Painted pebbles

Azilian, about 11,000 years old
From the cave of Mas d'Azil, Ariége, France

Words or numbers?

These painted pebbles from Mas d'Azil are typical of an art form known from south-western and southern France, the Pyrenees and southern Italy. Their excavator, Edouard Piette, first identified such pieces in 1889. They date from a phase at the very end of the last Ice Age called the Azilian, between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago.

Azilian pebbles are simply coloured and/or decorated with paint made from red ochre (iron peroxide). It was probably most often applied from the artist's fingers. The decorations include the dots, borders and bands of colour seen here, as well as zig-zags, ovals and dashes. About 1400 pebbles like these were found at Mas d'Azil. Their excavation proved that paint could survive in the ground for thousands of years. They also helped to end doubts that the first paintings discovered on the walls of caves such as Altamira really were the work of even earlier Stone Age artists.

Piette suggested that the painted motifs may be signs representing words or numbers, as in writing. Recent research suggests that the marks may not be random. The signs represented only occur in 41 of a possible 246 combinations. This might suggest that their arrangement represented words or numbers.

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Length: 6.100 cm
Length: 6.100 cm
Length: 6.100 cm

Museum number

P&EE Sturge Collection 791


Bequeathed by W.A. Sturge


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