An ‘exceptional’ sandstone tablet covered in engravings of animals and geometric designs has been unearthed from the Angoulême region of southwest France.
Featured on the stone are five animals, mainly horses, one of which is drawn with considerable detail, especially in the features of the animal’s legs.
Archaeologists have dated the stone back to 12,000 years ago, making it a product of the Azilian culture of southern France and northern Spain.
It is rare to find such figurative art from this culture, which typically favoured exclusively abstract iconography.
The stone was found along with a number of rudimentary fireplaces, animal bones and the remains of a flint carving station.
The prehistoric stone was unearthed by researchers from the French National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research (Inrap).
They had been excavating a site located near the station in Angoulême, a district to the north of Bordeaux.
The sandstone block is engraved on both sides and features both figurative and abstract geometric designs.
The stone is around 10 inches in length, 7 inches wide and has a thickness of about 1 inch (25x18x3 centimetres).
The most prominent engraving is of a rightward-facing horse, taking up almost half of one side of the stone, whose head and right hind hoof appear to have been lost to the edges of the tablet.
‘The legs and hooves are very realistic, with one of the anterior legs displaying hock, knee, fetlock and likely ergot feathers,’ Inrap said on its website.
‘The legs in the background are positioned in an ambling gait and detached from the animal’s body to create perspective,’ they added.
The back and the rear of the horse have been drawn to follow the natural, curved edges of the stone, while fine incisions on the body appear designed to represent the animal’s coat.
The geometric patterns have been superimposed over the drawing of the horse.
Two other engravings of animals, smaller in size, can also be seen on the main face of the tablet — one that is thought to be a deer, and a second horse drawn in a more schematic style.
The reverse side of the stone is believed to illustrate the back half of a third horse, although this engraving is considerable more faint.
Archaeologists have dated the stone back to around 12,000 years ago.
Figurative engravings on a stone from this period are a somewhat surprising find.
The art of the local culture of this time — referred to as the Azilian Industry — had commonly been thought to have eschewed figurative representations in favour of more abstract drawings.
However, 14,000-year-old, Azilian-aged engravings on the so-called ‘Rock of the Empress’, found in the French commune of Plougastel-Daoulas, have also revealed an artistic continuity with the figurative representations of the preceding period.
At 12,000 years old, the five animals engraved on the Angoulême stone represent the youngest examples of more realistic Azilian art.
Other artefacts unearthed during the dig include rudimentary fireplaces, collections of once-heated pebbles, the skeletal remains of animals and a flint carving station.
With arrowheads and cut flints having also previously been found in the Angoulême area, experts think that the region may have been a hunting and feasting site thousands of years ago.
The archaeological finds from the site will be presented to the public during an exhibition to be held at the L’Alpha media library, in GrandAngoulême, from June 14–16, 2019.