The Caves of Périgord: Roque de Saint Christophe

The final cave we got to explore was more of an amusement park than a cave, Le Roque de Saint Christophe. The day we were there several school groups on field trips joined us. There is a restaurant and picnic area out front and a gift shop at the entrance. Cheesy scenes are recreated throughout the overhanging shelter and range from Cro Magnons fighting off a cave bear to Middle-Ages knights in shining armor. Here you can scramble around the cave overhanging and explore with or without a guide. We chose without as we were tired of French tours (Our previous two cave guides were only available in French at the time). It was kind of fun.

It has been said that just by choosing to live in this beautiful location Cro Magnon people demonstrated their extreme intelligence. It is a huge cliff shelter directly above the Vezére River. This site has been continuously inhabited since prehistoric times around 15,000 BC. Cro Magnons gave way to iron age Neolithic agriculturists, who gave way to the Gauls, who gave way to the Romans, who gave way to Middle-Ages kingdoms and Norman invaders, up to present times. Because of its constant use there is little evidence of the earliest people of this area. There is no cave art here as there really aren’t any caves, just overhanging cliffs. People lived here! Burials and religious activities must have taken lace elsewhere. It appears that daily life took place in one area while death and ritual in another. One exception to this rule is found nearby at Abri Cap Blanc, where the cave art is part of the overhanging cliff rather than deep in the cave. But there was also a burial beneath the carvings.

So why are there paintings deep in the caves? Lascaux would have been extremely difficult to enter. The passages in Font-de-Gaume are extremely narrow. Grotte de Rouffignac is several miles long and was a regular home to hibernating bears. None were easy to access. None of these have evidence of human habitation from the Magdalenian period: worked flint, fire pits, or butchered animal remains. Human habitation for these caves is from the Middle Ages when many of the caves in this region were used as shelters for local people seeking refuge from invaders; these people didn’t even notice the cave art. Because of the remote nature of the art most researchers describe these areas as spiritual or religious worship centers. The description seems to match our modern concept of what religion should look like. The dead are buried near these areas. They are richly decorated, candle-lit shelters. There may even be priestly representations. The “unicorn” in Lascaux appears to be a compilation for several animals but has human hind legs. Could this be a priest wearing animal skins and performing some sort of ritual for the people? If these really were places of worship, based upon the quality of work and space inside the cave, Lascaux appears to have been the “Vatican” and other sites as local shrines. All of this is purely speculation based upon our modern interpretations and limited evidence. At minimum it makes for great stories and brings these people to life as humans much like us.

The Caves of Périgord: Rouffignac

Our next cave took us to Rouffignac. This cave is unique in many ways. First, it is about three miles from the Vèzére River; all the others are much closer. Secondly it is really long -several miles long. In order to see the artwork you join your guide on a small electric train that travels about half a mile into the cave. This was a real selling point to the kids! And thirdly, it has been the frequent winter dwelling place of hibernating bears for millennia. All along the way inside you can see their burrows dug into the soft sides of the cave and the scratching of their claws as they trimmed their nails upon waking each spring.

This cave is known for its numerous mammoth paintings and etchings, more than 150 have been counted so far! These were spread throughout the cave and almost exclusively in groupings. Rouffignac also has its own “Sistine Chapel” called Le Grand Plafond. The ceiling here is richly decorated mammoths, bison, ibex, and horses reminiscent of Lascaux. The main difference is that these were drawn only in black line on a ceiling only two feet tall (The ceiling in Lascaux’s main chamber is about 10 feet tall). Al of this was done of course with the light of a fat burning lamp more than a half mile from the entrance to the cave. Even Michelangelo would have had difficulty here.

The authenticity of some of Rouffignac’s artwork is often called into question. In particular the wooly mammoth drawings here caused early prehistorians a lot of trouble. The tail end of these creatures included a strange flap of skin near the anus (sorry, I used the “a” word). This anatomical mystery was authenticated when in modern times the remains of wooly mammoths were found in Siberia with this same feature. So these drawings couldn’t have been fakes. No one knew of this feature until modern times.

Along with the paintings and engravings found in these caves there are also a number of “tectiforms.” These are pattern-marks that repeat themselves within a cave or regions of a cave. Some are painted dots, rectangles, lines, and triangles, and others are engraved scratchings. In Rouffignac there are miles of lines drawn in the soft mud of the walls by fingers. Researchers have studied the shape and size of these finger flutings and determined that these markings were made by eight different people at least three of which were children under the age of eight. The children must have explored extensively as their markings are found even in the remotest areas of the cave. They appear to be like a kind of signature or sign specific to a cave, area of a cave, a people group, or artist group. Because of the uniformity of the markings they are thought to be an early form of writing or least a way of signing one’s name. Could this be the beginnings of written language dating back to over 15,000 BC?

