Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the month “December, 2016”

Freeway-Free in France: Paleolithic Art and Mystery

20161222_175622cropThe Dordogne area of southwestern France is rife with sandstone caverns, many of which hold spectacular displays of calcite formations, and several of which hold samples of Paleolithic art, most preserved unseen for over 20,000 years because the entrances to the caves collapsed, cutting off access.

We first went to Peche-Merle, where the art and other man-made markings have been dated back to about 28,000 years.  Here one is allowed to descend into the actual cave, which has been artfully illuminated to simulate torchlight on the drawings.  The calcite formations are dramatic – curtains and columns and needles and disks and strange formations that look like children’s toys – a spinning top, a set of marbles.  All done by seepage of water through the calcite.

 Most of the drawings are linear evocations of mammoths, deer, and aurochs with one sweeping line outlining trunk, tusks, head, hump, and tail.  There is one very clear image of a cave bear scratched into a wall with some relief effect due to the bumps in the wall.  There are several partial hand prints.  There is one image of a man who appears to be pierced by spears (images of people, we learned, are very rare in Paleolithic art.). And at the end there was a spectacular image of two horses, both with small heads, black fore quarters, and black spots on the rest of the body for an Appaloosa effect, the most complete and vivid picture in the cave.  We tried to imagine how these pictures were created, by artists using pigment made from burnt clay, stamping or brushing or even blowing the colors painstakingly onto the wall.  The how of doing it is hard to imagine, the why is a complete mystery.

The next day we went to Lascaux II. Fifty years ago  my group of American students was among the last visitors to the original cave, as it was closed to the public in 1963, the year I was there.  The re-creation, however, does a much better job of recreating the sense of being in a cave, the mystery and unknowability of the purpose and practice of the artists, and the general overall experience than, say, the digital recreation of Alta Mira in Spain that  I saw two years ago (See my blog post from 2014). Again, one descends underground, into a cavern whose dimensions and irregularities are within one centimeter of the original cave.  The paintings have been recreated copying the original pigments and techniques.  And what paintings! Horses walk, trot, and gallop in a frieze, herded (maybe) or protected (maybe) or stampeded (maybe) by several gigantic bulls. There is a delicate drawing of a deer with intricate antlers alone on one wall.  There is a procession of ponies.  There are ibexes with sweeping horns.  There is one animal which seems to combine features of several others.  And many of these animals are carefully and realistically shaded and colored, unlike the outlined figures of Peche Merle.  They are beautiful.  No one knows, or can ever know, what they mean.

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Freeway Free in France: Grappling with Griselda (the GPS Lady)

20161222_175841map1We have a French road map courtesy of AAA.  Three out of four of us have the same road map.   If you want to get to point A, the map is useful for finding out some waypoints along the way, since signposts in the French countryside mostly point just to the next town, not to the next major town.  The road numbers on the map almost never match any of the road numbers you actually see on the road signs, so that’s no help.

On the map, toll roads are blue with red borders, divided highways are yellow with red borders, “Principal roads” are red, “main roads” are yellow, and there are some grey roads.  There are large areas which seem to have no roads, but that is not the case.

20161222_175841docmap2We have a GPS which came with our car.  We had some interesting trips in the first few days, because it seemed to have been preset to avoid toll roads and major highways at all costs.  We saw a lot of red roads (they have striping, shoulders, left turn lanes, and lots of roundabouts) and yellow roads (center striping, no left turn lanes, fewer roundabouts, no shoulders, and grey roads (no striping, no shoulders, stop signs, just room for two midsize cards to get past each other) and a fair set of the invisible roads, which are basically one-lane roads bordered by very solid stone walls where you just have to pray there is no one coming around the next curve.

By the time we had wrestled with Griselda the GPS lady for a few days, we were ready to take matters into our own hands and get on the toll road in order to get to Peche Merle, the prehistoric cave where the only English language tour was going to depart at 10.  We ignored Griselda and set off for A20, the toll road.  Bad move.  Little did we know that in this case Griselda was right:  the toll road took us way out of our way and we narrowly made it to our destination on time (helped by DB’s having mistakenly (she says) told us 10 when our actual tour was at 10:30).  We found that W’s smart phone, though not connected to the Internet, could be set using the hotel Wifi and subsequently gave us excellent access to Google Maps, so we had a cross check.  On our return, we found that what had taken us an hour and a half using our “common sense” was reduced to under an hour using Griselda ‘s and Google’s byroads.

The next morning we set off again, this time feeling confident in Griselda’s advice, but common sense began to worry when she insisted on taking us northeast when the old-technology map showed we needed to be going almost due west.  We stopped and checked. Turned out Griselda operates by names of towns, not tourist attractions, and “Lascaux” per Griselda was a little town halfway to Tours. We reprogrammed her for the TOWN closest to the Cave de Lascaux where we wanted to go, and off we went, threading our way through tiny lanes that looked more like sidewalks, twisting through villages almost too small to have names, until we finally regained the yellow road which led to our goal.  We were so delighted to regain center striping!

For the rest of our trip, we made use of Griselda, Google, AND the paper map.  Of course, once we were alert to the foibles of each, we had no discord between them.

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