Postcard #3 from the CAHO trip to France – John McNabb

This morning we visited the famous site of La Ferrassie. Like Le Moustier, it is one of those names to conjour with, it takes you back to undergraduate essays and assignment deadlines just made by the skin of your teeth. New work is going on there at the moment under a joint French and American team. They certainly have their work cut-out for them as they try to get to grips with conflicting stratigraphies and a sequence that is meters deep – actually sounds like great fun. William’s explanation of the convoluted interpretations of the Aurignacian sequence made my head ache, and left me with a profound respect for all those Ph.D students who grapple with the early Upper Palaeolithic – more power to ya.

We drove around for a while after La Ferrassie following its little valley up to the plateau and then back down into the valley of the Vezere. Relatively little is known about the occupation of these plateaux by the Neanderthals who were definitely in the side valleys and the main valley too. From the top you get a much better sense of landscape and of the geography of the Neanderthal/Cro-Magnon world in these ice age refuges and micro-climates. One thing that always impresses me is the amount of re-occupation by modern vegetation that has occurred since the 1920s. Today this part of the Dordogne is lush and green, wooded slopes look over green flood plains. But this is all regrowth within a century. In the earlier part of the last century it was a bare landscape, much more akin to what its late Pleistocene appearance would have been. The old post-cards are a fascinating window on what it looked like. It also reinforces just how productive interglacial climate can be (even with the help of modern humans).

The afternoon was the much anticipated return to the museum in Les Eyzies and its special art exhibition, although I have to be honest I bunked off to drink a lot of coffee and answer e-mails. Good chance to catch up on my postcards too. After a late lunch it was a visit to the Abri Pataud. Hallam Movius Jnr dug there for over a decade and according to our very knowledgeable guide they pulled out more than a million artefacts – top that for a database. When you look down into the deep sections from the visitor balconies you can believe it – it’s a hell of a hole!!! One interesting piece of information from our guide was that the Gravettian woman’s burial with her new born baby involved separating the head from the body and placing it away from the main interment, but also surrounding it with engraved plaquettes.


Ok so there is no Lower Palaeolithic here (or anywhere apart from La Micoque), but William reminded me that on our first visit a few years ago there was a handaxe on display in Abri Pataud that the Aurignacians must have picked up from the river, resharpened a little, then lost in the rock shelter. It just shows you that even then modern humans recognized real archaeology when they saw it!

Tomorrow we are aiming for a painted cave and an engraved one, before heading back up north to have a peek at Pincevent. I’ll keep you posted.

As ever, wishing you were here,

Mac, William, Cathy, Jo, Sarah, Adam, Tanner Paul and Chris.