Where to Begin?


Grotte de Niaux, Niaux

This is a tough thing to write about, because the experience was so emotionally moving.  We visited one of the hundreds caves in France that have been found to contain prehistoric art.  The Grotte de Niaux is located not quite an hour and a half from our home, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, but going there took me not only to another time in history, but to another world.  Mac and I are both writing about this, so please bear with us as we each are compelled to try to explain.

First, the rules.  One cannot just show up to visit this cave or any of the others.  In fact, not only must you make an appointment, but only 10 caves are open to the public at this point in time.  The number of people who can enter is restricted each day because of the fragility of the paintings; thus, the importance of maintaining the temperature, humidity, and darkness of the caves necessitates as little disturbance to the environment as possible by human breath or light.  We signed up for the English language tour and were fortunate enough to get in for the last English tour of the season. 

Our little group of 20 people were led through the cave by a young French historian and archeologist who had excellent English language skills.  First, she gave each of us small lantern-type flashlight with a very weak bulb.  After viewing a map of the cave to help us understand where we were going, we set off on the 800 meter walk to "the black room," where we would view the paintings.  I must admit, as we entered the dark, narrow, manmade entrance to the cave and heard the doors clang shut behind us, I was well aware of my own anxiety; a touch of clastrophobia, soon forgotten.

Our first stop was at a large open area, dark and gloomy, where our guide pointed out the original opening of the cave, with its natural path across the way that came from the narrow 20 meter entrance, not visible to us.  On we went, about 600 meters in, to the first evidence of prehistoric man, "signs" on a rock wall, dots and dashes, with distinctive cultural markers that appear repeatedly across geographic regions in Europe.  One particular marker, that looked somewhat like a P, has been found in caves in Spain that are 500 miles from Niaux.  Fascinated by the possibilities, I secretly smiled in the dark and thought of extraterestrial beings.

Finally, over the cave floor that was alternately craggy or remarkabley smooth, at times slippery, at times puddled, we arrived at the entrance to the black room.  We extinquished our lights as requested, and placed them on a rock ledge; assuring us the floor was level and safe, our guide would lead us in with her special light.  Once assembled in a tight little group inside the room, our guide asked if we would like to experince the darknes for a moment or two.  Yes, we said.  My apologies to you, readers, I cannot describe my few moments of utter darkness and silence.

Then, her light came on and there was a collective "A-h-h-h" as there before us were the first several of the approximately 20 paintings we would view over the next 25 minutes (the amount of time modern man is allowed in the black room).  Of course, our guide educated us about the various features of the paintings and the methods used.  Her answers to many of the group's questions were often, "We don't know," "Could be," or "Why not."  Why not?  

The trip back, over the 800 meters we'd walked seemed much faster than the trip in; all tolled, we spent about 90 minutes inside.  I hated to leave. We exited, into a burst of bright sunlight, into our world, into who knows what? 

Really enjoyed your description of the experience.


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