Caves with the oldest Ice Age art
Caves with the oldest Ice Age art is part of the Tentative list in order to qualify for inclusion in the World Heritage List.
Click here for a short description of the site, as delivered by the State Party
Hubert Scharnagl Austria - April 2015
The paleontologists in Germany suffer a bit from the fact, that there are no sites of prehistoric rock art, not even simple scratches of arrows or circles, not to mention such beautiful cave paintings like in Chauvet and Altamira. But it is a kind of compensation that some of the earliest examples of figurative artworks were found in caves of the Swabian Alb. The objects are attributed to the Aurignacian and are about 40,000 years old. The figurines are made of mammoth ivory and are only a few centimetres tall, not larger than a matchbook. In total, about fifty figurines were found, mostly only fragments, less than half of them have been preserved in a way that they can be clearly identified. Most figures represent animals that lived during the last Ice Age in the Swabian Alb, like mammoth, wild horse or lion, but also bird and fish. Other remarkable items are small flutes made of ivory and bird bones, these are the oldest known musical instruments, also about 42,000 years old.
Two finds stand out: the Venus of Hohle Fels (excavated in 2008, photo left), which is considered the oldest sculpture of a human body, and the Lion Man, a hybrid creature of a human body with the head and limbs of a lion, with 31 centimetres it is by far the largest of the found objects. Amazingly, it was reassembled of more than 300 fragments.
The figurines are truly amazing and it's impressive how old they are. However, the excavated finds are movable and are shown in museums, they cannot be part of the nomination. The caves themselves are not outstanding, most of them are rather small or just a rock shelter. In fact, there is not much to see. But this issue is similar to some fossil hominid sites, where it is also more important what was found there, than what can be seen there. So why not also inscribing the caves of Ice Age art?
The proposed site consists of six caves, three in the Ach Valley and three in the Lone Valley, the distance between the two clusters is about 40 kilometres. The valleys are in low mountain range, about 500 metres above sea level. The caves are easily accessible, all close to a main road. To grasp the importance of the caves, it is useful to see also some of the figurines. Unfortunately, there is no central museum or visitor centre showing all of the excavated objects, they are spread over five different locations.
Some information on the individual caves and museums:
Three caves within a distance of four kilometres, about 30 kilometres northeast of Ulm
Vogelherd cave: a small U-shaped cave with two entrances and a length of 40 metres, most of the animal figures were found there. The cave is only accessible via the Archaeopark Vogelherd (8 Euro entrance fee, www.archaeopark-vogelherd.de), the visitor centre shows two finds, a mammoth and a cave lion. The visitor centre nicely fits in the landscape, the Archaeopark presents several aspects of the life in the Ice Age, but these attractions are more interesting for children.
Hohlenstein-Stadel cave: a 50 metre long, narrow cave; place where the Lion Man was found; the entrance is closed with a lattice gate to protect the bats; one kilometre walk from the hamlet Lindenau.
Bockstein cave: a small cave, only about 20 metres, freely accessible; the oldest proven settlement in the area, no art objects were found, but tools, ornaments and other artefacts, the oldest finds are about 70,000 years; the car park is between the towns of Bissingen and Öllingen, a short walk to the edge of the wood, then a steep climb, the cave is about 20 metres above the bottom of the valley.
Three caves within a distance of five kilometres along the federal highway (Bundesstraße) 492 between Blaubeuren and Schelklingen, about 20 kilometres west of Ulm
Geißenklösterle: a semicircular rock face, the excavation site is a small abri; found objects: animal figures and flutes of mammoth ivory and bird bones; the abri is closed with a lattice fence, but it has little depth, so the site is visible through the fence; car park at the city limit of Blaubeuren (suburb named Weiler) right at the Ach river, ten minute walk to the cave (some steep sections)
Sirgenstein cave: a small cave, 40 metres in depth, freely accessible; stone tools and other artefacts were found; the cave is probably included because a complete stratigraphic sequence of the Middle and Upper Paleolithic was found; a parking bay at the main road, a short walk up to the cave
Hohle Fels: the largest of the six caves, a large hall with an area of about 500 square metres; animal figures and the Venus of Hohle Fels were found; just outside the town of Schelklingen, sign-posted from the main road; the cave is open on Sunday afternoon from May to October
Urgeschichtliches Museum in Blaubeuren: the best choice to see some of the found objects, the main part of the museum is dedicated to the Paleolithic period, originals of the Venus of the Hohe Fels, a horse's head, a water bird, and three flutes are shown.
The Ulm City Museum shows only one of the figurines, but it's the most fascinating: the Lion Man (www.loewenmensch.de). Other excavated finds are in the Museum of the Tübingen University (where most of the animal figures are shown) and the Landesmuseum Württemberg in Stuttgart (a few figurines, ornaments and artefacts, mainly from the Geißenklösterle).
The Caves of Ice Age art are scheduled the first nomination of the new T-list sites and I think with good chances for inscription, their significance is undeniable. However, we have to wait how ICOMOS and the WHC deal with the issue that a major feature of the site are the movable items. The applicants seem to be aware of this problem, as they emphasize in the justification of outstanding universal value that caves, finds and surrounding landscape represent a cultural ensemble.