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'The Madeleine Shelter and Laugerie Basse, 15,000 years ago' on view at Musée national de Préhistoire
Bison licking its flank, in the round, reindeer antler, musée national de Préhistoire, Les Eyzies-de-Tayac. © Rmn-Grand Palais / Franck Raux

LES EYZIES-DE-TAYAC.- This exhibition is organised by the RMN-Grand Palais and the Musée National de Préhistoire in Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, with the scientific collaboration of the Centre National de Préhistoire and the Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie du Périgord in Périgueux.

In May 1864, 150 years ago, an extraordinary discovery of five engraved ivory fragments from the Madeleine Shelter in Tursac (Dordogne region) overturned received knowledge about Humanity’s past.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the antiquity of Man and his cognitive capacity were subjects that excited intellectual circles. From 1863, major discoveries were made in terms of both quality and quantity in the Vézère valley, at the instigation of experts and enlightened amateurs. They would reveal an exceptional series of mobiliary (portable) artworks to science and the general public. But it was the ivory fragments from the Madeleine Shelter, with a careful and detailed engraving of a mammoth, that would permanently set the direction of future debates. The association of subject matter and medium offered unquestionable proof to sceptics and academia that prehistoric man lived alongside extinct species. In this progressive and positivist intellectual environment, the artworks would soon become the emblems of prehistoric science. The excavation methods (spades, pickaxes etc.) did not allow close identification of the stratigraphies and layers, but the material discovered definitively established the importance of these sites to such an extent that the Madeleine Shelter became eponymous for a culture that had spread throughout the entire European continent. At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, numerous researchers, enthusiasts, collectors and traders with more or less good intentions continued to excavate the sites. Today the collections are spread throughout the world in a large number of institutions, which have acquired them over time.

The major sites of the Madeleine Shelter and Laugerie-Basse – neighbours in terms of geography and stratigraphy – are at the heart of the exhibition presented at the Musée National de Préhistoire and extended with a further exhibition at the Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie du Périgord. The exhibitions reveal the similarities and differences between the two sites for an extensive time period which developed around 15,000 to 12,000 years ago.

Celebrated collections are presented to the public, including those of Edouard Lartet and Henri Christy, which are held at the Musée d’Archéologie Nationale de St Germain en Laye and the British Museum in London. Beyond the indisputable masterpieces on display, this exhibition also offers us the chance to question Magdalenian culture – the name is derived from the Madeleine Shelter – which is particularly famous for the decorated caves of Font-de-Gaume, Rouffignac and caves of Combarelles which are attributed to it. Does this profusion of artistic expression correspond to a way of life that was rich in resources, where art might represent a social or individual form of leisure? Or is it society’s response to a world in crisis with an uncertain and shifting supply of resources?

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