The Swimming Reindeer

by Jim Ness, BAG Member

31 December 2010

Picture credit = British Museum

Picture credit – British Museum

Complementary to our discoveries at Howburn was the inclusion by the BBC, in their ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ radio series, of the Swimming Reindeer carved from mammoth tusk in 11,000 BC. It was found at Montastruc, near Toulouse in southern France.

The two reindeer, 20cm long, are a masterpiece of Palaeolithic art captured swimming closely one behind the other, the smaller female in front, the male following.  Both have their chins up and their antlers swept back and legs at full stretch. The male displays a very impressive set of antlers and genitals.  The female has four teats.  Full sets of antlers and well conditioned coats indicate an autumn setting. The piece has been carved by someone who had spent much time watching reindeer swim across rivers.

The carving involved four different technologies. Firstly, the mammoth tusk would have been severed with a chopping tool then the shape of the animal whittled with a stone knife and scraper. Next the piece was polished with powdered iron oxide mixed with water and buffed with chamois leather. Finally the body markings and eyes were incised with a stone engraving tool.

The Palaeolithic cultures of southern France may have had more leisure time and developed more of a need for religion and ritual than our Howburn visitors but the tools described above would all have been available to Howburn Man.