Where on Earth?! Southern France

“My work had sold, mission accomplished, I could start for home at the end of the night.   But there were still a few things that I must do….”   continuing from previous story;

The sharp, conical peaks appeared like upside down tops in a slow spin as the plane rotated over them on its long, curving course.  One after another they bumped up through a soft blanket of fog that concealed the earth below.  They were the Cordillera Cantabrica, a mountain range creating a formidable wall between the sea we had crossed from London and the high plateau of Central Spain.

I was on a mission, actually a dual mission, which included a flight to Madrid, but the Madrid destination can wait for a more complete story of a dear friend’s life and time of need.  Next, I was over the Pyrenees, that ancient barrier between France and Spain that had harbored prehistoric humans beneath its pinnacles.  And those prehistoric remnants were part of my quest, a quest that had begun with The Educator.

The Educator read the entire book to the class, out loud, one chapter at a time.  On and on the story went, covering an era of mankind before there was a designation of “mankind”.  The dialogue explored the mysteries of people in a prehistoric world and how they lived, and I was fascinated by the paintings of animals on cave walls and how they were rendered.  That they were discovered by youths at play added to the intrigue, because, like everyone else in the classroom, I was nine and in the fourth grade. When the curriculum ended, I was so enthralled by these stories of an ancient and little known culture that I re-read the book over and over again.

That is how I became familiar with the term Cro-Magnon, and this interest from childhood overlapped with my current career as an accomplished wildlife artist, which led me to a spot called Cro-Magnon, a rock shelter where remains of modern humans were first found that proved to be 30,000 years old.  Hence, the place name of this original find was applied to the peoples of that Paleolithic era.

As a wildlife artist knowing and admiring many excellent wildlife artists around the world, I was driven to see the works of the first wildlife artists known to mankind.  There was no specific goal with this venture, only my romantic notion of reliving what had occurred, of absorbing and observing the bison and mammoths, horses and rhinos, cave bear and ibex, all painted on cave walls and ceilings. I wanted to stand where these first artists stood and did their work.  I wanted to breathe the cave air and follow their same paths meandering from one great work to another, to experience the feeling of the world’s first great art being performed.

Imagine the awesome timeline of these early artists, which goes back 40,000 years to the first cave paintings.  By comparison, the advent of agriculture until the present is 12,000 years, and civilization’s growth began 5000 years ago. These sanctuaries of art were used and reused, creating a cultural connection over millenniums, since new painting were added on the same cave walls as much as 10,000 years apart.   Some of the oldest paintings are also among the very finest, which indicates that there was not an evolution of skills or talent.

Once in Southern France, I headed straight for Pech Merle, a vast network of caverns with paintings dated at 29,000 years ago.  To find the grotto tucked into a rugged hillside, I first dropped down into a gorge of limestone cliffs that lined the verdant Lot River.  Impeccably quaint villages occasionally lined the road as it followed the river upstream through lush green valleys framed by escarpments, and the entire scene could easily be one of fairy tales.  As the elevation increased and the river narrowed, I stopped beside a huge, old gristmill at the river’s edge and cooled off in the fast moving, sparkling water.  When the Cele River joined the Lot, I left the rural road for an even rougher route along the Cele, and eventually climbed to the cave entrance.

When I left the hot summer air for the cool innards of the earth, I was immediately impacted by the narrow, tight corridors and the lengthy trek before me.  After the initial claustrophobic entrance passed, the scene opened into great grotto rooms complete with stalagmites and stalactites, a limestone cavern that was worthy of exploring even without the paintings.  But then a pair of mammoths appeared etched into the soft clay of one wall, and scratches by cave bear claws were pointed out by the guide.  A cave bear skeleton had been found nearby, and when we viewed an exquisite bear head engraved on the wall, the true impact of this venture began to hit home.  Following were beautifully rendered elk antlers in red and a shadow of the head almost erased by time, and on the same wall close by, a human hand print outlined with the same red ocher.  Nearby, footprints of youths embedded in clay had hardened into a permanent testimonial of human activity.

At the end of the extensive walk through time was the grand finale of two spotted horses painted on an upright, monolithic slab of rock over twelve feet in length.  Back to back and dappled with red and black spots, the horses filled the panel, along with outlines of five human hand prints around the perimeter.  The prints were made by placing a hand on the wall and blowing pigments around it using a slender, hollow bone.

