The Ariege Departement in SW France possesses extensive cave systems within its limestone mountains some of which have prehistoric cave paintings. The Grotte de Niaux near Tarascon-sur-Ariege is one of the few caves that is still open to the public where you can view examples of these paintings.
There is a narrow, vertiginous road snaking up to what is now the cave entrance and visitor centre. The scenery is rugged; massive limestone cliffs lower over one side of the road and a steep wooded drop awaits the careless driver on the other.
The Grotte de Niaux is part of a large cave system that delves deep into the mountain-side. The entire network has been explored, most of it remains closed to the public as too difficult and dangerous to access.
Over time, the exploitation of the Niaux site has led to a deterioration of the paintings. So visits are limited to 20 people – by reservation. This allows the cave to maintain the temperature of 12° necessary for the preservation of the paintings. There is no lighting within the cave and no photographs are allowed.
We are issued with a square hand lamp that gives off a dull yellow light and we walk from the bright sunshine into the deep black of a gallery that winds deep into the heart of the cave. The journey back in time begins.
Everywhere the ground is uneven. Sometimes it is gently bumpy with the floor of washed sand, hardened over the centuries. Other times we stumble through round depressions in the rock where water lingers and a film of moisture makes it slippery underfoot. Our progression is, to put it mildy, somewhat tortuous.
We are just the latest in a long line of visitors as a rock, inscribed with graffiti testifies. The earliest scratching is dated 1602. There are few stalactites/stalagmites left in the cave since these were robbed out in Victorian times to make artificial grottos in gardens.
For the first 400 metres or so there are no paintings, nothing. We arrive at a point where the cave narrows. A long-ago rockfall of great boulders from the roof of the cave partially blocks the way and with warnings not to touch the sides of the cave to avoid contamination by us, we stoop and squeeze through a narrow passage. As we emerge we see the first signs of our prehistoric ancestors – the Magdelenians – late stone-age people from between 17000 and 10000 BC.
A series of symbols – dots, dashes, lines and bars in series. Some are red some are black. The red is haematite, the black manganese dioxide or charcoal. These were mixed with something to bind them – either water or fat. But what do they mean, these symbols? Current thinking is that they mark the entrance to what was, for our ancestors, a sacred place.
We continue along the vast gallery and despite the unevenness of the ground and the winding route it does feel like we are treading in the footsteps of our ancestors. The trackway disappears ahead of us, swallowed up in the darkness.
Around the 800 metre mark the path narrows before opening into a wide area, rather like a cross-roads, with other tunnels leading off. Our main path climbs steeply and we find what we have stumbled, slipped and slid to see. We arrive at the magnificent round chamber of the Salon Noir – the Black Chamber.
We are told to shut off our lamps and put them to one side lest we are tempted to shine an unwelcome light on the paintings. The chamber, round and vaulted echoes with our murmurs. It is said to be the only place where the cave answers back.
There, in the pitch black, our guide uses her torch to show us the wall paintings.
They are grouped together in separate panels; composed of animals, mostly bison, ibex, horses and deer; represented in profile, as if suspended in air. They are both realistic and stylistic; mostly outlined in black with occasional use of red and the artists have cleverly used the undulating forms of the rock.
We stumble back towards the daylight, quieter now and I’m preoccupied…not so much with the paintings themselves whose age and condition alone make them something quite wondrous but more with the people who painted them. I imagine them making the journey we have taken; I see them crouched, uncomfortably against the rock creating their art by the light of a weak, flickering flame.
Why did our ancestors paint these? What meaning did they attach to the paintings?
One suggestion is that these people possessed a sense of a spiritual existence which is represented by the animals and symbols…a religion if you like. The paintings are deep inside a cave system which was not inhabited by them so they must have had a strong reason to penetrate so deep into the cave.
Perhaps in a world where they were surrounded by these animals they saw themselves as an integral part of this world, not above it? Something that perhaps we modern visitors should remember more often.
Perhaps they believed that the rock face represented a curtain between their world and the spirit world?
So many questions. No answers just theories.