1. The 'Shining Bull' image of the head of an auroch, with rays emanating from it, is the first of its kind found in European Palaeolithic iconography. Photogrpahs © N Naudinot. sketches © C Bourdier/Plos One.

The shining bull

An abri (rock shelter) at the Rocher de l'Impératrice near Plougastel-Daoulas in northwest France (2) concealed not only hundreds of 14,000-year-old lithic remains but, among them, the first example of one motif in European Palaeolithic art.

The Rocher is part of a rock formation covered in thick vegetation; it is the tip of a 50m-high cliff, popular with hikers and rock-climbers. It is named Impératrice after the Empress Eugénie, the wife of Napoleon III, who is said to have lost a ring there in 1859.

Archaeologists first became interested in the site in 1987, when a hurricane uprooted a pine-tree to reveal 19th-century ceramic fragments. Michel Le Goffic, who was then in charge of the Finistère's archaeology department, began to explore the area, but the site was on private land and work halted.

Then, 20 years later, Le Goffic showed some of the lithic pieces he had found to Nicolas Naudinot, a lecturer-researcher at the Nice-Côte d'Azur University-CNRS-Cepam, who attributed them to the little-known Early Azilian period. Two years later the land was acquired by the local authorities and the first real excavation, led by Naudinot, began in 2013. His team cleared the rock shelter, which is 10m long, 3m deep, 2m high, and unearthed hundreds of arrowheads and blades. Most of the arrowheads bear impact marks, and the flint blades are worn from being used to cut game meat and bones.

© L Quesnel (CNRS).

n those days, sea-level was 90m lower and the shelter was 50km from the coast, overlooking a vast steppe where aurochs (wild cattle), horses and deer roamed freely.

The most striking discovery was the rock art delicately engraved on schist slabs. First was a 15-cm long tablet bearing a realistic image of an auroch's head emanating rays like an aura, a 'shining bull' (1). This is the first example of this kind of image in European Palaeolithic iconography. More stones with naturalistic engravings of horses and aurochs were found.

In all 45 engraved, sometimes charcoaled, fragments bearing animal figures and geometrical motifs were found among about 5000 lithic pieces. Preliminary study show that the development of the Azilian culture in Western Europe was more gradual than had been thought before. The shelter contains tools showing the new stone tool technology that characterised the Azilian, and proof that figurative iconography had not yet been abandoned in favour of more abstract images. The aurochs and horses depicted here are strongly reminiscent of the earlier rock art at Altamira and Lascaux. But the 'shining bull' raises many questions.

This outstanding discovery was kept secret for fear of looting until March 2017, when a paper was published in the American scientific journal Plos One. An exhaustive analysis of the fragments, engraving techniques and pigments used is now underway at the Université Côte d'Azur in Nice.
Nicole Benazeth