At the upper right edge of the slab, the natural rock topography formed the shape of a horse head and could have helped inspire the paintings, since the use of natural shapes on cave walls to enhance the form of a subject was a common practice in Paleolithic rock art.  These type of features especially intrigued me, since I use those same concepts with my wood sculpture.

Stone Age Man–a modern day monument overlooking the main street of Les Eyzies.

After recovering from sensory overload, I drove another hour into the heart of stone- age antiquity.  The village of Les Eyzies is sandwiched between extensive limestone cliffs rife with caves and the Vezere River, and after a few blocks into the town, there I was, at that spot called Cro-Magnon.

Font de Gaume:  The next morning brought me to the Font de Gaume, a grotto at the edge of Les Eyzies.  After following a trail along the cliff edge, two round holes suddenly opened up in the limestone wall.  Among the many animal paintings encountered inside, the frieze of five bison is considered to be among the finest of all Paleolithic art.  Their contours were engraved, utilizing the natural forms of rock, and then were painted in black-brown and red.  One bison in particular is perhaps the most expressive of the five; details of the anatomy, fur texture, and facial expressions make this painting a remarkable example of the skills developed by these artists 16,000 years ago.

Cliffs over Les Eyzies; silhouette of stone age man monument in lower right hand corner.

For the early artist palette, clay ochers containing iron and manganese oxides were used for red, yellow and brown, while ground calcite produced white and carbon made black.  Colorants were ground and mixed with a variety of liquids, and crayons were made from solid lumps of the material.  Extenders of crushed animal bone were also added to make the paint adhere and prevent cracking as it dried.

Another exemplary painting present in this grotto is the “licking reindeer”, a male reindeer licking the head of a kneeling female, both portrayed with fine sets of antlers.  The black tongue brushing the female forehead is fully visible in one of the more touching interactions portrayed by these people from a faraway time.

Abri Cap Blanc: My next destination was four miles away on an empty country road that passed through wooded hills, a drive that was interrupted only by a colorful partridge scooting along.  The parking area was rough, and the path to the rock shelter wound down a hillside and into a river valley, all heavily forested.  As I began down the path with the feeling of negotiating a remote canyon, a view opened up across the valley, and emerging high above the tree line was a blocky and weathered medieval castle!  The Castle of Commarque served as a gentle reminder of the foreign landscape that I was actually negotiating.

An immersion in limestone sculpture awaited at the bottom of the canyon. Beneath a rock overhang were magnificent carved horses in a full bas-relief spanning 27 feet, with fourteen figures identified in the overall mural.  Five horses, some over six feet long, along with bison and reindeer, were all carved into a limestone cliff.  Although the remnants were somewhat meager due to 15,000 years of erosion, enough detail remained to discern the animals and verify that they were masterworks of early man.  A grave site and numerous artifacts were also found in front of this sculpture ensemble, and a limestone relief carving of a female figure [the Venus of Laussel] dated at 25,000 BC was found under another rock overhang a few hundred yards away.

Although I stopped by the rock shelter harboring the oldest known fish carving on the planet, a highly detailed salmon, it was not accessible at that time.  What a thrill it would be, although it would never be allowed, to run my hands over that 3’ fish and see how it would relate to the many routine salmon that I carve!

La Grotte Rouffignac:  Finally, I ventured to a more distant cave complex, which is one of the largest in Europe.  The great hall of this cavern is called the Grand Plafond, and is so distant inside the grottos that an electric tram has been devised to take visitors to the site.   This Grand Ceiling includes 66 mammals outlined in black, all circling on an extensive cave ceiling.  The mammoths, horses and ibex were particularly impressive, as were a trio of rhinos marching on a wall nearby.

It was late evening by the time I left this cave complex and its last tour of the day.  That left a few hours to catch a plane back to London and the ongoing, twenty first century wildlife art show that required my presence.  With a panic drive of two and a half hours, I made the airport and found out that, luckily, the flight had been delayed.

Photos of cave art; see http://www.donsmaps.com/vezereclickarchaeology.html, click on site of interest.

Where on Earth?!  Southern France,  June, 2017

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