Again, my aplogies for the low resolution photos from inside the cave. As in the previous article, they are borrowed.

The Caves of Périgord: Grotte de Font-de-Gaume

Even though I was disappointed at not being able to really look at the replica Lascaux II cave, it was still a great experience overall. The artwork is far and above the best executed and articulated of any we have seen in the area. It is beautiful! We gained some knowledge about the Cro Magnon Magdalenians that dwelled in the area, and I picked up a couple of good books and a video. The books spoke of several other caves in the region where we could join groups and experience a real cave. We set out to be speleologists for the remainder of our time in the area.

Typical to this area, most cave dwellings were situated at the base of the limestone outcroppings along the river valleys. At one time rivers ran underground here carving out several grottos that were later used by the early people who lived in the area. Contrary to general knowledge, the people living in this area did not live “in” the caves. The evidence of the lives of these people of the past (stone and bone tools) is almost exclusively found at the mouth of the caves. The caves were shelters from the harsh elements, but not really habitable places. They were difficult to enter, easily filled with smoke, and were dark and dank on the inside. The temperature is pretty constant at about 50° F with 98% humidity. Not very conducive to habitation. Cro Magnon people of this region built huts with frames made of branches. Caves were often used as burial places. And then of course there is the artwork - artwork which was most often found deep in the caves where living would be impossible.

Our first real cave to visit fit this description perfectly: Grotte de Font-de-Gaume. People of the Les Eyzies area have known of this cave forever, but it wasn’t until 1901 that an elementary school teacher first recognized the art inside. (Let’s hear it for the teacher!) There are more than 170 animal and human representations either painted (some in polychromatic color) or etched on its limestone walls. It is often called the cave of bison since there are more than 80 of them depicted here. Animals appear to be arranged in processional groupings. There are two reindeer facing each other in what looks like an affectionate kiss (are we overly anthropomorphizing these images?). Some animals are given special places of honor on the walls; A wolf at an intersection of cave chambers, a wooly rhino in the last gallery, and an engraved lion at the narrow end of the same gallery. Once inside it was easy to understand why locals took so long to recognize the artwork on the walls. Even with a guide aided by artificial lighting, a flashlight, and laser pointer it was often difficult to see the images. But they were truly amazing. It was particularly interesting to see how the artist used the contours of the cave walls and ceiling to accentuate parts of the animals. A bulge in the rock might become a bison’s humped back. Streaks in the stone might become the legs of a horse. And all the while you have to keep in mind that these paintings were done in the dark; the only light being provided by a primitive lamp made by carving a stone into a cup shape that was then filled with animal fat. A small juniper branch served as a wick. Truly amazing!Sorry about the low quality of the pictures from inside the cave. These are borrowed photos and of low resolution.

Périgord Prehistory: Lascaux

This has been some Journey to Ancient Civilizations! Egypt was truly ancient. Lots of culture grew up there as far back as 3,000 BC. We’re talking 5,000 years ago. That’s ancient. Even Greece kicked into gear in ancient times with the Minoans ruling the Mediterranean from Knossos in Crete as far back as around 2,000 BC. That too is ancient. My son Sam has been reluctant to include Rome in the category of ancient. But even Rome was growing up as far back as 2,500 years ago. That’s ancient enough. But none of these compare to the antiquity of the Périgord region of France. We’re talking about human colonies in the area as far back as 450,000 years ago. Now that’s ancient!

Our visit focused primarily on the Magdalenian people who lived in this region around 17,000 -10,000 years ago. I was more familiar with the term Cro Magnon for this group of people; the two terms appear to be used interchangeably in texts that I’ve read. The Cro Magnon term refers to a specific group within this region whose fossils were found behind a hotel owned by Monsieur Magnon back in 1868. The hotel is still there, and you can look at the site where the fossils were first discovered. In a very real sense we are all Cro Magnons, Homo sapiens. They looked like us and had a very advanced culture. By the way, the term “Cro Magnon” means Mr. Magnon’s hole.

