Ours is one of the more rural French regions, but transport networks criss-cross the countryside and commercial suburbs mushroom around its historic towns. And yet this part of France is peppered with the works of prehistoric artists and builders. They endure almost in defiance of our modern concerns. So I’m taking a journey back in time in the next two posts via some remarkable sites, the vestiges of prehistoric life in this area.
Early people hunted on the limestone causses (plateaux) of the Quercy and western Rouergue. They followed migrating herds along the rivers and sheltered in the caves, with which the hills are riddled. The hunter-gatherers preferred to avoid thickly-forested areas and favoured the more sparsely-wooded causses – hence the wealth of prehistoric sites.
I’ll start with the more recent sites and end with a startling recent discovery in the next post.
Cave dwelling at Foissac
The cave network at Foissac, near Figeac, was occupied over thousands of years. The more recent remains date to around 2700 BC in the Bronze Age, when agriculture was developing and people were grouping into settlements. The caves provided housing, burial grounds and a clay quarry. The clay has preserved the captivating imprint of a child’s foot. This part is open to the public.
Much older cave paintings and rock etchings were discovered in another part of the network in 2006. The paintings are around 20,000 years old and include aurochs and bison and non-figurative lines and spots, whose function one can only guess at.
Last year, another priceless treasure emerged from the mud: a 10 cm high figurine sculpted from an auroch or bison bone. The engraved statuette is of a female figure carrying a child or an animal and is between 15,000 and 20,000 years old. Images of human figures or mobile art are rare from this period, when people favoured frescoes of animals.
Imagine the breathless excitement of finding this wonderful piece of early art, untouched for thousands of years.
Dolmens and menhirs
Dolmens are mysterious, enigmatic structures. I find them haunting. They’re numerous in France and the UK, especially in Brittany and in our region. In fact, Aveyron claims to have the highest number of them in France – around 1,000 dotted across the département. I include here photos of the more accessible dolmens. Others are on private land.
Dolmens were constructed between around 7000 BC and 3000 BC and often occupy a prominent position on a mound. They consist of enormous slabs of flat stone, capstones, perched on smaller upright stones. Some may have been covered with soil, which has since eroded away.
No one quite knows what these distinctive monuments were for. The traditional view is that they were burial chambers. However, there’s now a suggestion that they might subsequently have been used for burials but had a broader initial function as religious places. Other explanations range from the sensible to the downright daft (constructed by superior beings from outer space…).
Whatever their function, they are astonishing feats of engineering. Imagine transporting and hoisting massive blocks of stone weighing tons without modern equipment. Prehistoric humans must have had a powerful motivation to do that.
Aveyron also boasts a large number of menhirs, standing stones, some of which represent stylised male or female figures. The Musée Fenaille in Rodez has an important collection of these statues, which were sculpted on all sides, not just the front. They include “La Dame de Saint-Sernin”, which you can see here. The sculpted menhir-statues date back to about 3,000 BC.
There’s so much about our prehistoric forebears’ lives that is shrouded in mystery. Next time, I’ll look at cave paintings, their most spectacular form of expression. I’ll also explore a remarkable local discovery about Neanderthal man.
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