Swimming reindeer

From the rockshelter of Montastruc, Tarn et Garonne, France, Late Magdalenian, around 13,000 years old

This is one of the most beautiful pieces of Ice Age art ever found. It is carved from the tip of a mammoth tusk and shows two reindeer, one behind the other.

The figure in front is a female with smaller body and antlers. Her body is carefully shaded with incised lines made by using a stone engraving tool called a burin. Delicate lines pick out the variation in colour and texture on her coat. The 10, deep incisions on both sides of her body may also indicate colour bars but their depth and the trails on tiny lines underneath each one appear unnatural.

The larger male figure is not shaded but his strong body is clearly carved.

On both animals the antlers are laid along the back and the legs are extended with their noses up and antlers back. It is clear that both the reindeer are swimming.

The presence of antlers on both animals and the characteristics of the female coat show them as they appear in autumn when they cross rivers on migration to their mating grounds and winter pastures. Curiously, animal remains found at Montastruc show that people camped below the rock overhang by the edge of the Aveyron river during the summer.

The sculptor carved the reindeer from the tip of a mammoth tusk. The skilfully made piece has no practical use and we do not know what the reindeer meant to its maker or the community which saw it.

Was the sculpture left at Montastruc to bring good luck or ward off evil spirits? Could it be an apology to the reindeer for having to kill some of them or a representation of autumn, made in the hope that the reindeer mating would be successful, ensuring human and animal survival?

Was the sculpture a group totem, a shaman’s wand or the focal point of a story based on a journey in or between real and supernatural worlds? Such questions cannot be answered with certainty but the reindeer do suggest a religious impulse to be at home with nature at a deeper level.

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Object details

Height: 3 cm
Width: 20.7 cm
Depth: 2.7 cm




    Christy Collection


    A. Sieveking, A Catalogue of Palaeolithic Art in the British Museum (London, The British Museum Press, 1987)

    J. Cook, The Swimming Reindeer: Objects in Focus series, (London, The British Museum Press, forthcoming March, 2010)

    See this object in our Collection database online

    Further reading

    P. Bahn and J. Vertut, Journey through the Ice Age (London, 1997)

    C. Gamble, Origins and Revolutions: Human Identity in Earliest Prehistory (Cambridge, 2007)

    R. Klein, The Human Career (Chicago, 2009)

    S. Mithen, After the Ice: A Global Human History 20000-5000 BC (London, 2003)

    R. White, Prehistoric Art: The Symbolic Journey of Humankind (New York, 2003)