by John Robinson
The Cavernes du Volp consists of three cave systems, Les Trois Freres, Enlene, and Tuc d’Audoubert. Between them they house several of the Art Wonders of the World. The caves were made by the river Volp which runs underground beneath a limestone formation in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, causing a network of tunnels on three levels. The Volp emerges back into some of the most beautiful and unspoilt countryside I have ever seen, at the entrance of the Tuc d’Audoubert Cave.
The whole was dappled by the sunlight shining through the leaves of the Ash trees that hung over the stream. It was a completely enchanting scene, and one of utter peace. A Spirit of Serenity surrounded the menacing black throat of the Ancient Sanctuary. Five minutes later a call echoed out from the cave and Jean started to pull on the cord. Suddenly the tiny bath size plastic dinghy popped back out of the cave. Damon and Jean clambered in and Pierre tended to the cord as they paddled off up stream. Soon the sacred vessel returned and it was our turn. I climbed in to the bow and knelt as though praying, which seemed only right because I was about to enter the presence of the ancient Gods. We started to paddle into the cavern. I wondered how deep was the water, and tested the depth with my paddle, which just touched the bottom. I had a wonderful feeling of awe as the darkness enveloped us. The tunnel took a slight bend and there ahead of me were three lamps bobbing about like Will of the Wisps. The darkness turned into a warm grey gloom and very soon the boat grated against a shingle beach, and I scrambled out.
The cave was about 10 feet high and 15 feet across at this point. Following the Count we crossed water warn rock and shingle to a single two inch wide iron strip that was fastened to the side of the cave about two feet above the water. We edged along this strip, leaning into the wall of the cave, for about 20 feet, and arrived on another shingle beach. To the right the river disappeared into a black hole, to the left a grand cavern open up before us, the Salle Nuptiale. Giant stalagmites and stalactites surrounded us.
While the Count went on ahead to unlock the iron gates that guard the tunnel, Jean showed us some animal engravings that had been done with sharp flints.
We then turned to a 12 foot high iron ladder that reached up to a three foot wide hole at the top of the wall of the cave. Behind the ladder was a convoluted wormhole leading up to the same spot. This was the route of discovery taken by the Bégouën brothers in 1912, the same route the Magdalenian sculptor took 15000 years ago. We thankfully climbed the ladder by-passing this acrobatic scramble, and arrived in a small chamber eight feet round.
I started off up the wormhole, urged on by Damon’s wit. My battery light was attached to a belt around my waist adding to my width, so very soon I was wedged tightly in the hole. Luckily my fingers found a knob to pull on, and with much grunting, I fell out at Jean’s feet. By then a lot of grunting was going on behind me as Damon started his run. I moved out of the way and followed Jean. We were now on the upper level of the underground cave system made by the river millions of years ago.
Our next obstacle was a vertical squeeze that had to be done sideways to get the hips through between the stalagmites, but after that we found ourselves in a respectable tunnel that we could walk along bent double.
Again we stopped, but this time to see tiny feet moulded in the clay floor. Preserved forever we looked at the imprints of a three year old Magdalenian child. They were on a little shelf of rock about a foot above the ground on the side of our pathway. Perhaps the mother had been carrying the child and had rested it here for a moment.
The 15000 years that separated me from the child disappeared as though the time between us had been wiped away. These people were our ancestors, every bit as clever as we like to think we are, but able to survive in an environment that would kill most of us all off today. Without doubt their artistic skill was absolutely brilliant, and I believe, was more in touch with the purpose that Art should play in society than it does today.
We followed on, turning this way and that, always sticking to the pathway. A narrow squeeze, a larger tunnel, and skirting around sections of the cave floor that had collapsed into the lower levels made by the river. No-where was there any art, the walls of the tunnel were pristine.
A white ribbon encircles the Bison. No one is allowed to stand, in case they accidentally fall on the Art that has been there for 15000 years. Slowly I crawled around the circle so I could see all the angles of perspective, shining my light this way and that to get the shadow effects. The great humps of the Bison were exactly like the Bison Damon and I had seen the week before in Montana. There, wild Bison still roam the valleys, as they must have done here 15000 years ago, providing meat to the Magdalenian people then, just as they had the Hunter Gatherer Indians of America.
The sculptures are a unique wonder of the Art world. Two foot long, eighteen inches high, three to four inches thick, modelled in clay, the surface given a wet finish to make them smooth. The finger strokes of the artist can be seen running down the length of the animals. The mane and beard are etched with a tool, but the marking along the jawbones are done by the artist’s fingernail. The horns are rougher and not water treated. The clay has cracks running across the bodies, indicating that the sculptures have dried out, although the clay we were sitting on is still quite pliable.
I scraped a small ball of clay from the floor and kneaded it in my fingers and thought about the Supreme Artists who had conceived this marvellous composition.
At last we had to drag ourselves from the scene. We turned to the sunken cave floor behind us. We slid down to it and stood beside a flat clay floor. A few footprints of adults can be seen in the clay, but mainly the footprints are of young children. Towards the rear wall of the cave, cut out of the floor, is a hole in the four inch thick clay where a slab has been removed, the shape and size of one of the Bison. Surely this was where the clay used to model the Bison had come from. Also lying on the ground are some sausages of clay, rolled between the hands, just as I have done a hundred times as I prepared some clay while studying my sculpture, thinking about the next move. It is a subconscious action shared by all sculptors working with clay. I felt a wonderful bond existed between myself and the Magdalenian artist who had done this exquisite work so many years ago. How fortunate we both were to be sculptors.
Once felt, the Spirit of the Place that exists in this sacred Sanctuary of Life can never be forgotten. Here Life was Created. For me the “purpose of the place” was to obtain the Blessing of the Goddess of Fertility on the new Life that was about to be conceived in front of the Bison who were depicted about to perform the same act.
On the way from the Cave we passed back through the tight wormhole. I followed the Count this time. He lay on his back, entered the hole feet first and disappeared. I followed suit. The feeling of passing from the Womb of the Cave down the Birth Canal, out into the World, flooded through me with incredible power. I could not believe that this was happening to me. Our time was up, and the rush of the modern world of cars and aeroplanes waited for us outside this ancient haven of peace.
Before long we arrived back at the boat. Jean and I were first to leave. We paddled gently down stream towards the light at the entrance of the cave. I experienced another rebirth as I passed out into the sunlight of a new day, a different person, one who had knelt in front of the Ancient Gods of the Past. A changed person, because to experience the wonders of Tuc d’Audoubert must touch the Inner Being of all who have been there. “I am aware therefore I am”. What would have been going through the mind of the girl as she waded through the five foot deep waters of the stream, heading for the light at the entrance of the tunnel?
Was she the girl that had carried the three year old child into the cave, resting it on the shelf, where it had left its foot prints in the clay 15000 years ago? Was she now carrying a new life from her encounter at the Bison Altar?
Would she have been aware of a sense of Divine cleansing as she waded through the water on her way into the cave, and then again, a sense of a Blessing as she was herself reborn into the sunshine? I think she would because I believe the Magdalenians thought exactly as we do today.
It took seconds to model a tiny bison from the minute ball of clay that I had scraped from the trampled floor in front of the Bison. I wondered if 15000 years ago the High Priest would have done the same thing, then given a Talisman to each Worshipper as they left the Sanctuary to protect the owner from evil influences. I know that if I had been the Priest I certainly would have!
Both Damon de Laszlo and myself will forever be in the debt of Count Robert Bégouën for sharing such a privilege with me, and my friend Jean Clottes and for arranging such a special trip.