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New Paleolithic Sculpture Discovered

The prehistoric era is a period of art history where major discoveries remain to be made. A paleolithic sculpture has turned up in the cave of Foissac, carved from a large bovine bone and, somewhat unusually, with designs engraved upon it. Marie-Amélie Blin has a report (Une statuette découverte dans la grotte de Foissac, July 5) for Le Figaro (my translation):
The underground waters of the cave of Foissac (Aveyron) have just brought up to the surface a new prehistoric treasure: a statue carved with a flint tool into a bone of a bison or auroch. Found last month during winter work and authenticated by an expert from La Direction régionale des affaires culturelles (Drac), it was apparently made 20,000 years ago. The opening of the Foissac cave had remained sealed for five millennia following a landslide. It was reopened in 1959, after a team of scouts discovered it by chance. Since then the site has continued to reveal bit by bit its prehistoric treasures, buried in its waters and underground caverns.

The statuette that has just been discovered is particularly striking. It represents a human being, although paleolithic artists generally preferred to sculpt and draw animals. It is a piece of portable art, such as one finds rarely in caves. And it has come to us in a state of perfect preservation, despite being submerged in water and having survived thousands of years.
The cave is closed to the public from October to June. Sébastien du Fayet de La Tour, who made the discovery, explained how it happened: "During this period the rising river washes the soil, deposing silt, and it is not uncommon to find bone shards flushed out of the cavities, which we pick up in the summer. I was not surprised to find this year something that looked like a large bovine bone, covered with mud. After washing it, I saw that it was incised. Not just with one or two large incisions, but hundreds that form eyes, a mouth, a nose, hair -- it was then I realized I was holding a real statuette in my hands." The researchers, having learned the lessons of disastrous conservation attempts of the past, are keeping the object in the cave, in conditions as much as possible identical to those in which it has survived so perfectly this far.

Without any other historical sources, analysis of prehistoric art has to be made primarily, almost exclusively, on visual evidence. Du Fayet de La Tour identifies other marks that may be interpreted as tattoos or scarification on the cheeks; the figure appears female and the arms are carrying something, perhaps a child, a fetus, or an animal ("in the manner of a Virgin and Child," he says); one part has been polished with an unknown tool. A three-dimensional scan may allow researchers to understand more completely what the artist may have intended to depict. This will be a great way to open the prehistoric unit of my A.P. Art History class this fall.


Becca Jones said...


Lance Carter said...

Here is my graphic analysis of the Foissac Figurine: