In 2003, a salvage excavation in advance of highway construction in the Dordogne region of southwestern France discovered a dense group of prehistoric occupations, 10 sites in an area of less than two square miles. One of them, Cantalouette II, is an open-air site that was used as a flint workshop, as evidenced by the large quantity of flakes and knapping debris. There are seven layers, ranging in date from the Middle Pleistocene to the Holocene. In the Aurignacian layer (35,000 – 31,000 years old), archaeologists found a remarkably naturalistic bird (pdf) engraved on a flint flake. Other engraved flakes were found at the site, but none of them were figurative. In fact, this is the first example of figurative art discovered in an open-air Aurignacian site.
The bird is depicted with its head raised and its wings open, parallel lines representing the feathers. The beak is short, thin and pointed. A single eye is visible with a small line underneath that may represent an undereye feature. A projection on the left side of the bird may be the legs or the tail. It’s a capture of dynamic action, a bird in the moment of drinking, courting or about to take flight. Or express itself it in 140 characters.
Another unique feature of this piece, besides a silhouette so reminiscent of Internet-era iconography, is the style of engraving. Usually artwork from the Upper Paleolithic period is an incised outline. Some of the details may give the impression of relief and in very rare cases actual reliefs have been found, like the friezes of the Roc-de-Sers rock shelter (ca. 17,000 B.C.). The bird of Cantalouette II, however, is the opposite of the Roc-de-Sers animals in that it was made by the removal of the material inside the figure, not by the carving away of material outside of it leaving a high relief behind.
This sunken relief is unique among the Aurignacian artworks. The technique has never been seen before. To better understand the engraving process, researchers recreated it experimentally and found it was completed in six phases. First the outline was incised, then the interior was scraped with stone tool that left a wavy surface. The third step was adding detail to the head and beak with an L-shaped bevel. Another bevel was then engraved to add dimension to the upper left wing area. In phase five, the artist micro-pecked the inside of the head giving it a distinctive rough surface that conveys the different type of feathers birds have on their heads as opposed to their wings. Lastly, the eye and the subciliar line were added.
Also rare is the subject matter. Upper Paleolithic animal figures are more often land-based — horses, bovines, ibex, bison — and while birds have been found before, including the fragment of an outline bird figure at Roc-de-Sers, none of them are so naturalistic and detailed. Roc-de-Sers dates to the Magdalenian period of the Upper Paleolithic, thousands of years after the Cantalouette II bird was carved. Narrowing it down specifically to the Aurignacian period, there are only two other known birds: an ivory water bird from Hohle Fels (ca. 39,000-34,000 years old) and an owl in the Chauvet cave. Neither of them have the same attention to detail as the Cantalouette II bird. Because of those details, experts were able to compare its features to birds found in the fossil record of Upper Paleolithic southwestern France. The likeliest candidates are the passerine, the wryneck or partridge/quail.
After all this trouble, the piece was simply discarded onto the pile of lithic fragments, the detritus of the prehistoric tool-making workshop. It wasn’t meant to be permanent like rock art on walls. It wasn’t even meant to be portable, like something pretty to wear or display. It seems to have been the artistic impulse of a flint knapper who, having completed his oeuvre, threw it away.
This engraving is distinct in the rarity of the animal depicted and the use of innovative techniques. They suggest an absence of rigid artistic traditions and techniques during the Aurignacian. This absence of canons is in fact characteristic of Aurignacian art, despite certain convergences, such as the depiction of dangerous animals in the Swabian Jura, Dordogne, Adèche and northern Italy. At the doline site of Cantalouette II, the artist was thus free to “test” other manners of representing volumes and outlines. The artistic liberty of this artist can be correlated with that of the Aurignacian flint knappers in the Bergeracois region, who surpassed their technical skills by producing unusually large blades. The object itself, discarded in a flint knapping workshop, suggests the existence of an ephemeral form of artistic expression, a behavior previously unknown in the Aurignacian, and which raises questions about the function of the earliest figurative art in Europe.