La Roche-Cotard site has been discovered at the beginning of the century but the mousterian level (La Roche-Cotard II) in front of the opening of the cave (La Roche-Cotard) has only been known for 25 years. This inhabited level has given a very particular object indubitably prepared by man with a flint having a natural pipe in which was placed a bone splinter. This object which looks like a human or animal face is an exceptional sign of the slow advance towards the birth of figurative art.

Marquet & Lorblanchet, English abstract, Paléo, 2000.

The site is located just downstream from a place called Cinq-Mars-La-Pile and upstream from the town of Langeais (Indre-et-Loire) on the right bank of the Loire and corresponds to a recently identified/excavated small "component" (Roche-Cotard II) of a (cave/shelter) complex that has been known since the early 1900's. The deposit (RC II) consists of a lengthy depositional sequence made of both colluvial (local chalk) and alluvial (Loire river) sediments ; one of the alluvial sub-units (level 7), described as some sort of a beach (fluvial sands) that had developed at the base of the shelter/cave has yielded a relatively undisturbed (albeit truncated) Mousterian occupation layer that was found to contain traces of a somewhat well-defined hearth, a few very Mousterian stone tools, a few bone fragments and, finally, the "Mask" in question ; the only date available for this cultural layer (a bone date) says 32,000 bp or older...

The "Mask" is considered to be part of the assemblage obtained from the Mousterian layer ; it consists of a small, flattish flint nodule whose natural/original face looking shape was, according to the authors, enhanced by a series of modificationhs ; these include
(1) the insertion of a small bone splinter into a natural hole (under what is considered to be the bridge of the nose ; the splinter was apparently forced into the hole and further wedged by two small stones - left hand side of the photograph) and
(2) the further "regularization" of the natural symmetry of the stone by flaking.

The authors consider the object to be a "proto-figurine", and view it, together with the Berekhat Ram (possible) figurine, the bear face from Tolbaga (Siberia), and the curious Srbsko/Chlum sculpture as an "important document" or "premise" in the slow road to (later) Upper Palaeolithic figurative/representational art and symbolism."

Jacques Cinq-Mars, Palanth-L, May 22, 2001,
from Marquet & Lorblanchet , Paléo, 2000.

The site of La Roche-Cotard was discovered at the beginning of the 20th century but the Mousterien level (Roche-Cotard II), located in front of the opening of the cave, has been known only for 25 years.

In this dwelling site a very special object undoubtedly prepared by humans was discovered : it is a flint having a natural hole in which a small piece of bone has been placed. This object which makes one think of a human or animal face is an exceptional witness of the slow advance of humanity towards the beginning of illustrated art.

The only dating obtained for this Mousterien site (which contained some rare tools) from the fragments of bone gives 32000 years "or more".

"The Mask" consists of a small flat flint which was modified to accentuate its resemblance to a face :
(1) a small piece of bone was inserted in a natural hole in the stone and fixed by two small stones ;
(2) the stone was then improved to obtain greater symmetry.

"The Mask" is regarded as "a proto-figurine", one of the first steps towards the art of the upper Paleolithic. It is an exceptional object because the mousterian culture is not known to give this type of artistic production.
If Mousterian civilization is specific to Neandertals in Europe, "the Mask" thus leads us to think that Neandertals were capable of an artistic production more advanced than than anyone suspected until now.
This protofigurine is a flint improved by Mousterians to accentuate the appearance of a face which the stone offered.

Don Hitchcock,,
from Thierry Koltes, ma.prehistoire first version.



[This] article gives some additional background on the Mask of La Roche-Cotard : History of its discovery, Michel Lorblanchet's interpretation and some other possible explanations of the purpose of this object outside the art domain.

History :
The discovery was made back in 1975. The object, "not an ordinary one", was then studied and stored, with the label "enigmatic object," among the non technical records of "Musée du Grand-Pressigny".

Interpretation as an art object :
When Michel Lorblanchet came to the museum, 20 years later, he interpreted the assemblage as a protofigurine coming out of Neanderthalian art .

Other interpretation :
The article quotes Francesco d'Errico, researcher at CNRS in France : "it is possible to consider the object as a weight that may have been used to steady a tent, the bone wedged in the hole placed to facilitate stringing a rope ".

The article continues :
The archeologist, who credits Neanderthalians with possible symbolic capabilities, remains skeptical with regard to the artistic character of the object.

The conclusion calls for cautious interpretation of this object.

Paul Tréhin, Palanth, March 5, 2004
from Laurence Nicoud, "L'art néandertalien : réalité et énigme", Archéologia, Janvier 2004",



Please see also BBC News and the comments by Paul B Pettitt


Jean-Claude MARQUET
Conservateur du musée départemental de Préhistoire du Grand-Pressigny (Indre-et-Loire)

Directeur de Recherche au CNRS.
Roc des Monges, Saint-Sozy

in Paléo n°12 : pp 325-338 (2000) &
Antiquity 77, n°298 : pp 661-670 (2003)

back to the French text