The Vézère valley in the Dordogne, south-western France, is a key area of world prehistory, well-known in paleoanthropology for the high density of Palaeolithic sites, amongst which are eponymous ones such as La Micoque, Le Moustier, La Madeleine and the abri of Cro-Magnon. The valley, rightly called “La Voie Royale de la Préhistoire”, appeals to an even larger audience because of its many superb cave art sites, which include Lascaux and Font de Gaume. Traces of human occupation of this area go back to more than 400,000 years ago, but most of its prolific archaeological record dates from the Late Pleistocene. The abundance of rock shelters and cave sites in this limestone area attracted a large number of excavators from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards.
La Madeleine was recognized at the end of 1863 by Edouard Lartet and Henry Christy. They were returning from investigating Le Moustier a few kilometers away, and noticed a large shelter on the right bank of the river. At this time there was no bridge, and they stopped a passing boat for assistance in crossing the river. A search was carried out with shovels and spades, and they began to realize the importance of the site. Each level revealed the presence of mankind: burins, flint blades, spear points. Numerous unrecognized objects turned up, made from unknown bones: harpoons, spears, needles, and numerous artifacts made from reindeer antlers. They decided to leave a serious investigation until spring. The next spring, they continued their research. In May 1864 workers discovered five fragments of an ivory plate, which once reassembled, revealed an exceptional engraving of a mammoth. The accuracy of the engraving confirmed without doubt that the artist had observed the living creature and reproduced it in accurate detail: wooly coat, tusks, and hump were all faithfully recorded. The rear end of the animal was also clearly defined.
The site was also studied by Paul Girod and Elie Massenet, as well as numerous amateur investigators. Denis Peyrony restarted the research in 1911, and refined knowledge of the site. In 1926 the skeleton of a three year old child was discovered, with exquisite shell jewelry, dating from the end of the Magdalenian period. In 1968, following several years without further developments, the research was restarted by Jean-Marc Bouvier.
The excavations by J.-M. Bouvier at La Madeleine have demonstrated the importance of the Vézère deposits in the infill of this large abri. The base of the calcareous basement is situated at 40 cm above the low water level. On top of this limestone, cryoclastic deposits and fluvial sands with gravel are present. The earliest archaeological level is a “Magdalenian IV”, in the basal part of the fluvial sequence, which is up to 3 m thick and starts about 1.2 m above the low water level.
Situated at about 100 m downstream from the centre of the La Madeleine abri, in the same falaise, is the Abri de Villepin, where Peyrony (1936) excavated two “Magdalenian VI” layers, situated in deposits of the Vézère. It is very well possible that these constitute only the final part of a much more important fluvial sequence, as demonstrated at La Madeleine by Bouvier.
Vezere madelaine.JPG – Wikimedia Commons
The stratified deposits at La Madeleine, le Placard, and Villepin allowed the Abbe Breuil (1912) to develop a detailed evolutionary sequence of artifact types in the Magdalenian, based primarily on organic artifacts. The rich bone tool industry allowed Breuil to describe the sequence of Magdalenian I-VI, progressing from simple single bevel-based sagaie points to double-row barbed harpoons. Dennis Peyrony (1938) added lithic typology from his excavations at Laugerie Haute to refine Breuil’s sequence of Phases I to VI. More recent excavation has demonstrated that the proposed evolutionary sequence is of limited value because:
- The ensembles detected by Peyrony were partially reconstructed a posteriori to verify Breuil’s evolutionary predictions.
- La sequence of Madeleine is only valid for the late Magdalenian in the Perigord. Other regions (Mediterranean France, Vasco-Cantabria, Paris basin, Middle Europe) have other chronologies and conceptions.
- La Madeleine was inhabited between 13,4-12,6 k.a. BP (Bölling; Dryas II) and not as long as initially suggested.
There is evidence of substantial occupation through much of the year. Hunting concentrated on reindeer and horse. La Madeleine may have been an aggregation site for Magdalenian people. The flint industry is rather homogeneous, consisting of a strong blade tool industry, including burins, end scrapers, backed bladelets.
Stone artifacts from La Madeleine are often large, well-executed and show a wealth of surprising variants not seen on other sites in the greater Aquitaine. There are “domestic tools” like end scrapers (often double), Burins (Diedres, Lacan-burins, Bec de Perroquet burins); becs and Zinken and a great variety of projectile points ( Point de Teyjat, Point de Laugerie, Point de Cran, Bipointes Aziliennes, other small projectile points made from backed bladelets).
A visit of La Madeleine during the Congrès Préhistoriques de France 1905