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Painted caves of the Dordogne

When there wasn’t even any Hollywood


Nestling at the foot of a ruined castle in a bend in the sinuous Vézère River in the Dordogne is the remains of a troglodytic village known as La Madeleine. One of many such shelters hollowed out of the porous rock formations lining the banks, it was one of the first to be excavated and artefacts from here can be found in museums throughout the world. Its main claim to fame, however, is that La Madeleine has given its name to an era of prehistory associated with some of the earliest and most glorious artwork ever known. The Magdalenian Period in the late Upper Paleolithic extended from around 18,000 to about 10,000 years ago. It is also known as the “Age of Reindeer”, after the discoveries in caves throughout the Dordogne and Lot and in northern Spain of paintings, from this remote period, of ancient beasts – deer, oxen, bison, as well as extinct species such as woolly mammoth and rhinoceros - rendered with the utmost skill and fantasy, in beautiful earth tones of red and yellow ochre, charcoal, manganese oxide, by our ancient forebears. After having seen the cave paintings at Altamira, in Cantabria, Picasso exclaimed: “After Altamira, all is decadence!” If he says so, it must be true.

The jewel in the crown of the world of cave painting is Lascaux, near Montignac-sur-Vézère in the heart of the Dordogne. The famous French anthropologist, ethnologist, and geologist Abbé Henri Breuil, who was responsible for the vast majority of the early pioneering studies and publications about Paleolithic art, called Lascaux the “Sistine Chapel of prehistoric times”. Dated to around 17,000 years ago in the early Magdalenian Period, the caves were discovered in 1940 by Marcel Ravidat, whose dog Robot had disappeared down a hole in the ground. A series of medium-sized chambers around 200m in total length, they were opened to the public in 1948, with Mr Ravidat serving as a guide, and over the next fifteen years millions of visitors from all parts of the globe gloried in the vivid hues of prehistory. Two thousand separate images,  including 900+ individual animals, mysterious geometric designs, hand prints (mostly female), and apparently only one solitary human figure, burst forth from the walls of the caves, often etched into the contours of the rock walls themselves, alive with movement and a perspective ability not seen again until the 16th century. Unfortunately, however, the vast number of visitors and the exposure to outside air began to have an adverse effect on the paintings: the excess carbon dioxide caused green mould and fungi to develop, and some sections of the paintings were permanently discoloured. Calcium deposits on the rock itself threatened further damage, and in 1963 the Minister of Culture, André Malraux, ordered the caves closed. In response to popular demand, a duplicate cave was created: Lascaux II, which was opened in 1980. The principal chamber, the Hall of the Bulls, was meticulously re-created in every detail, each minute contour of the original cave wall re-cast and exact copies of the paintings reproduced, using natural pigments. This magnificent tableau presents four vast “auroch” (an extinct type of oxen), the largest 17ft long. Once again visitors had the opportunity to enjoy guided tours of this fascinating and ancient art gallery.
www.lascaux.culture.fr
www.best-of-perigord.tm.fr

There are many other prehistoric caves to visit in the area, some equally famous for their paintings, and others for their spectacular rock formations. The Grottes de Font de Gaume, near Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, were officially discovered in 1901, although known to the locals for years, and feature what many consider the best polychrome cave paintings outside of Lascaux: over 180 animal figures adorn the walls. Only limited numbers of visitors are allowed, so it is best to book ahead.
www.hominides.com/html/lieux/grotte-font-de-gaume.php
 

The Grottes de Villars, near Brantôme, were discovered in 1953, but it was not until 1958 that further exploration revealed some excellent cave paintings, including a rare depiction of a human figure. The caves were opened to the public in 1959. They are the largest cave system in the region, 13km in all, of which 600m can be visited.
www.grotte-villars.com/en/

The largest managed cave in the Périgord is at the Gouffre de Proumeyssac, near Le Bugue. It features an enormous “Cathedral of Crystal”. For a fee you can be lowered down into the cave in the traditional method: three at a time, in a basket driven by horse-power. The Gouffre de Padirac, near Rocamadour in the upper Dordogne, is an enormous chasm hollowed out of the limestone plateau. It is 99m around the rim, with a descent of 75m down to a subterranean stream where you can take an eerie boat trip along its galleries. The Grottes de Maxange, discovered in 2000 near Le Buisson de Cadouin, features some unusual rock formations: not just the usual stalagmites and stalactites, but also quite complex spirals and coils formed by capillary action, all illuminated by excellent and evocative lighting effects.
http://lesgrottesdemaxange.com

Other sites worth a visit include L’Abri de Cap Blanc, a natural rock formation with some excellent friezes of horses and bison; the Grotte du Grand Roc, with some amazing stalactite and stalagmite formations; the troglodytic fort 40m up the cliffs overlooking the Dordogne above the golden houses of La Roque-Gageac, and in the centre of the hilltop town of Domme, a series of caves, which were used as a shelter from the English during the 100 Years’ War.

A few kilometres down the Vézère from Lascaux is the excellent Espace Cro-Magnon at Le Thot. An exhibition centre dedicated to the history of Franco-Cantabrian cave painting, it offers workshops in the techniques and materials used. There is an animal park with many of the animals (or their descendents) portrayed: reindeer, horses, ibex, red deer, fallow deer; those creatures no longer with us appear in realistic replicas: woolly mammoths and woolly rhinoceros. You can buy joint admission to the Espace and Lascaux II.
www.best-of-perigord.tm.fr

An excellent website devoted to the prehistory of the Dordogne region can be found at
www.hominides.com/html/lieux/perigord-visit-prehistory.php

Finally, if you just cannot keep your stalagmites from your stalactites, the French have a handy way of doing it: stalagMites Montent (climb), and stalacTites Tombent (fall). Now you know.

Getting there

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Lascaux

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Maxange caves
© Grottes de Maxange
 

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Villars caves
© Darphin

 

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Gouffre de Padirac
© Luc Viatour www.lucnix.be
 

 

 

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