Monday, 20 May 2013

Camembert, conferences and cave art: my Palaeolithic week in the Dordogne

Archaeologists across the world are familiar with the exquisite images of mammoth, bison, horses, and other large fauna that adorn the cave walls of southern France. Produced by mobile hunter-gatherer communities who lived in the region during the Upper Palaeolithic, in the midst of Europe's Ice Age, they remain an ongoing testament to the aesthetic abilities of our distant antecessors. The reasons for the production of such works remain enigmatic, although it is widely believed that many of them were produced for purposes that we today would call religious or spiritual, which largely explains my own fascination with the subject.

Last week I had the privilege of visiting many of these sites, including a number that are normally closed to the public, as part of a study group from the UCL Institute of Archaeology, London. The trip was kindly organised by Dr. Didier Bouakhaze-Khan, Honourary Senior Lecturer at the UCL IoA, who has himself undertaken extensive research into the rock art of Botswana and the Horn of Africa. Accompanying the two of us were two further master's degree students from the Institute, Kate Sinha and Ginger Drage, along with Dr. Maria Guagnin, an alumnus of the University of Edinburgh and specialist in Saharan rock art. Also present was Dr. Stephen Shennan, Director of the UCL IoA, and sculptor Peter Robinson, editor of the Bradshaw Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation devoted to the preservation and appreciation of rock art across the world. Together we stayed at a wonderfully rustic gite with its origins dating back to the Late Mediaeval, located on the edge of Les Eyzies de Tayac in Dordogne, and set forth each day to explore the region's rich prehistoric past.

The CNP Museum
The study tour was organised in conjunction with the Centre National de Prehistoire (CNP), a research institution run by the French Ministry of Communication and Culture. They have a fantastic state-of-the-art museum devoted to the Palaeolithic built into the cliffs at Les Eyzies de Tayac, which is a must-see for anyone interested in the deep past. Its collection of lithics is particularly extensive, and it houses a number of renowned artefacts, such as the Lascaux oil lamp and the famed bison carving found at La Madeleine. The CNP is under the leadership of director Jean-Michel Geneste, a giant in the world of rock art studies whose physical appearance strongly reminds me of Einstein; an apt comparison considering his formidable intellect. He and his wife were kind enough to welcome us into their beautiful home on our final evening in Dordogne, for a sumptuous homemade meal prepared from fresh local ingredients. I must take this opportunity to once again extend my thanks to both of them and also to the CNP's Catherine Cretin, who helped to make this trip such a memorable experience through their hard work and hospitality.

Dordogne itself is a beautiful part of the world, dominated by lush green forests interspersed with pretty rural villages. Many wooded mountains and cliff tops tower above the meandering valleys, and it is in these that the naturally-created grottes can be found. Throughout the Upper Palaeolithic, homo sapiens sapiens - human beings who were fundamentally the same as us, biologically-speaking - entered some of these caves, crawling into their deepest, darkest recesses, where, under the flickering illumination of lamp light, they proceeded to engrave or paint animal imagery onto the cave walls, sometimes leaving painted dots or hand prints in their place.

The entrance to Font de Gomme.
On our first day, we visited several of these archaeological sites which are normally off-limits to the public -- Domme, Pigeonnier, and Roc de Vezac. The next morning saw us up bright and early to visit the Abri du Poisson, a rock shelter famed for its fantastic petroglyphic salmon, before we visited another rock shelter, Cap Blanc, known for its large carved horse reliefs. That day we also entered Combarelles, a long, thin, and twisting cave with a large number of finely-scratched engravings, and then my personal favourite, Font de Gomme, with its selection of beautifully painted bison images. On Wednesday we joined the tourist hoards to visit Lascaux II, an exact replica of the breath-taking cave at Lascaux, the "Cistene Chapel of Prehistory." From there we were given the VIP treatment to enter the control room of the conservationists whose job it is to maintain the life control machine that the original Lascaux relies on - the impressive paintings are sadly far too fragile to be visited anymore. Making it through the rain, we then visited Rouffignac, another fantastic cave where we were taken around on a little train by the owner, Dr. Frédéric Plassard. After showing us illustrations of woolly rhino and mammoths, he ended his tour by showing us the decorated ceiling deep in the bowels of the cave, where I was truly bowled over by the sheer power and majesty of the images. On Saturday we ventured further afield into Lot to see the caves at Pech Merle and Cougnac, both of which are run very much for the benefit of tourists. The natural geology of these two caves, dominated by stalagmites and stalactites, was mind-blowing, and it wasn't hard to see why Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers treated these as very special places in the landscape.

Thursday and Friday saw us getting away from the caves as we attended the CNP's Fourth Rock Art Meetings, a conference devoted to the theme of "Thinking Contexts in Rock Art: Methods, Experiences, Prospects." I found it surprising that here in France, rock art specialists were still debating whether an understanding of archaeological contexts was important for rock art studies - a position some even shockingly rejected ! It was a stark reminder that while there are areas where French archaeology is clearly ahead of the game, when it comes to theoretical issues, Francophone archaeology lags quite far behind that of the Anglophone world. I really hope that future collaboration between the two academic spheres will serve to be of great benefit to both. I presented my own paper at the conference, "Can we talk of a distinctive Cornish tradition of rock art ?", which was a tentative examination of several issues that I hope to be able to explore in further depth at some point. I was pleased to see that a number of those attending seemed to take an interest in the Neolithic and Bronze Age petroglyphs of Britain, an area that is finally beginning to see the academic attention that it deserves. Three of my comrades also presented papers, all of which were on the rock arts of Africa, while Peter Robinson took the opportunity to present the good work of the Bradshaw Foundation to a wider audience.

Overall, it was a fantastic week that I won't be forgetting any time soon, and while my personal research interests focus on areas that are more recent than the Upper Palaeolithic, my appetite for the cave art of this period has definitely been whetted. My thanks go out to everyone who made it such a memorable experience, and especially to Didier, whose hard work in organising everything really paid off !