Welcome to Aquitaine, the birthplace of art and culture and the site of reverence for the Sacred Feminine for at least 22,000 years. This area stretches from the lush and fertile Dordogne Valley to the Pyrenees in the South of France. From the prehistoric caves used for female initiations to the Troubadours who invented the forms of courtly love in poetry and song, this region has inspired creativity and renewal across the millenia.
These extraordinary caves were not intended to be dwellings to live in-- rather , it is likely that they were temples of spiritual experience for the Cro-Magnon who created them. Recent research has discovered that the highest concentration of paintings in sites like Pech Merle and Niaux occur in the chambers with the greatest acoustics-- even if these are buried far within the caves. This lends support to the idea that these were the equivalent of cathedrals, places for rituals and very likely something like musical performances were a part of the ceremonies of these lost people. Recently, bone flutes with similar dating (20,000-13,000 years ago) have been discovered. No traces of explanation for their art exists, no written records of a language survive, but art and music were clearly an important part of their culture.
Bison found at La Madeleine, c. 12,000 BCE, Late Magdalenian Period
Abri de La Madeleine, site of vast prehistory discoveries of art and ritual objects
The height of prehistoric art is named the "Magdalenian period", named for L'Abri du Madeleine in the Vezere Valley. This was a site of three layers. The middle layer (seen at right) was a troglodyte village dedicated to Mary Magdalene in the Middle Ages (c. 1200 AD). Here, a community of her followers congregated in the chapel, tended sheep and had other chambers dedicated to baking and weaving wool. In the 20th century, a pair of explorers discovered an enormous treasure trove of paleolithic objects in the caves down at the river level below this village These are considered the artistic pinnacle of this prehistoric culture- objects that honor beauty, the feminine and rituals around life and death. The artwork in Southwest France stretches across thousands of years. Some caves have layerings of paintings that are 5,000 years apart. Below are links to several of the most revered sites in the Dordogne, which has one of the highest concentrations of Paleolithic art in the world. Please explore each of these amazing sites, some which contain "virtual visits" by clicking on the titles in red.
A reconstruction of the ceremonial headdress found at La Madeleine and placed on the skull of the so-called "Magdalenian Woman" whose grave was discovered at nearby Cap Blanc and recreated by French forensic science artist Elisabeth Daynes.
The spotted horses of Pech Merle are approximately 25,000 years old and were created by a combination of blowing paint and using the natural contours of the rock face.
Lascaux Cave (c.17,000-13,000 BCE) Famous for the "Hall of the Bulls" with its massive "Great Black Bull" and mysterious unicorn, Lascaux contains. some of the most beautiful art the Upper Paleolithic. The original Lascaux Caves are now officially closed to the public, but two meticulous replicas (Lascaux II and Lascaux IV) give visitors a remarkable recreation of the experience nonetheless, and provide a wealth of information through guided tours and a visitors center. Note that it is essential to purchase tickets months in advance for the guided tours.
• Font-de-Gaume Cave Paintings (c.14,000 BCE) Discovered in 1901 very close to Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil in the Dordogne, these caves contains nearly 250 polychrome cave paintings and engravings, including 80 images of bisons and 40 mammoths, The most unusual is a frieze of remarkably modern looking bison, whose three-dimensional quality has been heightened by the use of shading under the belly and along the legs. In flickering light of oil lamps, they appear as if they are moving.
Cap Blanc Frieze (15,000 BCE) The benchmark of Magdalenian rock carving, Cap Blanc is famous for its 13-metre long limestone frieze of relief sculpture, which includes images of horses and bison, all carved into the contoured rear wall of the shelter. The central horse is roughly 2 metres in length. The cave was also the site of a rare, well preserved human grave.
Rouffignac Cave Art ("Cave of the hundred mammoths") (c.14,000 BCE) The intricate and extensive Rouffignac cave complex has over 5 miles of underground passageways,. To discover these images, you must take the underground railroad car deep into the mountainside. The network of caves features more than 240 engravings or monochromatic black drawings, including images of mammoth (158 images), bison (28), horses (15), goats (12) rhinoceros (10) and one cave bear.
•Niaux Cave Drawings and Footprints (13,000-11,000 BCE) Excavated in 1906, Niaux cave is nestled in the northern foothills of the Pyrenees, close to the town of Foix. Inside this immense cave is one of the most impressive Magdalenian galleries of cave paintings- a vertiable museum of the Cro-Magnon. Leading up to the huge main chamber known as "Salon Noir", is unique series of prehistoric 'footprints' left by children aged 8-12, along with the footprints of an older companion- supportive evidence that this may have been used as an initiation cave of some kind.. The cave also includes more than a hundred red and black dots, dashes, bars and lines, some applied with paint 'brushes', some with fingers.- abstract images which we are unable to decipher yet. Throughout the galleries, Magdalenian artists have used the shape and contour of the rocks to create an amazing interplay of light and shadow which suggests lifelike movement when seen by flickering light .The acoustics in this inner chamber are magnificent, with astonishing reverberations.
• Trois Freres Cave - Painting of the "Sorcerer" (13,000-12,000 BCE) Tucked inside the Haute Pyrenees this cave is best known for the chamber known as the Sanctuary. It features almost 300 engraved figures of horses, bison, reindeer, and mammoths, along with two curious part-human, part-animal figure (like a minotaur) and a small composition known as the "Sorcerer" or "Horned God". A human figure with the features of several different animals, it towers 13 feet above a herd of animal figures. The scholar Abbe Henri Breuil was the first to suggest that this painting indicated a shaman or magician, most archeological scholars now concur.
• Les Combarelles Cave Engravings (c.12,000 BCE) Located near Les Eyzies de Tayac in Dordogne, this ) cave contains 600+ surprisingly life-life representations of lions, reindeer, horses, mammoths and bears along with an astonishing collection of more than 50 anthropomorphic figures.
Elaborate reindeer bone beads interlaced together to create jewelry
The Venus of Brassempouy (also known as La Dame Capuchin, or The Lady with the Hood) is figurine discovered in 1896 in southern France. Carved from mammoth ivory about 24,000 years ago and one of the earliest examples of a depiction of a human face.
The Magdalenian Child: The remains of this child were discovered at La Madeleine. The skeleton was carefully stretched out, with carved shells and bone beads deposited at the ankles, wrists, neck and head. The corpse had been painted rich red with ochre dust and adorned with a profusion of ornaments- evidence of a highly involved funeral rite, one of the earliest pieces of evidence (c. 11,000 years ago) of confronting death with ritual and art.
HIghly recommended: Werner Herzog's documentary Cave of Forgotten of Dreams. See the preview here:
Questions for personal reflection as we embark on this journey: In your life, who has brought you into a deeper awareness of a bigger universe? Who has guided you in your own self-knowledge? Have there been places you have been to that have changed you and left an indelible imprint on your soul? What initiations have you experienced? What rituals or events have shaped your understanding of your place in the world?