Our first stop was to Lascaux, often referred to as the Sistine Chapel of prehistory because of the incredible wall and ceiling paintings found deep in this cave. There are dozens of polychromatic paintings and etchings of horses, bison, bulls, reindeer, felines, ibex, and a strange “mythological” two-horned unicorn. The actual cave is off-limits to tourists due to mold and fungus damage to the ancient cave art due to tourist traffic. The original cave was closed to the public in 1963. In 1983 an exact replica of the two main chambers of the cave was constructed near the site. It is known as Lascaux II and is incredible. No expense was spared in this reconstruction. The only drawback is that this amazing replica is treated as if it were the original. Once inside everyone whispers and speaks in hushed voices. A mandatory guide took a great deal of time going into how the replica was built but then rushed us through the galleries. The lighting was poor and it was difficult to see many of the paintings on the walls and ceilings. Nor were we allowed to take any photos. Now, I know that they are trying to simulate/trick me into thinking that I’m in the real cave, give me the “real” cave experience without ever gong into a real cave. But we all know that it’s not real. It was beautiful to experience the beauty of the “cave,” but it’s not really a cave. It felt like they were taking the “Sistine Chapel” nickname too seriously and treating the replica like a chapel of worship. The original must be truly awesome, as in awe inspiring. But let’s face it, this is a replica. I thought the idea was to preserve the original and allow the public to enjoy the wonder of the artwork. I was a bit disappointed. There are lots of other “real” caves in the region where you can walk through dimly lit chambers and not take pictures.

Preservation of ancient sites is a huge issue, and I totally support the idea of making copies for tourists to visit freely. But the key word here is freely. Lock up the originals to the experts, but let the rest of us bozos actually see the copies. In Egypt, the Valley of the Kings tombs suffer similar over-exposure to tourist traffic. The Lascaux II approach to quality reproductions around the Valley would be very beneficial but only if people could actually get inside, ask questions, spend some time, even take pictures. I believe that it would foster a deeper respect for the tombs and garner greater support for their preservation.

All the same, I have collected some video from a nice set of replica paintings at Le Thot (I’m not sure if I was supposed to take pictures there or not, but oh well) and old video footage of the original. Enjoy.


Journey to Ancient Civilizations: A Movie CroMagnon, Egypt, Greece, & Rome

One of the main reasons I came on this journey was to create classroom curriculum for the sixth grade students back at Peabody Charter School. I am constantly looking for ways to combine areas of curriculum for students. In addition to the staple subjects of language arts, reading, math, science, and social studies, I also teach technology. What better way to teach technology skills than through a real subject, like ancient civilizations! The attached video is an example of a project I have put together that will require students to import media and build a video. The narration is information heavy, but if you have to listen to it a dozen or more times in order to construct the movie, some of it will probably stick.

Camping in France

Pools with waterslides, fresh baguettes and pain au chocolat each morning, quaint countryside locations, lending libraries, and fully equipped domiciles. This is camping, yes camping, in France! We are a family that has done a lot of camping, but only in the US and Canada. We never knew camping could be so cushy (and yet still really affordable). We have stayed at three different campgrounds that are part of a chain of campgrounds called Les Castels. Many of these properties were once large estates, often including a castle. Check out the website for yourself! We have stayed in one tent-cabin and two little mobile home trailers -which doesn’t really count as camping in our book -but we’re not complaining. We’ve stayed in Provence, the Dordogne region -often called Pèrigord, and the Alps. What a great way for us to see some ancient sites and for me to get some writing done.

We had five nights in a small tent-cabin down in the balmy south of France. We were within 30 minutes of Nimes, 45 minutes to Pont du Gard and an hour to Orange. We were only 2 km from the little town of Sommières. We walked the bike/walk path into town one day. Beautiful. We thoroughly enjoyed the pool with deluxe waterslides and the beautiful oak forest around us -reminded us a little of California. We were the first Americans to ever visit this campground! We crammed in visits to several ancient sites and logged some good pool time.

We spent 14 nights in a deluxe little mobile home next to cow pastures and dense, lush forest at Le Moulin du Roch, our second Les Castels campground. This was to be a big block of time to write and work on curriculum. The time was productive and we were still able see the beautiful countryside and the rich historic sites all around us. Wherever we went, either on a walk or a drive, we came across old chateaus, beautiful old stone homes and caves, caves, caves. What a perfect location for us to visit many important sites of pre-history. Several caves with stone-age art were only a five-minute drive from our campsite. Many of the small towns in the area were established in the middle ages and still look like you’re walking back into medieval times. We also happened to be right in the middle of the land of Foie Gras -famous French goose liver! Our campground had a great playground, pool and library. And even though it rained the majority of our time there, we still had a great time.

The Alps
Our final campround, Le Chateau, in the French Alps is beautiful!! We will have eight nights here. We are just 10 km down the road from the Alpe d’Huez of Tour de France fame. There is no shortage of amazing Alpine views. As soon as we arrived, Sam said, “Hey, they have the right kind of trees here!” Our first time among pines in a long time. More time to work on curriculum and take in some beautiful hikes.

We are so glad that our friends in Milan, the Gils, tipped us off about these campgrounds. I don’t think we could have afforded traveling in France any other way. And the way these campgrounds are, we were able to show up with no camping supplies at all and still get by just fine! We still look forward to camping the good ol’ fashioned way back home, but we will nevertheless never look at camping the same way again.

