We almost completely bypassed the caves of Les Eyzies. I was browsing the map and guidebook – my favourite pre-sleep activity – when I came across a little information box concerning some very important cave art. At that point we had stopped at Pageas, just south of Limoges. I imagined that we’d drive on to Bergerac or somewhere close by. I mentioned casually to Rob that there seemed to be some interesting cave art not too far away, Lascaux or something? At which point Rob became very excited, very excited indeed.
Being a former archeologist, Rob retains a fair bit of fascination for old stuff. It turned out that these particular cave drawings were amongst some of the most important in the world, and Rob had written papers on them as part of his degree…understandable then, that he said we absolutely had to go and see them.
Lascaux itself has been closed since the sixties when around 1200 visitors would cram themselves into the caves each day. Unsurprisingly all those hot little bodies, churning out a whole lot of carbon dioxide between them, did those ancient paintings no good at all. In order to preserve what was left, they shut the cave to the public and built a replica of it to serve in its place. I hear it’s very good and worth seeing but somehow I can’t help feeling that our experience was altogether more satisfying.
Rob suggested that instead of going to Lascaux we visit the caves at Les Eyzies and in particular the authentic paintings at Grotte Font de Gaume. We arrived late but, as the aforementioned tourist woman had called ahead, they allowed us to be the last party of the day. Just the four of us. So just the four of us were greeted by our guide, Jean Marie, at the entrance to the caves. Jean Marie made it very clear that what we were about to see was very special and asked us to be careful about allowing our coats to brush the passage walls and to keep our pet children on a short lead. After all the warnings and a lot of enthusiastic build up we entered the caves.
I’ve never seen cave art ‘in the flesh’ before and I’m not sure that I really understood how profound an effect it would have on me. When Jean Marie turned us to look at the first collection of paintings I was surprised at the rush of emotion I felt. It is believed that people came to those walls and made these marks some 14,000 years ago. The artists painted with the skill of any contemporary artist; perspective is accurately rendered, the contours and curves of the cave wall have been used to illustrate the bulk and form of the animals, the animals – largely bison and deer – are made up of beautifully simple, yet sophisticated lines. As Jean Marie put it ‘we cannot do better today’.
Within that particular cave they have found already over 200 individual paintings and there are believed to be more to be discovered. Bison line up nose to tail, a male reindeer tenderly licks a female, there are horses and mammoths and other creatures besides. A gallery of prehistoric artistry, with images daubed from floor to ceiling. These ‘primitive’ peoples even built their own scaffolding to reach the higher places of the caves. Astounding. Mind-blowing.
We saw the paintings by torch and soft wall lights but as Jean Marie said, they would have had only torch flames to see by. These flickering candles would have set the whole cave in motion and illuminated each animal in turn. These were no static images; they would have been more like movies.
There were tears in our eyes as we left the caves having realised just how very privileged we were to have stood where our ancestors once stood, to have witnessed their fluid and graceful art first hand, to have been transported (largely through Jean Marie’s passion) to a place where eras can meet.
(PS. I realise the photo here is not the best but I just snapped it super quick on the way in! No photography is allowed in the caves and I doubt i’d have managed a decent pic in the darkness.)