A Case of Mistaken Identity: Hohle Fels “Horse” Was Not a Horse at All
The first example of ancient ivory artwork ever recovered from the World Heritage cave Hohle Fels in southwestern Germany was a piece of a broken figurine that depicted a horse’s head—or so archaeologists thought.
No one had any reason to question this conclusion, not in the 24 years that had passed since the ivory head was originally unearthed in a Late Middle Paleolithic excavation layer. But during a recent dig at Hohle Fels, researchers recovered another piece of the small ivory statue. After fitting it with the head, as well as other pieces of the animal carving found over the years, they realized the ivory artifact does not represent a horse after all.
The Animal Found at Hohle Fels Remains Unidentified
The team of archaeologists responsible for this surprising discovery was led by University of Tübingen professor Nicholas Conard, who is associated with the university’s Department of Prehistory and Quaternary Ecology and has participated in many excavations at Hohle Fels.
“We still cannot identify the animal species depicted with certainty, but it could be a cave lion or a cave bear,” Professor Conard told the media at a University of Tübingen press conference to announce his team’s history-altering discovery.
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Whatever the animal actually is, the people responsible for carving the figurine were incredibly ancient. The archaeologists unearthed the new piece in a deep layer connected to the Aurignacion Paleolithic culture, which occupied the region of southwestern Germany where Hohle Fels is located approximately 35,000 years ago, give or take a few thousand years.
The cave is included within the boundaries of the Swabian Jura Biosphere Reserve near the village of Schelklingen in the German state of Baden-Württemberg. During many rounds of excavations covering several decades, archaeologists have uncovered artifacts from different ancient cultures inside this once-popular underground retreat.
The Hohle Fels archaeological site in Germany. (Jens Burkert / University of Tübingen)
Artifact at Hohle Fels Has a Horse-Shaped Head and a Bear-Shaped Body
When the smooth and intricately crafted figurine piece was first excavated at Hohle Fels in 1999, it was identified as a horse based on the elongated shape of the head. A couple more pieces of the figurine were recovered in subsequent years, but they didn’t possess any characteristics that were inconsistent with a horse’s anatomy.
But everything changed after the recent excavations, when Professor Conard’s team dug up a piece of ivory that was clearly broken off from a larger carved object. The curved shell-like artifact was about 1.5 inches long, an inch high and one-fifth of an inch thick (3.99 by 2.49 by 0.55 cm). It has several finely-engraved lines on one side. Based on this decoration, plus its overall shape, the Hohle Fels figurine was identified as an animal’s right shoulder and thorax.
The newly discovered piece was taken from the same excavation layer as the original Aurignacion-era ivory figurine. So it was inevitable that the archaeologists would attempt to match the newly-discovered piece to the figurine. When they did, it was a perfect match.
What is especially meaningful about the recently discovered figurine piece is its shape and dimensions. It simply doesn’t look like something from the body of a horse, as it exhibits characteristics of a torso that is clearly too thick and round to be consistent with that identification.
The Hohle Fels “horse” figurine in its find location. (Alexander Janas / University of Tübingen)
Archaeological Detective Work at Hohle Fels
Curious to see if any other missing pieces of the original Hohle Fels figurine had been recovered, the archaeologists carefully sorted through boxes of ivory fragments. Eventually they found a small piece that fits the right side of the body.
The archaeologists found yet another tiny ivory fragment they believe was once a part of the figurine, but they can’t be completely certain since it is a leg piece that doesn’t connect directly to the figurine’s body in its current form.
While the archaeologists are keeping their options open, Professor Conard has his own theory about which animal the figurine really represents. “The figurine now has a massive body, shows the typical pronounced bear hump at shoulder height and presents itself in a posture that could imitate the trotting gait of a bear,” he stated. But he admitted that some of his colleagues were leaning toward the idea that it was a cave lion.
“It is by no means always easy to determine Ice Age depictions with certainty, especially when they are preserved in such fragmentary form,” Professor Conard acknowledged. “It therefore makes sense to look particularly carefully for the missing parts of this animal in the years to come.”
Excavation work at Hohle Fels in Germany, where the so-called “horse” figurine was unearthed. (Nicholas J. Conard / University of Tübingen)
An Archaeologist’s Work is Never Done
Overall a total of five connectible statue pieces have now been found at Hohle Fels. But there are still several more that would need to be recovered to make the ivory artifact complete.
With the newly recovered pieces added, the ivory figurine will now be returned to the nearby Prehistoric Museum in Blaubeuren, from where it was borrowed. But once it goes back on public display, it will no longer be labeled as a horse. “This figure shows us and our visitors like no other that the archaeological work is never finished,” said the Museum’s managing director Dr. Stefanie Kölbl.
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Further proof of her statement can be found right next door to the museum, where archaeologists and technicians are continuing to sort through the various finds removed from Hohle Fels. They won’t be looking exclusively for more pieces of the ivory animal figurine, but they may eventually find some anyway.
“It’s fascinating to see the excavators there at work with magnifying glasses and tweezers,” said Dr. Kölbl, “and even more fascinating to realize that somehow nothing seems to be lost over this long, long time, and we can hope to be able to complete this figure at some point.”
Top image: The Hohle Fels “horse” figurine with all its fragments. Source: Ria Litzenberg / University of Tübingen
By Nathan Falde