Camping in France

The Roman Theater in Orange

From the Pont du Gard we traveled another half hour to the city of Orange (O’ráwnzh). I knew right away that I was going to like this city; there was a criterium bike race under way at the entrance to the town. Meg and I used to ride in small town bike races like this years ago. Orange is a regular town. It has some great Roman ruins but feels very much like the kind of place you might just live in. It lacks the touristy sheen. That was refreshing. That being said, it is also home to undeniably the most complete, best preserved Roman theater in all the world. There are only three Roman theaters remaining that still have their original stage sound walls, one in Turkey, one in Syria, and the other here in Orange France. So far that’s three big architectural “number ones” for France as far as Roman ruins go (Nimes amphitheater, Pont du Gard).

We listened to the information-packed audio guide and wandered around this amazing structure. It is a traditional Roman theater with a small stage and seating built into a semi-circle on a gently sloping hillside. The stage wall is about 130 feet tall and was originally decorated with columns. These columns were a recent find (within the past decade) and a few have been placed back on the stage. In the center of this stage wall, about 80 feet up, stands a marble statue of the emperor looking out at the crowds below. It’s a funny statue in that it has a removable head. When the emperorship changed, a new head was shipped to Orange and the old head discarded. From this stage wall an awning could be hung over the seating area to provide shade. And speaking of the audience, this place could seat over 10,000 people. It was organized in the same way as Roman amphitheaters, The wealthy ruling class got the front row seats; on one of the seats you can still see the carving of “EQ III” signifying that this section was reserved for the elite soldiers of the Equestrian Order. The working class took up the mid section, while the slaves and poor were allowed seats way at the top. There are hallways at the back of each level where spectators could buy refreshments at intermissions and use the bathrooms if needed.

I have incorrectly written about this place in the past tense, because like the amphitheater in Nimes, it is still in use. In the summer there are large theater events held here. Actually, it has remained in use continually since its original construction under Augustus back in the first century AD. First as a theater and later as a fort. At one point it became a city within the city of Orange housing several hundred people, their animals, and all of their businesses.

The Orange Roman Theater

Pont du Gard

Our next adventure from Sommières took us to just beyond Nimes to the Pont du Gard. Now all of you will have to think back to your old social studies textbook. Remember the picture from the section on Rome? The text always talked about the amazing aqueducts of the Romans, how they carried water from high in the far away mountains to the big cities so that all those Romans could drink and bathe to their hearts’ content. Well, the Pont du Gard is the aqueduct in about 95% of those pictures. And it’s in France! Once again one of the best-preserved structures from Rome’s ancient heritage lies in France, not in Rome.

The Pont du Gard is a bridge the Romans built to carry water across a canyon where the Gard River flows. It was part of a 31 mile aqueduct built to carry water from a spring at Fontaine d’Eure near the city of Uzès to the 50,000 citizens of Nimes. As the crow flies it is only about 16 miles, but in order to minimize the need for unnecessary construction, the Romans planned for most of the aqueduct to meander around hills and valleys. What’s really amazing about the engineering of this aqueduct system is that there is only a 40-foot drop in elevation between the source near Uzès and its final destination in Nimes. It dropped only one inch every 350 feet and provided Nimes with about nine million gallons of water per day! It was completed around AD 50.

There are a few other remaining bridges and tunnels from this amazing aqueduct system, but the Pont du Gard is by far the largest and best preserved. It stands about 150 feet high. The only Roman structure taller than the Pont du Gard is the Colosseum, and it’s only about 10 feet taller. Originally it was about 1,100 feet long, but over the centuries the ends of it have been hauled away to build other buildings. There are three levels of arches built one upon the other. The largest arch on the lowest level, directly above the river, spans about 80 feet -the largest ever built by the Romans. The mid-level arches span about 50 feet, and the top-level arches are about 15 feet across. On top of this uppermost level is the actual aqueduct, a canal about six feet tall and four and a half feet wide. A stone lid covered the canal completing the structure.

The random blocks of stone sticking out from the sides of the arch columns are the remains of the support structure used to hold the arch pieces together until the keystone was put in place. These supports were used on most large Roman building projects and later removed once construction was completed. For the Pont they were left in place to assist builders with a support structure in anticipation of future repairs.

Another fun feature of the Pont du Gard it the graffiti carved into the arch columns. For centuries France had a guild of highly respected stone, metal and wood workers known as the Compagnons du Tour de France. During the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries they visit respected architectural sites like the Pont du Gard for inspiration. After their visits they would carve their initials and symbols into the ancient monuments they visited. Sounds kind of rude by today’s standards, but believe it or not there is a whole field of historical study investigating nothing more than old graffiti at ancient sites. Apparently there’s a lot to be learned from these writings. Go figure.

The Pont du Gard