An Adventure in the Dordogne

If someone asks, what did you do in France, I’m ready to answer, “I visited the caves.” I can imagine the rolling of eyes, the evanescence of interest, the look of unbelief. In the land of fine wine, good food and artistic masterpieces, you visited caves? How can I tell people that these caves were remarkable, each one distinctive, each an adventure worth the whole trip?

Cave in France

We had read about the painted caves of the Dordogne region and northern Spain. Paleolithic people, the first human inhabitants of this region had ornamented caves with paintings and sculptures beginning some 30, 000 years ago. Lascaux was the most well-known, but it was only one of many and we chose this tour not only because it offered a guided visit to Lascaux, but to other caves as well. The fact that it was to France, a country I enjoy whenever I can, made the tour irresistible.

After a couple of days visiting the wine regions of Bordeaux, we visited the first cave, Rouffignac. Here we found a very simple entrance to a cave privately owned and after just a few steps down, we boarded a little train. After a short ride, the driver guide stopped the train, turned on a light and, voil√°, we see an animal form, incised upon the surface of the cave whose very undulations suggest the shape and the volume of mammoth, bison and horse. Here and there, sketched lines, like pencil drawings, enhance, clarify, capture the eye. Configurations of lines and dots mingle with animal images. No one knows what the abstract signs mean nor, for that matter, what the animal imagery means, in the larger sense. What did these people, 20 or more thousand years ago, think that they were doing? Was this clan history? religious ritual? self-expression? The scholars admit that they do not know and have come to the conclusion that comparison with stone age people still enduring into the 20tth century is not helpful. Cave bears incised these caves with their claws long before the Cro-Magnon artists came. Is there some kind of cause and effect here? Did the first artists see the bear scratches and find their lines suggestive? Or is this just an interesting and random fact?

The day after Rouffignac, we went to Lascaux. The morning of the Lascaux visit I was in the full throes of a head cold and starting a sinus infection. When Bill suggested that I stay in bed at the hotel, I merely looked at him. Nothing would prevent my seeing Lascaux. Later that day I would go to the French doctor at a drop-in clinic, learn the rituals of greetings necessary at entrance and exit and receive a bag full of prescriptions at a pharmacy that stayed open for me at the doctor’s request. Another story for another time.

Lascaux was found by a group of teen-age boys exploring with their dog in 1940. It was opened to the public in 1948 and visited so prolifically that it had to be closed to the public in 1963. Results of human body heat and respiration caused diseases, fungi and lichen to attack the various paints–mostly mineral–used by the artists. The French government then built Lascaux II, a reproduction of that section of the original cave on which 80% of the animal images were painted. The reproduction is within 4 millimeters of accuracy in relation to the original. The large opening of the cave, where groups wait their turn to enter, contained explanatory panels and, as was to be expected, a shop. A local artist has made beautiful numbered engraved prints of many of the images and, of course, we bought one. The floor of the opening area slopes down at quite a steep angle and at the far end we met our English speaking guide and went down into the cave, the spaces of which were narrow and very, very dark. In a while your eyes adjust to some degree but there is just no light in the caves. We had seen replicas of the kind of lights that the original artist had: small, hollowed out stones no bigger than a hand, with residue of reindeer fat as fuel. They probably had small twigs for wicks. Today’s visitors are given the benefit of low-wattage lamps and the flashlight of the guides, but still the darkness is almost overwhelming. We huddled together and looked around us.

At first glance, or rather, at the first flash of the light, the paintings seem to loom over you. Bold lines of black, ochre and red convey both the bulk and the detail of these ancient animals. Wooly mammoths, deer, horses, cows and bison are depicted packed close together, often overlapping, some behind the others, some standing still, others in motion. Some of the strong, bold outlines are filled in in patterns made with what the scientists have identified as natural sponges made of moss and animal fur. Archeologists, anthropologists, chemists, art historians and other scholars have been studying Lascaux for over 70 years and styles of interpretation have come and gone. A breakthrough was made when one art historian realized that interpreters had to begin thinking of the images not singly or in small, obvious groups, but as a whole unified program that has not yet, nor may ever be, de-ciphered. In spite of my growing physical discomfort, Lascaux made its mark. When I close my eyes, I no longer feel my dripping nose and watery eyes, but the sides of the passageway pressing in on me, as I take in the dramatic images.

There was a break of several days before we visited the third cave. These were occupied with the work of more modern artists, inspiring medieval churches and lots of good eating. I hadn’t really noticed the visit to the Gouffre de Padirac listed in the program, though it was described there as a cave river more than 300 feet underground. We arrived to find simply a very large hole in the ground, so beautifully rounded that it seemed engineered by human hands rather than by nature and surrounded by a simple wire fence, clearly a human construction. A simple metal structure–staircase and elevator shaft–was built along one side of the whole and we couldn’t see to the bottom of it. Local wild vegetation grew up from the depths.

