Nouvelle Aquitaine

La Madeleine rock shelter - Vezere Valley

This page was updated on: Friday, March 31, 2017 at: 3:38 pm

La Madeleine inhabited for 17,000 years


La Madeleine rock shelter seen form the opposite bank - via photo

La Madeleine Shelter is located on the northern bank of the Vézère River, opposite the village of Tursac.

La Madeleine is a unique and fascinating site, in the sense that it has three different levels of occupancy.

The prehistoric rock shelter is at river level, while the troglodyte medieval village is half-way up the cliff and the medieval castle on the top of the cliff!

La Madeleine is also the only site of Périgord that was inhabited for a period of 17,000 years without interruption!

This unique characteristic, along with the importance and style of the artifacts recovered from the various excavations, led the archaeologists to name a phase of the Upper-Paleolithic after it.

Creation of La Madeleine rock shelter

Four million years ago a vast sea covered the south west of France.


Meander and site marked X - via photo

It then retreated over the millennia and left several rivers behind.

These rivers carved the limestone plateaux.

They created valleys and large meanders and hollowed galleries and shelters in the cliffs.

Our distant ancestors immediately saw these rivers as natural defense.

They also considered the rock shelters as secure settlements against predators and cold weather conditions.

Game was roaming the rich alluvial plains and the forests produced wood.

Rivers provided plenty fish and water.

First colonization, 17,000 years ago

All conditions were therefore gathered in this privileged environment for the first humans who colonized the area 17,000 years ago.

They settled in a natural shelter of the south-facing cliff nestled in a narrow buckle-shape meander of the Vézère.


Troglodyte dwellings overlooking the Vézère

The rock shelter today known as La Madeleine was then only accessible by the riverside.

It indeed provide the best natural defense against predators and intruders.

La Madeleine had all the conditions needed for men to settle and thrive.

The study of the three successive periods of occupation, indeed, shows that Magdalenian men did thrive though the millennia.

They overcame the rise of the temperatures that forced mammoths to move farther north.

They adapted to new game, developed new methods of hunting and new weapons…

A new culture was arising!

Traces of Magdalenian culture were found all over Western Europe.

They attest the level of sophistication of these populations who inhabited our regions from about 17,000BP to 7,000BP (the end of the Ice Age.)

Traces of their everyday life resurface with the many artifacts, parietal art and remains discovered in the  caves of Périgord.

The discovery of La Madeleine rock shelter

La Madeleine is one of them!

The paleontologist Edouard Lartet and his sponsor Henry Christy discovered La Madeleine prehistoric rock shelter in 1863.

The two men were on their way back from excavating at the nearby Moustier Neanderthal site, when they noticed a rock shelter nestled in a narrow meander of the Vézère.

The superficial excavations they conducted on the spot revealed countless artifacts.

These left therefore no doubt about the importance of the site, which underwent deeper exploration the following year.

Magdalenian men mastered cave paintings and engraving.

However, they also mastered the making of ivory, horn and bone tools, weapons and jewels, which they often engraved or decorated.

The Age of the Reindeer

The extensive representation of reindeer led the archaeologists to refer to the Magdalenian era as the Age of the Reindeer.

As the excavations progressed it was later found that Magdalenian men were not only reindeer hunters.



Indeed, they also hunted red deer, horses and much larger mammals.

Their animal paintings were realistic in colours and shapes.

Magdalenian artists also used the natural declivity of the caves' walls, which they adapted and incorporated into their design.

The specificity and sophistication of the techniques they used reflect a high level of skills and an acute understanding of the surrounding world.

The discovery that confirmed the importance of the site was that of five fragments of an ivory blade engraved with an exceptional representation of a mammoth.

The animal was depicted with such realism and details that it was obvious that the artist depicted an animal he had seen in the flesh, an animal which was contemporary with him.

It was then easy for the experts to date the engravings and authenticate the age of the cave.

They indeed knew when mammoths disappeared from Southwest France.

Magdalenian settlements

Another interesting fact about this extraordinary culture is that Magdalenian men didn't live in caves anymore, but built tents.

All the fascinating findings made at la Madeleine therefore led in 1868 to a redefinition of the time-line of prehistory!


Ruined troglodytes

A phase of the Upper-Paleolithic - Magdalenian epoch - was therefore named after the site.

Further excavations resulted in 1926 in another major discovery - the skeleton of a 3-year child wearing shell jewellery and died about 10,000 years ago.

The quality of the jewels leads to think that he was the son of an important member of the tribe.

As in La Laugerie Haute, traces of ocher pigments revealed that the body of the Child of La Madeleine (L’enfant de La Madeleine) had been painted prior to his burial.

