- Museum number
- Object: The Swimming Reindeer
This sculpture depicts two deer following each other nose to tail. It is made of ivory from the the tip of mammoth tusk. Found as two pieces, it was rejoined along an ancient break between the two animals in 1905. As the sex of each animal is clearly shown, it is clear that the larger male is behind a smaller female and, as both animals have antlers, they must be reindeer because the only female deer to have antlers are reindeer hinds. This identification is further confirmed by the distinctive features of the hind's face, the detailed shading of the body showing the colour and texture variation in the markings of her coat and the smaller antlers. The antlers on the male extend along three quarters of his back which is proportionate for a mature stag. His face and body are not shaded in keeping with less variation in the coat. The forward extension of the antlers called brow tines are not shown extending over the faces as in nature because the shape and size of the ivory would not allow it.
The necks and legs of both animals are outstretched suggesting they are in motion. The front legs of the female extend forward together, as do those of the male. The back legs of the hind extend back behind her but ancient damage to the back of the stag has changed the orginal appearance of the piece. An engraving of the piece when it was first found and a plaster cast made in 1867 show that the left back leg extended behind the animal. By the time it was drawn and published by abbe Breuil in 1905 this fragile limb was missing. Digital replication from the plaster cast indicates that the stag's back legs extended and converged behind him in the same manner as those on the female but forming a delicate, open loop on the end of the sculpture. It also suggests that the stag had a characteristic short, stumpy tail carved in the round and extending the curvature of the back down over the rump. Older photographs of the stag show a repair to the rump that was removed in 2011 revealing the overall symmetry and fluency of the original composition.
Both reindeer are shown with their chins up. Their noses are scuplted in relief and the eyes and ears are similarly treated. The eye sockets are formed in relief and the eyes added as engraved ovals reproducing the goggle-eyed appearance of these rather poor-sighted animals. The ears are folded back against the head. These details, in addition to the outstretched limbs, imply that the pair are depicted as if in water and this led to the piece becoming popularly known as 'the swimming reindeer'.
The hind's face is shaded with finely incised oblique lines indicating areas of darker and lighter colouring on her face. The skin flap or wattle extending from the throat to the chest is highlighted with vertical incisions. The face and neck of the stag are treated differently. Instead of fine shading, the face is marked on both sides with long scrape marks composed of multiple horizontal incisions made in a single action. These are deliberate marks made to be seen, not toolmarks from the initial shaping of the piece which were polished away in the finishing of the piece. As they are not indicative of any natural characteristics of the animal, it is possible that they might indicate the slipstream of water over the animal's face.
The shading of the hind's coat is carefully and accurately done. Cross hatching and patches of deeper, interlocking oblique lines are used to emphasize the heavier musculature of the thighs. Fine, curvy vertical lines indicate areas of longer hair. Short, deep vertical grooves appear to correspond with light patches in the hind's coat with vertical, herring bone drizzles beneath each one. The soft, fluffy white hairs on the edges of the white underbelly are indicated by tiny, fine incisions surrounding the teats that are shown in slight relief between the back legs. Tiny oblique incisions on the chest area between the front legs seem to indicate her ribs.
Opposite sides of the body and face appear the same, but the left side carries less shading than the right. The backs of the animals are not shaded and shading is also absent from the stag's body. Traces of red ochre have been identified on the piece using Rahmen spectroscopy but it is not certain whether this was applied to colour the piece, assist in its production or whether it was picked up naturally during burial.
The depiction of the animals represents an autumn scene between September and December. This is the only time when both the males and females have their antlers. The males shed their antlers after rutting in November-December, whereas females keep theirs through spring giving them protection to obtain sufficient food to sustain their calves. The colouring and quality of the female coat, and the male following the female are also commensurate with an autumn depiction.
The object is referred to as a sculpture as it has no functional attributes of a tool or weapon.
- Production date
Excavated/Findspot: Montastruc, Montastruc rockshelter is one eight sites dating from the end of the last Ice Age and containing typologically Magdalenian III - VI assemblages preserved under a Jurassic limestone cliff overhang of about 14-15 meters, some 29 meters high, beneath the chateau of Bruniquel on the left bank of Aveyron Valley, northeast of Montauban, Tarn-et-Garonne, France. Although the sites are separately named and excavated, the deposits overlap and interdigitate laterally along their length suggesting frequent and regular visits to the river bank towards the end of the last Ice Age. Montastruc rockshelter faces northeast.
