Palaeolithic portable art

A rare example of Upper Palaeolithic portable art has been found at an open-air site in south-eastern France.

Bellegarde, located between Nîmes and Arles, was discovered in 2015 by Inrap archaeologists. Excavations across c.2,000m2 of the multi-phase site have produced evidence of occupation at many intervals throughout history, from the Upper Palaeolithic to the modern era, including an almost continuous succession of occupations across an era known as the Magdalenian, which stretched from 20,000 to 14,000 BC.

Among the material discovered were several examples of Magdalenian portable art. This is significant, as art made on transportable objects is very rarely found in south-eastern France and is completely unexpected on the edge of the Camargue region. It is also relatively unusual to find surviving pieces of Palaeolithic portable art in open-air sites like this: most examples known come from cave sites.

The oldest art from Bellegarde occurs on two small limestone slabs, one with an engraving of a single horse, the other with three juxtaposed horse profiles. These date to the very beginning of the Magdalenian, 20,000 BC, making them some of the oldest works of art known from this culture.

This limestone slab, featuring an engraving of a horse in profile, dates to the start of the Magdalenian, c.20,000 BC, making it among the earliest known works of art from this culture. Image: Denis Gliksman, Inrap

The archaeologists also discovered a Middle Magdalenian engraving (c.16,000 BC) thought to depict a human vulva and upper legs. What appear to be isolated vulva depictions are known from other sites (mostly on cave and rock shelter walls in Spain and south-western France), but only one other example has been found with this configuration including the legs, in Cazelle cave in the Dordogne.

In addition to these portable engraved rocks, the researchers uncovered a large slab, c.50cm long, engraved with incisions so fine that they are hard to interpret. The slab would have been too large to transport and so is not technically ‘portable’. Instead, it has been suggested that this is an unusual example of art made on an upright stone slab that would have been displayed within a domestic space. Unlike wall paintings and engravings in caves, which would probably only have been seen by a select few, this piece of decor would have been visible to everyone at the site.

These discoveries make Bellegarde an important Palaeolithic reference site, on both a regional and a national level, and offer a valuable opportunity to enhance our understanding of the rich portable art of the Magdalenian.