Thursday, July 30, 2015

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 8. The Valley of the Vezere

Today was a perfect day … well, almost perfect because the first thing I had to do was to drive down to the Brico Marche, buy Crazy Glue, and stick back the crown that I lost last night. It triggered a deep pang of pain, so I am wondering if my Icelandic dentist, who has drop several notches in my estimation since last night, did a proper job at the root canal. I just need to be very careful and put no stress on that tooth for the next two months L

Well, going back to my perfect day, you should know that for many years now I have been an enthusiast of the study of the prehistory of man, and today I had the invaluable chance to indulge in my hobby, visiting some of the most famous sites of the Paleolithic cultures.

First I made a beeline for Montignac, where the famous site of Lascaux is located. Lascaux (together with Chauvet near Lyon and Altamira in northern Spain) is one of the finest exponents of polychromatic cave paintings, and I had dreamed for years to get a chance to see it. Before walking into the cave, however, I should tell you that there are four versions of Lascaux. Lascaux 1 is the original grotto, discovered in 1940 and first open to the public in 1944, at the end of World War II. It was an immediate success, but the traffic of millions of tourists eventually started to damage it, and in 1963 became permanently closed. That is when Lascaux 2 started to be built. In an amazing display of ingenuity, workmanship, and artistic talent, the half of the cave where 90% of the paintings are found was duplicated, to the smallest detail, so we tourists would not be disappointed if we made a trip to France. The rough shape of the cave was dug with heavy equipment, and then a fiber glass “skin” was cast using LIDAR measurements and glued onto the rough excavation. Then a group of super talented artists carefully painted the original motifs, using the same pigments and techniques used by the Cromagnon inhabitants of the region.

Since they had the molds to cast the fiber glass skins, the clever French created Lascaux 3, a traveling exhibition that has toured the world, showing the incredible paintings. I had the chance to see Lascaux 3 in Vancouver a year ago, and ever since have been in love with them. A second set of fiber glass skins has been installed close to Lascaux 2, in the educational center of La Thot (more about this in a later paragraph).

Finally, the city of Montignac has started a monumental new project, where the whole of the cave will be reproduced, and where modern museography will allow millions to enjoy this marvel of ancient art. This new reproduction is called Lascaux 4, and will open to the public in 2016.

So, here I am, clutching my ticket and waiting with mixed feelings for the first visit of the day, at 9:45 am. What if it is a dud? I have so many preconceived ideas based on my memories of Lascaux 3 that I may be expecting too much from a pokey ol’ cave. Our guide, a pretty young woman whom I can actually understand very well, forewarns us that only half of the cave has been reproduced, and that the cave is not very long (50 m). Not looking good. But then she tells us that the gallery that has been reproduced contains 95% of the paintings, so at least I will not be missing much. OK, she opens the door and we walk into a cave that is maybe 3 m wide and 6 m tall, and my jaw drops. It is an explosion of color, with hundreds of delicately painted auroxes, deer, horses, and bisons, and in which the artists have overlapped perfectly recognizable paintings at different scales and orientations. They may have been stories told at different times by different artists, or independent creations in their own separate dimensions to let the shape of the cave walls bring the spirit of the animal out. There is no doubt that they are alive.

The visit was, alas, all too short. The roof of the cave is loaded with fantastic prehistoric beasts, and is a veritable Sistine Chapel of prehistory, and just like in the Vatican you have to move along because another group is coming behind you. Taking photographs is not allowed, so I will have to rely on memory to see the polychromatic shading on the flanks of the auroxes, or the running herds of horses (and will definitely buy a picture book once I get back home).

From Lascaux I went to La Thot, where a very clever educational center has been built. They have a zoo with cattle that looks almost like the auroxes depicted at Lascaux, Prewalsky horses, American buffaloes, deers, and antelopes that could be goats (or viceversa). There are also open air activities to teach students how flint is knapped, how to draw on the wall of a cave, or how to build a grease lamp. Finally, there is an audiovisual space where a lively docent shows holograms of mammoths, rhinos, cave bears (did you notice that I didn’t mention any of these animals when I talked about Lascoux? That is because they are barely represented there. I will have more to say about this when I tell you about Rouffignac.) Then the docent walks you to a hall with the reproduction of the walls of Lascaux, so I got a second chance to hear the explanation about the paintings. Then the kid turned out all the lights, and turned on a UV light and like magic a band of horses appeared running all along the length of the cave! I was flabbergasted. The young man then explained that in addition of the painted images there are engraved images all over the cave (remember how I said that these magnificent beasts seem to live in parallel universes?). My theory is that they become visible under UV light because the calcite under the skin of clay of the cave is slightly fluorescent. Alternatively, the sub-millimeter resolution of LIDAR allowed them to “see” the engravings through the mineral paints.

My next stop was in the tiny hamlet of La Moustiere, from which the Mousterian stage of prehistory takes its name (ca. 40,000 years ago). A pleasant walk across the Vezere brought me to a long limestone cliff, La Roque Saint Christophe, the abris of which were occupied almost continuously from 55,000 years ago to the Middle Ages. An abris is basically a shallow cave or space under an overhanging cliff where one can get out of the rain, but during the Middle Ages a veritable city was developed against it, complete with a defending fort (on their way to settling in Iceland, in the late 800’s AD, our friends the Vikings took a liking to pillaging and plundering along the rivers of France).

After a very French lunch of Turrine de Canard (duck pate) spread on a baguette, eaten under the big tree in front of the medieval church of La Moustiere I headed for the cave of Rouffignac, from which I had heard while at Lascaux 2. Now, this is a cave formed by a subterranean stream that followed soft Cretaceous limestones loaded with chert nodules. The cave is several kilometers in length, but you only get to see one kilometer, comfortably (?) seated on a little train that takes you deep into the vowels of the Earth. Now and then the guide would stop to show the black on white outline of a wooly rhinocerous or a mammoth, but the real show was when we got to the end, where the flat roof of the cave came down and formed a small cupola, where dozens of wooly mammoths had been artfully represented with just a few strokes of black manganese oxide. I am very fond of simple, black on white designs, and these ponderous processions of giants of a bygone era totally captured my heart. Careful inspection revealed additional horses, ibexes, and goats, but this time auroxes, buffaloes, or deer were prominently absent. The guide told us that since deer were their main source of food, current thinking was that the designs were probably not related to propitious hunting, as had been believed for many years.  

I almost falling asleep, so I will continue tomorrow night. I will tell you, however, that eventually I reached the town of Les Eyzies, and that after a long walk along the Vezere I stopped at a local brasserie, where I had a superb dinner of Foie Gras (duck liver) and casoulette Perigordienne (bean stew with sausage and duck) that delivered all that I had come to expect of French cuisine. C’est ci bon!

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