Most of the artifacts found in La Madeleine are exhibited in the National Museum of Prehistory in Les Eyzies de Tayac Sireuil (including the Child of La Madeleine) and in the Museum of National Antiquities in St-Germain-en-Laye near Paris.

La Madeleine prehistoric shelter is not open to the public.

However, you can visit the troglodyte village and have a close look at the ruined castle.

La Madeleine troglodyte village

La Madeleine village was built during the 8th and 9th century Saracens (Arabs) and Vikings' incursions.


Troglodyte dwellings - holes where the beams were anchored

The troglodyte village is a therefore stronghold, and was thoroughly thought in order to make it secure.

The access path is very steep and allowed space only for one person at the time, thus preventing any group attack.

A fortified guard post protected the village entrance and a suspended footbridge span a wooden platform.

This platform, tilted towards the river, cleverly allowed the guard to push down any intruder.

A narrow lane protected by a parapet - the village street! - runs between the edge of the cliff and the dwellings.

A section of the village was allocated to the tradesmen and their families; traces of their equipment can still be seen in the ground or in the rock.

Troglodyte dwellings

The natural rock shelters proved to be ideal dwellings because they already had a natural ceiling and floor.

All they needed was an external wall!


Main street, church and dwellings

The surrounding forests provided the beams needed for the frame, and the cliff unlimited supply of stones.

All that is left today of the beams that were anchored straight into the cliff are small aligned cavities.

Internal walls were made of cob, a mixture of mud, straw and wood locally known as torchis or pisé.

However, but the shape of the rock dictated the layout of each dwelling.

Troglodyte dwellings had two levels.

Goats, sheep, pigs and poultry lived in the barn on lower level; the heat they produced rose to the upper level where the family lived.

A handful of houses have retained their walls.

You'll therefore be able to discover traces of occupation; smoke marks on the ceiling will show you where the hearth was located.


Ste Madeleine Church

Villagers adapted the cliff to their needs.

They often cut into the rock in order to enlarge, reshape and create niches, cupboards and beds often closed with wooden doors.

They carved a rainwater butt straight into the rock above their dwellings in order to collect water…

Almost water on the tap!

There also carved gutters in order to evacuate the excess rainwater and human and animal waste.

Indeed, you have to imagine hens, pigs, goats and others animals running free in the narrow 'village street'!

Finally, there was a vegetable garden in the enclosure of the fortress above the village.

Access to the garden was always possible, even in time of siege.

The importance of the river

Villagers cut a set of steps into the cliff in order to easily go down to and from the river.

Traffic on the river was busy, as troglodyte villages were supplied by boat.

Wood, hemp, food, drinkable water, weapons and others arrived by flat bottom boats or gabares.

The supplies were then uplifted to the cliff by a system of pulley.

Small embarkations and rafts allowed people to cross the river as there was no bridge.

Chapel of Sainte Madeleine

As in any traditional village, there was a church or at least a chapel.

Lord Beynac built Sainte Madeleine Chapel in 1354 by on the foundations of a previous chapel.


Sundial in chapel

The tiny building has retained its superb Gothic arches and two Romanesque altars.

However, all the frescoes have been lost except for the intriguing Cadran Solaire.

The meaning of this Sundial) is unknown.

The watchman hole

Finally, each troglodyte village along the Vézère (and the Dordogne) had a watchman hole or cluzeau.

This small cavity in the cliff was only accessible by a ladder or a rope.

These guard posts were scattered at regular intervals along the river.

The watchmen communicated with each others by blowing a horn or by visual signals.

Their signal warned the farmers who gathered their animals grazing in the valley and brough them in the  safe shelters.

Château fort du Petit-Marzac

Petit Marzac and the village were both during the invasions of the 8th and 9th century in order to offer protection to the villagers of the surrounding area.

It stood on top of the cliff and was surrounded by a dried moat, which is still partially visible.


Petit Marzac castle

The Sireuil Family reinforced the fortifications of the castle in the 13th century.

The village and its fortress were often under siege or attacked during the Hundred Years War; villagers had to fend for themselves and be self-sufficient.

However, the English seized the church of Tursac and Petit Marzac in 1335 and used it as a base for raiding Périgord.

Lord Beynac recaptured it in 1354 and the fortress remained in his family until the 17th century.

Only ruins (non accessible for safety reasons) are left of the impressive fortress as it burnt down in 1620.

Not only was it never rebuilt, but it was also quarried.

However, a few walls and the Tour Saint Martin survived total destruction.

La Madeleine village was abandoned when the fortress burnt down.

Only the cloth-maker’s family and occasional farmers and shepherds sojourned afterwards; the village was eventually deserted in the late 19th century.

UNESCO listed La Madeleine as a World Heritage Site.

Department of Dordogne
Coordinates La Madeleine: Lat 44.96185 - Long 1.041255

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