This painted pebble is part of a collection of Paleolithic artifacts that was acquired in 1929 by James Bell Bullitt during a tour of western Europe and later donated to the University of North Carolina. He likely acquired the pebble from the influential archaeologist Henri Breuil, whom he visited during this tour. Breuil was supported the authenticity of the Mas d’Azil pebbles, and his statement that he had also found painted pebbles in the cave helped quell suspicions. Recent analysis shows that Breuil’s collection at the Institut de Paléontologie Humaine, Paris, includes a mixture of fake and authentic specimens.
The artefact is curated in the North Carolina Archaeological Collection, Research Laboratories of Archaeology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, catalog no 502a1.
The Azilian period was named by the influential French archaeologist Édouard Piette in 1887 based on finds from his excavations at Mas d’Azil Cave. Among these finds were large numbers of painted pebbles, and over 1600 are now known from the site. They are all unmodified river pebbles made of blue-grey schist from the bed of the Arize River that flows through the cave. The unmodified stones are roughly oval in shape and flat. They are painted with red ochre, usually in combinations of stripes and dots, but sometimes with chevrons or diamonds. Statistical analysis of the motifs shows that motifs were combined in non-random ways, hinting at some sort of notational function for the objects. Painted or engraved pebbles are now known from 37 sites of this age, mostly in France.
When Piette first announced the discovery of the pebbles, they were met with hostility. This is perhaps partly due to Piette’s acceptance of claims by Don Marcelino de Sautuola that the paintings discovered in Altamira Cave in Spain dated to the Palaeolithic. At the time, this claim was was derided by many of Piette’s colleagues, who claimed that paint could not have survived for so long on a cave wall. Piette’s painted pebbles were also dismissed, and as late as 1929 Piette’s rivals (including the archaeologist Adrien de Mortillet, the son of famous archaeologist Gabriel de Mortillet) were arguing that all of the painted pebbles were forgeries. Indeed, a large number of forged pebbles were made and sold to meet the demands of museums. Fake painted pebbles still reside in museums in France and the UK, including the British Museum, but most of Piette’s Mas d’Azil pebbles are now known to be authentic.
The Pamier to Luchon stage of the Tour de France bike race travels through Mas d’Azil Cave, often cheered on by people dressed up in skins to mimic the cave’s Palaeolithic/Mesolithic occupants.