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Next stop prehistory!

The Piette travelers outside of the Musee National de Prehistoire in Les Eyzies

Our Piette program travelers have taken a departure from the traditional school trip to France to explore an extremely ancient part of our past. This began early in our stay in Paris when we rode the train to Saint-Germain-en-Laye, an affluent suburb northwest of the metropolis. The curator of the Musee Nacional d’Archeologie spent considerable time showing us their oldest collections–those on exhibit as well as behind the scenes. Most notable was the Piette Room discussed in my earlier post. Despite the extensive collections of stone tools, carved bone and ivory, as well as numerous examples of Magdalenian portable art dating from 10 to 12 thousand years ago or earlier the highlight for many of the students was a visit to the roof of the royal castle that houses the museum. This is not surprising, as this part of our past lacks written sources and is enigmatic and inaccessible for even those diehard students of prehistory. In some ways that trip to the castle roof is a metaphor for this inaccessibility. The tools and carvings and decorated chunks of cave walls belong to a subterranean underworld inhabited by long dead people and their even more extinct animal muses standing in stark contrast to the bright blue sky, breeze, and sweeping panorama seen from atop a castle just a few hundred years old. How can we access the human world of 10, 12 or even 15 thousand years ago when WWII and the events of D-Day just 70 years ago begin to recede from us? Are the people of the Paleolithic lost to us or can they be recovered by going to them, to the cavern landscape of the Dordogne and the Midi-Pyrenees?

After our encounter with the beaches of Normandy and the American Cemetery we traveled to Les Eyzies, arriving at the Musee National de Prehistoire at the end of an international conference on Magdalenian portable art and a new temporary exhibit on the subject. Important pieces of carved and engraved bone and mammoth ivory were assembled for the exhibit, uniting a handful of tiny artifacts from different caves for comparison. We had seen some of these artifacts a week earlier in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. For example, in one case the famous antler carving of a bison licking its side from La Madeleine rock shelter was exhibited alongside a similar carving. The carving is truly magnificent and would be at home on a Pablo Picasso canvas. Despite the excitement and energy surrounding the exhibit, however, our connection with the makers was incomplete. What happened so long ago that caused people who had never carved antler or decorated caves to do so? Was this great awakening a neurological shift, as some have suggested? And why does the abstract quality of these drawings, engravings, paintings, and carvings appeal to our modern aesthetic?

The wooly rhinoceros cast at the Musee National de Prehistoire

Our next step back into the Upper Paleolithic took us even closer to the Cro Magnon realm: the caves. Our first cave visit was Grotte de Rouffignac. Visitors board a small train for an hour long tour–the train helps protect the decorated walls and helps limit the duration of each visit. Evidence of cave bears–both innumerable scratches on the walls and “nests” used for hibernation are evidence that the cave was used well before the engravings and manganese drawings of mammoths, rhinoceros, ibex, horse, and bison were added some 10 to 12 thousand years ago. What is most striking is the intentionality in evidence. Drawings of animals were often made with one confident and sweeping line, defining rump, back and head. But beyond this, the placement shows that the makers had conceived of their design and then executed it, grouping species or placing drawings in a frieze below a layer of projecting chert nodules. But the bears and ancient artists were not the last visitors to Rouffignac; much of the cave ceiling has been defaced by those who crawled in the cave from as early as the 16th century, largely unaware of the depictions. A visit the following day for a very animated tour of the main exhibits in the Musee National de Prehistoire added context to the Rouffignac Cave–one exhibit is a cast of a wooly rhinoceros preserved by salt and crude oil deposits in Poland, displayed with a skull and the cave art outline. It’s still hard to imagine the intrepid souls who crawled into these caves armed with their manganese crayons and flickering oil lamps, working their way deep into caverns to lie on their backs to execute a fabulous bestiary of the last ice age. Images that were perhaps never meant to be shared, were it not for our modern drive to hollow out these spaces and illuminate the images with electric lamps.

The beautifully carved and engraved stone lamp from Lascaux

A visit to the Grotte Font-de-Gaume brought our group face to face with polychrome cave paintings not unlike those at the famous and now closed Lascaux cave. Too many visitors are bad for caves. Our guide told me that in the 1960s they had over 1,000 visitors a day. Now visitation is capped at 80 per day in an attempt to control the cool microclimate within the cave. At Font-de-Gaume some 15 thousand years ago cave artists mixed multi-colored paint to illustrate mammoths, horses, reindeer and other ice age animals. In one scene–and there are most certainly scenes here–a reindeer bends gently forward and licks the antlers of another reindeer, perhaps a mating ritual. Here the depictions of these creatures draws on the natural shapes of the cave walls and draperies. In at least one case a natural declivity in the cave became the eye of a bison. But leaving the cave our guide beckons us to bend down to examine one last remarkable decoration: the silhouette of a human hand made with black paint. But this is not a signature, the hand print may predate the artwork by some 10 thousand years. Another enigma!

The so-called troglodyte dwellings of the Neolithic pock mark the limestone and chalk cliffs of the Dordogne and give some hint to the significant relationship between the people of this area and the rock. Even during the Neolithic some 5 or 6 thousand years ago caves and rock shelters were used for dwellings. People of the region are still proud of their relationship to the rocks and caverns