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.

1 comment:

Julie said...

My family visited this cave in December of 2008. It was extremely moving to stand at the entrance to that cave and look out over the valley. I was interested in going on the trip, but not expecting to be overcome with awe. Photographs can never capture the way this artwork feels when you are near it. Another very interesting thing our guide pointed out was the use of perspective, which disappeared from European art until the Renaissance.