The caves at Les Eyzies are less well known than those at Lascaux, but, arguably, they are more impressive. Just a short drive from Les Milandes, Les Eyzies is pretty much at the epicentre of the prehistoric art movement. It is home to some of the most extraordinary painted caves in the world.
Modern dating techniques tell us that most of this amazing artwork was produced between 10,000 and 30,000 years ago. The peak in activity occurred around 17,000 years ago, during the Magdalenian period (named after a site in the Vézère Valley). The quality and level of sophistication of these pieces can be hard to comprehend.
So what made this part of the world such a hotbed for prehistoric art? Turn back the clock 35,000 years and homo sapiens were settling in South West France. The temperate climate, range of good shelter, (with the abundance of cliffs and caves) fresh water supplies and thick forests (containing animals to hunt) made it a great place to settle. (All things you would probably look for in a holiday destination today; good weather, comfortable accommodation and a great selection of food and drink!)
It’s a mystery
While many have offered explanations as to why the cave artworks were produced, no-one can be absolutely certain. Some of the most extravagant and important pictures are located in the darkest and most inaccessible caves. Artists would have had to work by artificial light – probably with an assistant holding a torch or lamp which burnt animal fat. The artists used 3 main techniques to apply paint;
Line drawings were made with a pencil of pigment or with a finger. Balls of hair or fibre were used to fill in colours while larger areas were shaded with a hollow bone used as a spray. (The first ‘spray can’!) Tools were also fashioned out of ivory and antlers.
Interestingly, very few human bodies are depicted and those that do appear are simplistic. Most of the paintings are of animals. As you can imagine colour palettes were limited; black, red and white were the order of the day. Given all this, the quality of the work produced is incredible. Clever use of rock contours enabled the artists to produce pictures with an almost 3D like appearance while some other outlines were carved into the rock.
Take in a cave ‘exhibition’
Lessons have been learned since the caves at Lascaux were first opened to the public. (The volume of visitors contributed to the deterioration of the paintings.) Visitor numbers to many of the caves in and around Les Eyzies are heavily restricted, so you need to buy tickets in advance. It really is worthwhile to take in one of the great wonders of the world.
Grotte de Font de Gaume is on the edge of Les Eyzies (on the road to Sarlat) and contains some of the most important prehistoric paintings in France. It has one of the few cave’s where original paintings are still visible. It was discovered in 1901 and contains over 200 paintings and engravings from the Magdalenian era.
Musee National de la Prehistorie has amazing collections and displays. It houses the largest Paleolithic collection of art in France.
Grotte de Combarelles and Abri du Poisson (as the name suggests) contains one of the oldest representations of fish.
Smaller caves and shelters can be found at Laugerie-Haute, La Micoque, Le Moustier and La Ferrassie. And the trail doesn’t stop there. It continues north, up the pretty Vézère Valley towards Montignac.
Les Eyzies – another great reason to visit Dordogne.