Discs from Stone Age Europe

There are many examples of discs with central holes from various (mostly Magdalenian) sites in Europe. The most famous are those made of bone or ivory which bear carvings of various kinds, and are art objects in their own right.

Various theories have been put forward as to their use, including clothing decoration and large buttons. These are unlikely primary uses, since all have just one, central hole. If they were meant to be sewn to clothing they would have two or more holes to facilitate attachment, or would have the hole close to one edge if they were meant to be worn as a pendant. Their most likely use is as the weight (normally called a whorl) for a drop spindle, in the spinning of fibres into yarn.

This is borne out by the fact that the overwhelming majority have a central hole, all of similar dimensions, 2 to 4 mm, and by the fact that many are not decorated in any meaningful or artistic way, and are also made of other materials (sandstone, slate) than bone.

The most likely use for these objects is as spindle whorls.

 

Aurochs and Bison

Engraving of an aurochs and a bison from Mas d’Azil:

The two sides are quite different. The one on the left depicts an adult aurochs considered a female because of the fine features of the head. The withers and chest are marked with small incisions. Horns and ears are sketched. The eye and the nostril are shown as points.

The other side of the disk shows a young bison, which, according to the size of the horn and the curvature of the hump might be about five months old. This young bison is half the size of the adult animal. Again, we find the same incisions along the shoulder and the chest. Aurochs females sometimes adopted baby bison.

 

Man vs Bear

This is a stunning work. It consisted originally of a disk, with an engraving on each side.

This exceptional piece is made of a scapula. This is the only representation of a composition combining the themes of bears and humans and a horse in a narrative sequence in the whole Palaeolithic corpus of art.

On the most famous face, the forelimb of the bear is directed toward the body of an upright man, looking to the left. Normally retracted, the bear’s claws are out. The animal is on the offensive or defensive. The man is in a lively attitude. His left leg is lifted and his penis is erect, marking perhaps the effect of aggressive motivation, interpreted as a defensive reaction. His arms are stretched forward, and he carries on his right shoulder what appears to be a thick stick pointed at the animal. The theme of man being threatened by an animal is very rare throughout the Paleolithic iconographic furniture.

On the reverse side, the scene seems to again be to the disadvantage of the human under threat by the same bear paw. The man was probably seen from the rear, and errors and omissions excepted, there is no other man seen from the rear in Paleolithic art.

If we tip the disc upside down on the reverse side, an engraving of the front of a horse, with a mane and high pronounced jaw appears.

 

About the Excavation Site

The cave of Mas-d’Azil or Grotte du Mas d’Azil is a large, 500 metre long tunnel dug by the Arize River through a wall of the Massif Plantaurelin, part of the Ariege Pyrenees. Secondary caves leading off the main tunnel were occupied at various prehistoric and historic times during a period of 20 000 years, and the objects found there gave the name of the cave to a prehistoric culture, the Azilian. It was excavated by Edouard Piette in the 19th century, who interpreted the halter-like marks on animal heads as being evidence of the domestication of reindeer and horses.

The settlement was systematically excavated over an area of 650 square metres, and bones were found of mammoth, horse, bison, aurochs, reindeer, deer and arctic fox, as well as birds.

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