Peccadeau de l'Isle began excavating at Montastruc at the end of October, 1866. In 1868, he reported digging to a depth of 4.85 metres through twelve beds of river lain sands, gravels and silts. Between every bed of silt he found layers of charcoal with the exception of one archaeologically sterile calcareous layer above which he found abundant stone, bone, antler and ivory artefacts, as well as the remains of reindeer, horse, bison, ibex, chamois, saiga antelope, bear, wolf and fox. De l'Isle noted that many of the bones were broken to extract the marrow. He also recorded fish and bird remains. This archaeological level was 6-7 meters above the median level of the river which occasionally inundated the site at times of exceptionally high waters.
Montastruc was re-excavated by Bernard Betirac between 1946 and 1957 and Ann-Catherine Welte, 1999, suggested a revised archaeological chronology for it and other Aveyron Valley sites.
Height: 30 millimetres
Length: 207 millimetres
Width: 27 millimetres
- Curator's comments
- When found this sculpture was in two pieces, broken across the middle and de l'Isle thought that each reindeer was a separate object. In 1905, when the pieces were examined by l'abbe Henri Breuil at the British Museum, it was realized that they refitted to a single piece. Describing his find to the Academie des Scriences francaise, de L'Isle (1867) spoke of them as the oldest known artistic masterpieces reflected the value system of the artist. More importantly at that time, it proved the contemporaneity of people with extinct mammoths and reindeer that had long since disappeared from western Europe, as well as being indicative of a period of cold climate.When exhibited at the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867, it was proposed that the reindeer may have been elaborate dagger handles that had once had flint blades although there is no means by which these elements could have been held together. The complete object has also been referred to as a spear thrower with the extended legs of the male that form an open loop being the hook, but the object is far too weak for such a purpose and, like the leaping horse on an antler baton found at Montastruc by Betirac (Cook 2013, p.266), its functionality, purpose and use are unkown.
As noted in the description, the animals represent an autumn scene when the animals are at their best having put on weight through the summer, their coats have thickened to prime conidtion after moulting and the antlers have grown to their most impressive size and shape for the rutting season. This is also the time when reindeer migrate to winter pasture, often swimming across rivers and lakes, followed by their hunters for whom the disturbance, journey and setting up winter camp may have been accompanied by ceremonies and stories. Reindeer also mate in this season and the noisy spectacle of males competing to mate marks the turning of the year and hope for the successful regenation on the herd on which hunters depended for food and raw materials. After mating the male reindeer shed their antlers which are quickly eaten up by rodents and carnivores because of the blood and nutrients they contain when fresh. As the use of shed antlers for the manufacture of tools and weapons is sometimes apparent, the communities following the herds must have a special late autumn task of collecting, protecting and storing the shed antlers as they dropped.
This autumn depiction in the sculpture does not equate with the time of year when Montastruc was occupied. Analysis of the thousands of faunal remains discovered there indicate that the site was used seasonally as a camp in early summer. An engraved drawing on antler showing male and female reindeer, nose to tail, in autumn livery about to mate is known from the cave of La Vache, Ariege, about 100 miles south of Montastruc (Cook 2013, p.272). The piece is of similar age to the 'swimming reindeer' and shares a similar approach to the representation of the natural charcteristics of the reindeer. Although there is much more research to do, it is possible that these two sites represent a seasonal stop on an annual migration trail. The realistic representation, perfect proportioning and technical brillance displayed in the reindeer is also evident on another masterpiece of a ivory horse found pushed into a crevice in the cave of Les Espelugues, Hautes-Pyrenees (Cook 2013, p.263). As with the reindeer the engraving of the horse is less elaborated on one side than the other. This dissymmetry may reflect the difficulty of transferring a mirror image from one side to the other or that it was not important to the artist or viewer whether the sculptures were completely ' finished' in this respect.
The swimming reindeer sculpture was made using stone tools. The process was complex involving the preparation of the ivory, the shaping of the figures, polishing and engraving the details (Cook 2010, 29-39).
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
2013 24 Jun-16 Sep, Spain, Santander, Fundación Botín, Ice Age Art
2013 7 Feb-26 May, London, BM Ice Age Art
2012 19 Oct-17 Dec, Worksop, Creswell Crags Museum, The Swimming Reindeer
2010-2011, London, BM/BBC, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'
- Acquisition date
- Britain, Europe and Prehistory
- Registration number