Cherchez la Femme-A Palaeolithic Preoccupation

By James, N. | Antiquity, June 2012 | Go to article overview

Cherchez la Femme-A Palaeolithic Preoccupation


James, N., Antiquity


The cave paintings in France and Spain are the Magdalenian's most famous feature. The exhibition, Mille et une femmes de la fin des temps glaciaires ('1001 women from the end of the Ice Age') explored the proposition that, more than just an archaeological culture, the Magdalenian was inspired, through most of its history, by common symbolism across the Great European Plain all the way from the Pyrenees to Poland; and that, although the landscape varied, this vast region was integrated by common techniques and imagery from 20 000 to 15 000 years ago. The 'Lalinde-Gonnersdorf style' figurines of women, was the suggestion, were particularly characteristic. Assembled from some 20 collections in France, Switzerland, Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic, the exhibition was shown at the Museum of Prehistory in Les Eyzies from June to September last year. The compact presentation was in two parts.

An introduction presented images of France, Germany and Poland during the Bolling-Allerod interstadial and the cold Younger Dryas. Beside them were mounted assemblages from the type-site, La Madeleine, near Les Eyzies, from Petersfels and Gonnersdorf, in western Germany, and from Wilczyce, in southern Poland: stone scrapers and piercers; bone and antler points, harpoon heads and scrapers, some decorated; and teeth and stone discs, interpreted as personal ornaments. A map showed how flint and shells were carried across France, Switzerland and Germany.

The main display showed the art, with a second map, in the background, marking its wide distribution. There were 12 colour photographs of wall drawings in France with accompanying sketches helping us to recognise the motifs. Floor cases displayed decorated boulders from Lalinde, Chaffaud and Fontales (Figure 1). Wall cases showed images of animals, hands and chevrons. There was the well known stone from Laugerie-Basse showing a stumbling deer, one from Limeuil showing horses apparently galloping, and the puzzling bone plaque from the Raymonden shelter, the defile au bison, apparently showing seven figures, perhaps women, with a bison's head and perhaps its spine.

The middle of the gallery was given over to small pieces interpreted as images of women. Mounted on posts at eye level, they could be studied easily by many visitors at once. The depictions ranged from perfect clarity to utter ambiguity. The 'Venus impudique' from Laugerie-Basse, the red statuette of a seated steatopygous lady from Le Courbet and an engraved pebble from the Abri Murat were obvious. Gonnersdorf's schist was easy to engrave and the motifs easy to spot accordingly, if not to understand. One of the many exhibits from there seemed to show a woman carrying a baby. Then there was a series of pieces in stone and ivory depicting profiles from long neck to prominent buttocks and vestigial legs: a specimen demarking both breasts (Gonnersdorf), simpler pieces probably to be recognised as variations of the template (Nebra and Oelknitz) and statuettes bent at the knee (Pekarna, and a couple from Monruz drilled as if for suspension). The most puzzling assemblage was from Wilczyce, comprising flint flakes, lobed at one end: held with that end downward, was the proposal, the lobe represents buttocks (Figure 1). They could possibly be regarded as flakes or rough blades; but they are quite unworn and one of them seems to have been carefully polished (Fiedorczuk et al. 2007: 98-99). Seen on its own merits, one of them looked as much like a bird as a woman. Yet single pieces of the same size and form in ivory and bone helped to confirm that the form was fully intended. Was this 'art', then, and, if so, was it conforming to a "commonly understood style" (Fiedorczuk et al. 2007: 103)?

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Several of the drawings of animals and a few of the anthropomorphic ones show an elegant mastery of line. …

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