The Perfect Cave

The paleolithic part of the Piette journey was intriguing to me as I knew the least about it. I had never visited a cave before, nor seen real flints. I imagined the caves as shallow inlets or giant caverns with expressive pigmented animals dancing at the back. I could not wait to board the tram through the Rouffignac cave to see if it met my expectations. The tram [rolled] through tunnels that had been expanded for easy access, a meter or so below the original cave floor. Although it was difficult to understand the guide’s French over the garbling microphone, I learned that this cave had more drawings of mammoths than any other cave, as well as over two-thirds of all mammoths depicted in known cave art. I strained to pick up the lines and etchings on the walls that represented the wooly animals. Suddenly, I realized there were words covering the walls and ceiling! However, as the guide explained, these markings were not traces of a paleolithic language: this was graffiti left by explorers in the 1600s. We reached the end of the tunnel; I was disappointed that the cave had not opened up into a giant gallery as I had read about in other caves. However, upon looking up, I spied the incredible network of mammoth and horse drawings that covered the ceiling. Though the drawings had amazed me, I still was not completely satisfied with my experience, as the cave itself felt artificial because of how much they changed it to make it accessible by tram. I could not wait to explore the next one on our itinerary!

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In the Mas D’Azil cave, I was immediately more impressed. The ceiling stretched over the highway and river, creating a cool tunnel. The entrance to the cave was at the middle of the overpass. When we stepped inside, my first impression was how much the cave stretched in three-dimensional space, with small corridors to walk through and open chambers. I was eager to explore this much more ‘cave-like’ cave. We followed the snaking path around and through the rock formations, through caverns and tight passes. However, I was disappointed with the presentation, as the ‘curators’ had installed out-of-place exhibits throughout the cave. In the main gallery, there was a light and music show, designed to enhance our appreciation of the cave, which just took me out of the experience. In the next room, there were ‘modern art’ chandeliers that did not belong in a prehistoric site, even though the crystals were shaped like bones and flints. I was happy to discover the presence of live bats in the modern art room, though all we could hear of them were their squeaks. We looped above and back as I thought about how this cave compared to the last: the rock formations were far more spectacular in this one, but we did not see its cave art. I hoped that the last cave on our trip would finally reach my expectations.

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The last cave we visited was Niaux. The road to the cave was breathtaking, with views of ever-higher mountains and the valleys in between. At the entrance, we picked up lanterns to light our way and then stepped through a vault-like door to the cave. From the beginning, it was more spectacular than I could have expected. Though the lanterns made it impossible to see the entire extent of the cave, the flickering of the many lights created an effect like what I imagine the cave painters must have seen. There were stalactites and stalagmites, though apparently people had taken many as souvenirs before it was banned. The cave stretched on and on, with tunnels and open chambers and pools of water. In this cave I could imagine being a paleolithic person, venturing into the deep darkness. We reached a rock with dots and markings, some of which I speculated to be handprints of a sort, fingertips drawn inwards. Was it a direction marker? Some sort of calendar? Later, we approached the Black Gallery, where most of the paintings of the cave were. We climbed a great hill before the ceiling opened above us. I could sense why the ancient humans had decided to paint at this location—it seemed like a destination in the cave, not just tunnels leading ever on. The guide explained each set of paintings; half finished pictures, giant reindeer, and beautifully drawn bison were dramatically illuminated before us. After viewing the art, the guide instructed us to turn off our lanterns. Each click invited the darkness closer, until we could see nothing. The guide suggested that someone sing a song to demonstrate the acoustics of the cave. After everyone volunteered their neighbor but none rose to the challenge, I offered to sing a line of my favorite song. It resonated beautifully, and I wished I could sing there all day in the darkness. One of the group suggested a moment of complete silence. It was so peaceful to stand there with only our ears in focus, listening to a far off drip in the cave and feeling the sense of space.

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