Postcard #4 from the CAHO trip to France
July 9, 2014
by Lucie Bolton
Sadly we didn’t get into Font-de-Gaume, the beautiful painted cave at one end of the village of Les Eyzies. They limit the numbers in order to protect the paintings, and we couldn’t really argue with that. So it was over to Cap Blanc and the amazing sculpted frieze of horses dated to the Magdalenian. Some thirteen metres of white limestone wall have been sculpted into a magnificent procession of horses. Today the site is on a wooded slope of the River Beune, but originally it would have been set in a treeless landscape and the frieze would have had a greater visibility, as would its location within the broader terrain. Another feature which emphasises how differently these images would have been consumed by their original makers and observers is that there is evidence at Cap Blanc for pigment on the frieze itself. It’s a memorable and thought provoking site, nicely reconstructed along with the Magdalenian burial in front of the frieze.
We drove north that afternoon (Sunday), camping just south of Nemours in the evening. The following day was one of the most memorable of the whole trip. I know I have waxed lyrical on how good it has all been (and it has), but this was such a great finale.
The morning and early afternoon was spent in Musee departmental de prehistoire de’Ile-de-France at Nemours. This museum covers the area around Paris and includes some of the most important and informative sites on Magdalenian life ever found such as Pincevent and Etiolles (which we visited on our last trip). The Nemours museum, perhaps as much as any other we visited, shows the careful thought that has been put into the use of space, in this case juxtaposing inside space with outside. Each archaeological period, or sub-period, has a room to itself displaying objects and items from local excavations and archaeological sites. The rooms are flooded with natural light and in each is a large window. They look out onto gardens with representative examples of trees, bushes and grasses from each of the periods. It is a spectacular effect. Our guide Jean-Luc Rieu enthusiastically took us through the magnificent prehistoric displays, and then loaded the students down with freebies – so he was popular. Our last stop for the day, and this trip, was the magnificent Magdalenian site of Pincevent. We have to record our sincerest appreciation to Maurice Hardy and Pierre Bodu for giving us such a memorable tour round the site. This weekend was the 50th anniversary of the site’s first excavation. An impressive eight hundred visitors came to the celebration, as befitting such a world famous site. Despite being tired the team welcomed us with open arms, gave us a beer (nice people), and gave us a tour of the site that I for one will never forget.
The famous three hearths from Professor Leroi-Gourhan’s excavation are preserved as a cast and it was great to see the evidence for the different zones next to each hearth where knappers sat and different activities occurred. My old supervisor, Mark Newcomer, worked on the technology and refitting from the site, so I was familiar with some of the reconstructions of Magdalenian life from this site. It’s the quality of preservation that really grabs you. Annual inundations of fine sediments from the River Seine preserved everything. Tools and debitage are tightly wrapped around obvious hearths and it is so easy to people the scatters with Magdalenian knappers: again this one of those sites where fitting the people back into the Palaeolithic location is not difficult – so different from the Lower Palaeolithic (but then that’s the challenge!! – and the fun).
It’s been an amazing trip with some very thought provoking archaeology and beautiful scenery. I’ll sign off now and pop this in the post, before heading for the boat.
Au revoir from France,
Mac, William, Chris, Adam, Tanner, Paul, Sarah, Cathy and Jo.