We were quite a large group and there was much discussion about what to visit in the short time we had there.
“I don’t care what else we do,” I said, “I can’t go all that way and not visit one of the caves with prehistoric paintings.” The others had probably already planned to go, but I like to think I made some contribution to the trip.
The area along the Dordogne and Vezere rivers is renowned for its sites of stone age settlements, but it wasn’t until I was there that I really understood why it was such a no-brainer for our ancestors to establish themselves there.
Seeing the lush river valleys with the overhanging cliffs providing protective cave systems for shelter had me itching to re-read The Clan of the Cave Bear with a fresh perspective and I kept wishing I could sweep away the evidence of modern-day to see what it looked like thousands of years ago.
The Grotte de Rouffignac is one of several sites we could have chosen to visit. Ultimately it came down to the compromise between our wishes and what the kids would get out of it (and how far to travel without getting car-sick). Having seen Frankie’s schoolwork about ‘what we did on our holidays’, I think we made the right choice.
The living areas of the caves would have been near the entrance. But the floors are now levelled for pedestrian use, the space taken up with the visitor shop and information boards. There is no hint of what may once have been, although in all fairness any evidence would have been lost centuries ago.
The real treasure lies much further in. Special journeys must have been undertaken in incredibly poor light and uncertain footing, past huge dips worn out of the rocks where once cave bears spent their winters in hibernation, the claw marks on the walls the remaining testimony of who once slept there.
Why the artists went to such effort to record the animals of their time, whether it was a solitary pilgrimage through the dark or a group celebration, we will never know. But the results are astounding to see in the flesh. Images of mammoth, bison, ibex and wooly rhinos detailed in a few sparse lines, either carved into the walls or drawn in black manganese dioxide, still clear thousands of years later.
And then one looks up… and sees the graffiti on the ceiling.
But these are no ordinary spray can tags, these are names of people a few centuries past, who had no concept of prehistory, who probably didn’t even realize the pictures were there, but had ventured into the caves to record how far they’d made it into the cave system using the smoke from their candles .
Which brings up the interesting subject of when graffiti becomes art or historical evidence. But that’s a discussion for another day.