Les grottes

These past two days have been nothing short of amazing.

At this point in our trip, we’re embarking on the archaeological and prehistorical portion of our itinerary. While we have been staying in the medieval town of Sarlat and enjoying the rich history and culture there, we have been commuting each day to les Eyzies in order to study prehistory.

After Normandy, we spent a short amount of time in Blois, in the Loire Valley, exploring castles and chateaux and noting the transition from the medieval to the renaissance styles in France. Two mornings ago, we boarded our big red bus and drove about six hours into the countryside.

We arrived in les Eyzies-de-Tayac at 14h to attend the opening of an exhibition of Magdalenian art at the Musée National de Préhistoire. Standing in the reception area, my eight trip mates and I received some perplexed looks from the specialists attending the opening (the youngest of whom was at least 20 years older than us). The museum curators and staff were ecstatic to know that the such young people were interested in a field usually attractive to older people. We were ecstatic too, particularly when they started passing out fresh macaroons.

The exhibition was introduced in short speeches by the director of the museum and a government official. Complete with video simulations and glass cases detailing the different pieces of Magdalenian art the museum had collected, the new exhibition was a hit. Small glass cases contained fragments of bone and stone decorated with carvings of animals and delicate designs. We wandered from case to case, examining the precious specimens along with some of the leading archaeologists in the world. Because the world of archeology is so small, we also got to catch up with some specialists we had met at the Musée d’Archaeology National, which we visited on the second day of our trip.

The next day, we spent the morning and early afternoon exploring Sarlat. In the late afternoon, we drove into the countryside past les Eyzies to reach le Grotte de Rouffignac.

Tucked into the hillside, Rouffignac is not notable at first sight. A small opening in the side of a mountain, the entrance to Rouffignac could be easily missed. Stepping inside, the first thing I noticed was the change in temperature. While the outside air had been a balmy 85 degrees, even the first cavern of the cave system felt a good 15 degrees cooler.

A small desk was set up in the first cavern, where a kind lady lent us sweaters and handed us our tickets. Fifteen minutes later, after we had a chance to peruse the available gift shop plunder and read some background information on the caves, an older French gentleman led us into the second cavern of the Grotte, where the temperature dropped again. He closed an iron door behind us, and we were plunged briefly into darkness before the dim lights were illuminated. Walking into the back of this cavern, we boarded a tiny train that would motor us a kilometer into the rock.

My first impression of this train and the cave was that it looked like a scene from one of the Harry Potter movies, in which Harry and his faithful cohorts board a train in Gringott’s Bank to access Bellatrix Lestrange’s vault. For the Harry Potter fans reading this, you may agree with me in that this scene is one of the most epic in the movie: our favorite trio zip through cavernous caves with mind-blowing rock formations and dripping stalactites. Traveling through the Grotte was a comparable experience.

Our guide narrated to us the story of the formation of the passageway by an underground river as we rolled through cavern after cavern. The majority of the walls were covered in scratch marks from an extinct species of cave bear whose circular nests were still intact in the caves.

As we travelled deeper, we began to see traces of human life – finger markings on the ceiling, some faint outlines of wooly mammoths. Soon it seemed every cavern held some drawing – wooly mammoths, wooly rhinoceros, bisons, and horses were depicted in incredible detail. In the farthest cavern, the entire ceiling was covered in drawings, which the people of the Neolithic era would have painted lying on their backs (several years ago, the owners of the cave extended the floor of that cavern to allow for the preservation and viewing of such works).

What was remarkable about these paintings, asserted our guide, was that they were never made to really be seen. The artists themselves would likely never have been able to behold their drawings in full, lying on their backs so close to the ceiling. Art for the sake of art.

image

This image is one from today – just outside the Font de Gaume cave. While we were not allowed to take photographs in the cave today (or yesterday, for that matter), nobody said anything about photographing the entrance. Doesn’t it look so mysterious?

What baffles me about these caves is that they have not changed for thousands of years: the structures we see today and the experience of walking through the caves is largely similar to the experience someone would have had many thousands of years ago.

Too reach the cave, we climbed about a half kilometer up the steep mountain. The ancient peoples would have had to do the same, yet without the aid of maintained paths and bannisters installed by the keepers of the cave. This photo I took just when we reached the top, staring into the black cave with rock outcroppings hanging overhead.

The image you see here shows the entrance to the cave as the prehistoric men and women would have seen it when they occupied this cave 15,000 years ago.

This cave we traversed exclusively on foot. The passageway was extremely narrow, requiring me to slide sideways and crouch at certain points. The paintings and carvings in this cave were remarkably well preserved. Today, the cave is sealed to the public and climate controlled (we were not allowed to stay in the caves for more than an hour, lest the substances we introduced to the cave deteriorate the images as they did in Lascaux).

Our guide showed us paintings and carvings of reindeer, wooly mammoths, horses, and a feline. Many of these depictions combined painting and carving, with the eyes and eye sockets often carved into the colorful painted animals. Our guide would often turn off the lights in the cave and shine only his flashlight on the work of interest, giving us a sense for the experience a prehistoric person would have had with a simple lamp of animal fat.

The paintings were on several different levels in the cave, and our guide maintained that the people may have used wooden beams to lift them to higher rock faces.

Just before we left the cave, our guide asked us all to crouch down on the stone floor and look up into a small overhanging rock face. There, outlined in black paint, was the clear outline of a hand. Some prehistoric person had placed their hand on that rock and sprayed paint over it to create a negative. Knowing that someone had placed their hand in that exact place was somehow very touching.

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