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The elevator took visitors down in three stages, adjacent to the staircase. We chose to walk the second and third stages of descent then just continued down the stairs that slope off to one side and further down into the cave. Down and down we sent, sometimes along a sloping path, sometimes down more vertical stairs. The floor and walls of the cave grew increasingly wet and here and there showers dripped from the roof of the cave. Occasional low lights gave some visibility, but, for the most part, I walked carefully, held onto hand rails where possible and kept my eyes on the path.

Around us the wonders began. Layers of calcite on the walls glowed in what light there was. Stalagmites stretched upward and stalactites dripped down. We arrived at the river where we climbed into flat-bottomed boats, ten to a boat, each with a guide cum driver behind, who poled us out into the flow of water. It was quiet, very quiet, except for the voice of our guide which echoed through the massive caverns that rose around and above us. He pointed up and gave the height of the various rooms in meters. All numbers befuddle me and numbers connected to some system of measurement I don’t use simply float over my head. Literally, in this situation. It was very high. I didn’t need numbers to be awed.

The boat came to another docking place and we climbed out to continue on foot: up 150 steps (in 3 increments), on some flat surface with gentle undulations, then down 75 steps and so on. On all sides the guide pointed out the wonders sculpted by nature. There is no evidence of human activity in the cave prior to modern times. There are several pillars formed one drip at a time and now thicker than any in Greek temple or Romanesque cathedral you’ve ever seen. One drip at a time. Just imagine the time it takes. There is a stalagmite sculpture that looks like some giant √©pergne with flat round plates extended out randomly around a central squat core. The guide explains that the drops of water fall so far down from the ceiling that they splash widely as they hit the pillar that is gradually building up. They splash widely and build upon that single first widely scattered drop. One drop at a time. Eventually we have walked back to the boats and returned, even more silently, to the slope and stairs that took us to the elevator that took us to the top and back to Rocamadour to dinner. One step at a time.

The final cave was Pech Merle, a name that means the hill of the blackbirds in the langue d’oc, the indigenous language of the southern French. We arrived early enough for a visit to the small museum; the displays were a hodge podge, explaining something about the people who painted the cave, something of the geology and something of various scholars who visited, worked the site and produced interpretations. Like Lascaux, Pech Merle was discovered by exploring teen-age boys who then sought the help of local school teachers and clergy. Unlike Lascaux, or perhaps because of it, visitors to the site have been rigidly controlled: so many people per group, so many groups per day. The cave has remained open for visiting from the beginning.

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What caught my eye in the museum was the reproduction of a human footprint. At some point a little over 30,000 years ago, a boy of about 16 walked into the cave over some gooey limestone and left footprints that hardened into rock. You can even see where the mud squished up between his toes. His footsteps seem to have remained undisturbed until they were discovered by other teenagers in the 20th century.

Pech Merle is, first of all, a cave of natural wonders: immense caverns of glittering calcite, stalagmites and stalactites. It requires climbing up and down between various levels and depths but there is no river and little dampness. But it is also a painted cave. Groups of painted animals–bison, but especially horses–are to be found here and there. Not all concentrated into intricate interrelationships as in Lascaux, but in separate groups. Sometime they are just ahead of you, on the wall you’re about to bump your head on or in the distance at the other end of a large cavern. Sometimes they are right beside you, on a wall you have to squeeze by. There was no time as you visit this cave to try to come to terms with or fully appreciate, the separate painted scenes. It’s almost like a Disneyland ride, where animated figures pop out of dark corners. But no, not Disneyland, the farthest thing possible from Disneyland.

But something at Pech Merle did force my attention and demand an understanding. Though it is not unique to this cave, it was there that I saw a painted hand print. The scientists have determined that it was made by a painter placing a hand on the cave wall, fingers splayed, and blowing or spitting paint to outline it. Many of the handprints, including the one I saw at Pech Merle, were made by women. They believe this because of the relative size of ring finger to middle finger generally found on a woman’s hand.

So, something over 30,000 years ago, a woman stood in the cave, near where I was standing, put her hand on the wall and blew red paint around it. The mothers in our tour group immediately saw the connection between this print and the various artifacts their children brought home from kindergarten. I saw a signature.

The paintings in the caves clearly reveal the presence of people aware of their world

and of the significance of the animals in their world. They show us how ancient is the human urge to create, or perhaps to ritualize their relationship to the natural world. They suggest that our earliest ancestors, like ourselves, might have wanted to narrate their history or pay reverence to the presence of the Other. All of which we recognize as our own impulses, needs and intentions. But the hand print reveals a person with a strong sense of herself. “Here,” she says, “I am here and I did this.” It’s what I feel when I finish my writing and sign my name.

So, what did I do in France? Yes, I tasted the wines of St Emilion, Bordeaux and the Medoc. I learned to distinguish between Grand Cru and Cru Bourgeois. I ate way too much foie gras and too many elegant desserts. I tasted all the different cheeses on offer and had good French bread at every meal. I walked in elegant gardens and visited magnificent churches. But most of all I made a momentary contact with a woman like myself, who lived 30,000 years ago.

A hand print from Carnovan, not the Dordogne cave. Posted with the permission of Don Hitchcock. donsmaps.com

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