Thursday, 30 January 2014

Of caves and Prehistoric art

2013 has been, for us, the year we discovered France. Not that we had never been there before, but we had only visited Paris until last year when we finally took our time to explore a bit of the countryside, especially in the south.

France is an amazing country and not only for its wines and good food (oh yes we love them!!) but because it is also extraordinarily rich in history and art. Other than the myriad of castles spread all over the country (check out our post about some of them) there are plenty of interesting attractions. Above all of them, the prehistoric caves we visited during our 2 weeks on the road in the southern part of the country have left special memories in our hearts.

Have you ever heard about Lascaux? If the answer is yes, well, forget about them. The original cave is not accessible and the only thing you can visit is a reconstruction (Lascaux II). It may be interesting but we preferred to go for some real ones: Font de Gaume and Les Combarelles, both in Dordogne and very close to Sarlat-le-Caneda and Les Eyzies-de-Tayac. Both these caves are beautifully decorated with drawings that date back up to 17.000 (Font de Gaume) and 13.000 (Combarelles) years ago, when the area was inhabited by the Cro-Magnon people. The caves had been well known by the locals for a few centuries (people that have often degraded the drawings by leaving on them their inscriptions and graffiti) but, surprisingly, the acknowledgement of cave paintings as art and the consequential recognition of these places as national monument is something that happened just at the beginning of last century.

The atmosphere of these caves is really special. The drawings, mainly animal figures (horses, bisons, mammoths, bears etc) and geometric forms, are of great quality especially considering their age. They were done using mainly iron oxide for the red colour & manganese for black.
It is really a shame that we can not share with you the images (not surprisingly, taking pictures is not allowed).

We had visited other caves in the past and also encountered signs of Prehistoric men passage in the Grutas de Loltun in Mexico, but nothing of a similar artistic level than those visited in France.

                                                      Grutas de Loltun (Yucatan) - negative hands.

The whole experience of being in tight, deep and dark tunnels to explore the expression of these ancient artists was so strong and touching that we decided to visit more caves.

Luckily enough, the Grotte of Pech Merle was having a special winter opening exactly when we were passing through the area. The cave is quite big and other than drawings and paintings there are also traces such as human and bear footprints. One of the most impressing murals we have seen during our trip is located here; the dotted horses. Here drawings are even older than in Font De Gaume, dating back to around 20.000 years ago. We need to thank some sliding rocks that blocked the entrance around 10.000 years ago, during Ice Age, making the cave much more difficult to access, for the excellent state of conservation.

The Grotte de Niaux was a different experience and somehow more extreme. As there is no artificial lighting inside, you need to bring torches with you on the 800mt walk (not even a third of the 3km whole length of the cave). It's big, spacious and silent. The range of animals is slightly more varied including ibex.
The young guide was extremely knowledgeable and helpful; she even managed to get us an appointment for the day after to visit the Grotte de Bedeilhac, that should have been closed, according to our guidebook. Once there, we were taken in by Rene' Gailli, 87 years old historian of Italian origins that has directed the site for the last 60 years and probably knows the cave better than his house! A special guide indeed (and an amusing character), that showed us the peculiarity of this cave, characterized by the extensive variety of artifacts; not only drawings and paintings but also engravings and bas-reliefs. The cave in itself is also spectacular from a geological point of view, with its beautiful stalactites and stalagmites, some of them creating huge columns.

The dating of all these artistic works as you may imagine was not easy. Some have been investigated with radiocarbon through the calcite deposit that has stratified during the millenniums over the drawings but a lot of them have just been dated by comparison with similar subjects in other caves as there was no organic matter to work on.

                                                 Picture from the book `The Font the Game Cave`

A lot of the caves containing Prehistoric art (not only the French ones) were closed to the public in the 70s due to the damages caused by the human presence. Those still open often have limited number of people allowed in per day. So during high season it is preferred to book in advance. On the other hand lot of them may be closed during low season so we suggest you to plan your visit in advance.

If this post sounded interesting, we'd you suggest to watch Werner Herzog's documentary `Cave of forgotten dreams`, about a cave in Provence that is not accessible to visitors, to have a clearer idea of what we are talking about.

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