The Niaux Caves - A Walk Inside The Mountain to a Prehistoric Art Gallery

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Thursday 13 November 2014

The Niaux Caves - A Walk Inside The Mountain to a Prehistoric Art Gallery

Following our visit to the Parc de la Prehistoire on Tuesday we had been very excited to learn more about the people who had settled here in the paleolithic era tens of thousands of years earlier. Fortunately the region we are staying in, the Ariege Department, has one of the greatest concentrations of paleolithic caves in Europe and it was the world famous Niaux caves that were visiting on Thursday afternoon. As one of the few caves containing cave art that it is still possible for the public to visit we were very excited and a little nervous at the thought that we would be heading almost 1000m into the darkness of the mountain to look at drawings made as long ago as 13,850 BC! (According to carbon dating, +/- 150 years).

It is one of the sad realities of these priceless images that so few people will ever get to see them, with most caves completely closed due to the risk of even body heat degrading the images. The only way to see most images today is through replicas or photographs, making a trip to the Niaux caves even more precious. Tours are limited to a max of 20 people, with 11 tours per day in summer and just 3 per day in winter. (Reservation is essential). Although all winter tours are in French we felt a trip to the Parc de la Prehistoire had armed us with enough knowledge to follow the tour and besides, as our guide said, the most important thing is just to look and appreciate!

As our tour party, armed with dim hand held lamps, began the descent into the darkness via the man made tunnel from the large cave opening above Niaux everyone was quiet not knowing quite what to expect. (The natural cave entrance is much smaller and further around the mountainside). Reaching the natural caves after just a couple of hundred metres we were struck by just how rugged and beautiful the caves themselves are with twisting rock formations and stalagmites rising up to meet the stalagtites above. It was like an alien world to us, although perhaps less so to the paleolithic cave artists not used to our sanitised modern environment. Staggeringly there is no evidence paleolithic habitation inside the caves.  They only went so deep underground to paint and any other reason that can only be guessed at.

We were heading to the Salon Noir, a large circular chamber containing a large number of drawings. Despite the discovery of the caves way back in the 15th century it wasn't until 1906 that these drawings were authenticated as being prehistoric. Prior to that the accepted wisdom was that the earth was created just a few thousands years ago (as the described in the bible) and so these were assumed to be modern fakes. Passing slowly over the uneven surface, passing graffiti dating back to the 1600s we reflected on how little the cave interior must have changed since those first visitors 15000 years (or more) came this way.

Around 500m in we stopped at the first cave paintings, a series of geometric markings comprising dots, lines and cuneiforms. These shape markings may have had a meaning, especially since similar forms and patterns are found throughout Europe but any such interpretation is long lost now. Everyone looked on in awed silence, but this was just a taste of what was to come.

Ascending steeply over slippy rocks we arrived in the Salon Noir, a large round space with a high domed ceiling almost reminiscent of a modern church and with amazing acoustic resonance as echoes reverberated for long seconds. Why did the paleolithic artist choose this place?  You might guess at some sort of loud shamanic ceremony here in the distant past, although it would only be a guess. Some archaeologists actually think it is futile to even try speculating at the meaning of such places since there is no physical evidence and beyond learning of material lives, any understanding of culture, religion and beliefs is impossible.

It was here the guide asked us to turn off our lamps allowing him to slowly guide us around the curved walls, pointing out the various drawings one by one. Our first look at a full sized bison was very special. Its not just that intricacy of the picture, but the way the artist has created the image on the uneven surface, often incorporating natural features in their impression of the animal. (90% of all known drawings are of grazing animals, mostly bison, deer, horses, ibex and occasional mammoths. What that means...noone knows?). Moving around the Salon Noir we saw horses, ibex and bison, approximately 70 drawings in total. These images, created over more than 1000 years from 13850 to 12900 BC often overlapped, with the cumulative effect being almost a sense of movement.

We spent some 30 minutes or so appreciating these ancient drawings. Its easy to see why access is limited as many are already faded and as our guide says, we have no idea how many drawings may have already been lost meaning we don't really even know how frequent such drawings were. However, what we can access is incredibly thought provoking and as we began to pick our way carefully back towards the light and the modern world it was with a very reflective mind.

Other Related Posts:

7 Activities To Do Whilst Staying in Tarascon-sur-Ariege - Visiting the Ariege-Pyrénées

Parc de la Prehistoire - Connecting with our past in Tarascon-sur-Ariege

3 Big Hikes in the High Mountains of the Ariege-Pyrénées, France

Tackling 4 Amazing Cycling Climbs in the Ariege-Pyrénées, France - and 4 for the Future!

* The photographs of the cave art in this post are of some postcards which we purchased at the Caves since photography is not allowed to help preserve the drawings and prevent the tour being delayed.

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