitations and rituals have been found in France and Spain and include cave paintings, engraved bones and other artifacts. Finds in three caves have enriched the repertoire of ancient culture-related art. Bone and ivory fragments with carved images of animals were found in Enlen Cave.
The master chose to depict the horse's head on the horse's hyoid bone; A chamois (a goat antelope found in the region) is also carved into the lower jaw of a bison.
Enlen Cave had relatively few examples of wall art; However, the other two caves are richly engraved and painted examples. In the Tyuc d'Auduberre, the club's abstract symbols (Claviforms) in the form of the letter "P" were often repeated, particularly in the room that became known as the Claviform Gallery. Throughout the cave, 103 animals are depicted on the walls and floor.
These include horses, reindeer and big cats. However, the bison seems to have been the most revered of these animals, accounting for 40 percent of the animal depictions overall. In addition, researchers returning to the cave decades after its discovery documented 250 abstract signs and other enigmatic figures.
Some of the enigmatic figures depicted on the walls have attracted the attention of scholars, but their meaning remains unclear. The depiction of an animal hybrid walking straight with horns is known as the "Magician" and is one of the most famous examples of art in the cave system. The drawing found in the Trois Freres cave was originally written by Henri Breuil. He painted a seemingly mystical figure of a beastman. Hence the painting was given the name "Wizard" as Bray believed the drawing was indicative of a magical figure or sorcerer. There are many theories about the personality and meaning of this character.
Given the large game depicted somewhere on the walls, this figure may have been a lucky symbol of a successful hunt. Perhaps this is a mythical king of beasts. Scholars believe that because of its unusual shape and meaning, the "magician" must have been an important part of Magdalenian culture and associated with the use of the caves.
Perhaps the most exciting discovery of the caves is a small clay statue in the deepest room of the Tuc d'Auduber cave, now known as the Buffalo Room. On a stone in the floor of the cave stands a small clay statue of two buffaloes, sculpted in relief. The work is only about 18 inches tall but is notable for its depiction of a male and female bison who appear to be about to mate.
Her highly realistic appearance was created using a combination of hands and tools. The clay used was clearly cut from the wall of a nearby cave. Although almost 15,000 years have passed since its creation, the sculpture is still in good condition. This is partly due to the access restriction - almost since the day it opened - which only allows researchers to enter the caves.
While the beauty of the prehistoric bison statue is undeniable, its meaning and importance to the first cave dwellers is hazy. Experts suspect that the bison statue, like most other rock art, had a ritual purpose. Certainly, bison were an important source of food, and their bones are found among other cave artifacts.
Many images of animals have been found throughout, including one carved into the ground next to a clay statue. These large beasts appear to have held an important place in Madeleine culture. The world of the Madeleines, who inhabited three caves along the Volp River, is partly shrouded in the thousands of years that separated their lives and modern explorers. Modern science can analyse the genetics of these early humans, and archaeologists can document the rock paintings they left behind. However, lives corresponding to the footprints of adults and children that still lie on the clay floor of the cave remain the subject of admiration, research and speculation.