Thursday, 28 October 2010

A touch of Troglodyte

The Dordogne region of France (down in the south-west corner) is famous for prehistoric sites, especially prehistoric cave art (including the famous Lascoux cave). There is plenty of evidence that both cro magnon and neanderthal man lived (not together) in the region, and for the visitor interested in such things, there is LOTS to see.

We took a tour that promised 'Dordogne in a day', although in reality one could spend a week here. As it was, we spent a jam-packed day cramming in as many sites and experiences as we could. Two of these took us back back back in time to the troglodyte days when cave men lived in the valley during the time of the last ice age.

La Roque St Christophe is a huge cliff face with natural cavities in which cave men dwelled 55,000 years ago. In the middle ages these cavities were further hollowed out and carved to house a medieval village and fortress during the dark ages and the 100 years war. Much more is known about this later civilisation, and their more advanced culture has left far greater imprint on the site than the neanderthal man's. In medieval times, it existed on five different levels, and included a smithy, church and all the usual village suspects, all suspended high over the river valley - with an outstanding view.

La grotte de Rouffignac - otherwise known as the cave of the mammoths - has cave art dating to 13,000 years ago. It is one of the few caves in the region where mammoths are featured heavily in the art, hence the name. The opening to the cave is massive and leads to a series of galleries on different levels. We were conveyed into the depths via a small tram with a guide. There are two main types of art: engravings and drawings, although they are both from around the same time and depict similar subjects. The engravings were made in softer zone, mainly on vertical walls. The drawings were made with titanium dioxide on both the walls and ceiling -- including one ceiling which has different types of animals (mammoths, horses, ibex, bison, woolly rhinocerous) half overlaid with each other.

Unlike the more famous Lascoux caves (which are older and display the most impressive range of animals in full-colour), the Rouffignac caves that are open to the public are authentic and not a replica, but they are very carefully controlled and the art is only lit for very short periods of time. No-one is certain why the drawings were made. The main chamber was originally very low -- just 1m between the ceiling and floor -- but they have dug out the floor to allow the public inside. It seens probable they were part of some spiritual ritual, probably not designed to ever be viewed.

Also within the Rouffignac caves is evidence of cave bears, which lived there even earlier. The bears used to hibernate deep within the caves (their hollowed out 'nests' are still there) and then scratch at the walls when they woke up. Many of the walls are lined with cave bear scratches, all of which lie beneath the cave art, indicating their earlier presence. A much later addition, however, is graffity from the 18th and 19th centuries, since the entrance to the cave has always been open.

There are many many more caves with prehistoric art in the region, dating back to different times, although not all of them are open to the public. I didn't come to France with any expectation of seeing such wonders, but now find myself wishing I had a little more time to check out some more!

No comments:

Post a Comment