Kate and I went on holiday to the Dordogne last week and looked at a lot of Paleolithic art in the caves there. One of the many mysteries to do with this art are the so called tectiform images. Tectiform means ‘roof shaped’. These odd images appear in 9 caves in the region and, as far as scholarship is concerned, nowhere else, though there are similar images in Cantabrian rock art. No-one knows what these symbols mean. They are said to have been painted between 17000 and 13000 years ago, and then they disappear.
Here is a picture of one from Bernifal cave:
and here is an infrared picture of the same image which allows us to see it has many details. It is in fact made up of around 500 tiny dots.
Here are two from Font de Gaume:
and here is a line drawing of the same images so you can see the detail more clearly:
We spent some time thinking about these. My initial intuitive impression upon seeing the Bernifal one in the flesh was that it was a bird rising above a Sweat Lodge, an image I knew from Native American culture where this being is known as the Thunderbird. I have experienced this myself once when doing a Sweat Lodge ceremony in Dorset. I had the sense that the circles inside the lower shape represented people, stones, or possibly ‘endurances’, ie rounds of sweating, and the shape above was the Thunderbird, or something similar. Just a hunch.
We thought we would do some more thinking and looking, and looking at Thunderbird images and images of Saunas/Sweat Lodges from rock art, but nothing prepared Kate for these images:
These are line drawings of Iron Age Galician and Portuguese stones. They are called ‘sauna stones’ because they mark the entrances of ceremonial underground saunas. Here is one in position:
and here is one close up:
Could it be that 13000 years on the descendants of the artists from Bernifal and Font de Gaume were using the same symbol to mark the entrance to their underground sacred spaces, their own sweat lodges/saunas? As far as we can tell no other people have ever made this connection. If we are the first, I hope someone with some archaeological knowledge finds this and runs with it, as it is obviously a possible connection that needs to be explored, and we don’t have time, money or academic access! I hope they give us some credit!
In the meantime, Paleolithic Sweat Lodges/Sacred Sauna seems like a fun thing to try in the name of experimental archaeology.