MERCY IN THE CAVE OF NIAUX
Meanwhile the other members of the tour had begun to assemble inside the dark, gaping mouth of cave. It appeared that she had been allocated a place in a French group. Would her smattering French be up to the job? People were greeting each other excitedly, laughing, chatting, adjusting shoe laces, putting on extra items of clothing, and generally getting ready for the descent into the cave. Still undecided, Celia moved a little closer to the group, should she – should she not? But now, the tour guide, a strapping young woman in her early twenties, stepped out of the ticket office and took charge. ‘Assemble here’, she commanded. ‘As there is no artificial light in the cave, take an electric lamp from the shelves over there. Switch it on when I tell you, not before.’ The group did as they were told, and Celia let herself be swept along by the mass towards the outer door of the cave. ‘Remember’, the guide now told them, ‘the way down into the cave to the main chamber, the Black Salon, is long, it goes up and down, and in places it is challenging. The cave of Niaux, or rather the caves, for it consists of a network of labyrinths and galleries, is an astonishing two kilometres long. Our trail will take us deep underground to the end of the Gallery of the Black Salon. On our way down we will cross many smaller paths peeling off to the side, these are blind alleys, dead-ends. So, it is important that we walk fast and stay together. I expect no-one wants to get left behind! Finally, do remember what a great privilege it is to see these original paintings. You must not touch anything as your touch will contaminate and destroy what has been here for thousands of years. And one more thing, once you are in the cave there is no turning back - the tour will last approximately one hour and forty-five minutes.’ With these words she unlocked the door and let them pass through into a dimly-lit, man-made passage which brought them to another much bigger, heavier door, the main entrance to the cave. When everybody had caught up, the guide ceremoniously unlocked this final barrier and they were allowed to step across the threshold into the great, black silence of Niaux. The door shut behind them with a reverberating clang.
Twenty small pools of light swinging this way and that, hardly disturbed the tomb-like darkness that their eyes struggled to adjust to. The air felt cold and damp. Trying to get her bearings, Celia pointed her lamp just a couple of metres in front of her. Not only could she make out a path but following the beam a little further, she discovered that it was even. Her spirits lifted and breathing a huge sigh of relief, she stepped forward with great élan. To tell the truth, she now felt a little ashamed at her earlier weakness. But how good that she had not given in to her trepidations! This was going to be less difficult than she had expected.
After about fifteen minutes, the guide asked them to stop again for further information, historical, geographical, ethnological as well as anthropological. She told them that the wall paintings dated back to the Middle and Upper Magdalenian Period which lasted from ca. 14.000 to 12.000 BC. Although the Magdalenian hunters visited the cave over a great length of time, one could observe an astonishing homogeneity in their wall paintings. The guide pointed out the similarity between Niaux’s wall paintings and those of, say, Altamira in northern Spain and Pech Merle and Lascaux in France which could mean that the Palaeolithic artists, perhaps the whole tribe, travelled much more than was hitherto suspected. Detailed information was given on how and when the cave was discovered, how the first modern visitors engraved their names on the walls, and so on and so forth. Just as Celia’s attention began to flag, the guide focused her strong electric light on the upper-most region of the cave where a small shaft of no more than 1.6 meters came into view. This, the guide said while sweeping the beam over a very rocky, precipitous descent, this was the original, prehistoric entrance to the cave. For a moment Celia was too stunned to take it all in. How could anyone come down this perilous slope without breaking a limb, or worse! How courageous the Magdalenians must have been. What incentive, what idea or belief drove them into this infernal darkness, to brave the dangers and overcome their fears? Returning to the present, Celia reassured herself thinking that all this had happened long ago. What a good thing that it was them and not she who had had to come skittering down over rocks and boulders! – With this comforting thought Celia turned her lamp to the ground in front of her to pick up the trail again. She searched to the left and to the right but all she could see was an incredibly vertiginous descent. Where was the path? Most likely she had lost her sense of direction - after all, it was almost totally dark. But no, the others were all lined up behind her and they, too, were facing this way. Suddenly, she knew. Oh God, no! Not in a million years would she be able to go down there! Panic-stricken, she stood frozen to the spot. Already the guide was getting a little impatient and asked the group to move on: ‘Avancez-vous! un peu plus vite, s’il vous plait!’ The younger members of the group immediately started to descend, and jumping from rock to rock, they quickly disappeared out of the circle of Celia’s light. Now the less agile followed, taking it a bit more cautiously. Soon it would be her turn. Her panic increased. Her heart pounded so loud she was sure it could be heard by those nearby. Just then someone bumped into her from behind. As she was rigid with fear, the little bump nearly knocked her over. A male voice apologized profusely, and Celia wanted to explain that it was really her fault but the words would not come.
Meanwhile the man had swiftly moved forward and apologizing once more gave her a wide berth and stepped ahead of her. In a few seconds it would be his turn to go down – and she, she would be left behind, alone and in the dark! What was she to do! In the end it was the sheer urgency and force of her need that galvanized her into action. She lightly tapped the man’s shoulder and in her shaky French whispered: ‘Excuse me, but would you mind very much if I were occasionally to hold on to you?’ Surprised at being touched and spoken to, the man spun round, and for a few seconds they mutely and blindly stared at each other in the dark. It was clear that he had not understood a word of what she had been saying. She repeated her request and added feebly: ‘only if the going is very rough’. Now he had understood and he immediately began to search for the best way down. First, he took a couple of big steps downwards, then pointed his lamp to the exact spot where she was to place her foot. Celia followed his silent instructions. More than once she slipped, and had it not been for his arm, she most certainly would have fallen. Eventually, they made it to the bottom of the descent, and Celia feeling enormously grateful began to thank her unknown helper but he brushed her words aside with: ‘What exactly is the problem, is it your eyes or your legs?’ – ‘It is my hip, or rather, I am overcome with fear’, she explained somewhat confusedly. He nodded. By now the others had already started to climb up again, and he, too, with extraordinary agility leapt over the first boulder, then the second, while she somehow, anyhow, hung on. When they got to the top, he, without speaking a single word, opened his hand to indicate that rather than awkwardly clinging on to this sleeve, she should place her hand into his. And so she did. As she put her hand into his, and as his long fingers encircled her’s, she felt she could let go of her rigid panic and concentrate on his unspoken guidance. When they went up he usually took the lead and pulled her after him, downwards he was in front to break a possible fall. Every time a difficulty blocked the way and she was just beginning to wonder how to proceed, he had already mapped out a path and steered her in the right direction.
In this fashion they continued for what seemed a very long time when all of a sudden their trail petered out and disappeared into an immense chaos of rocks. They had reached a section of the gallery where the ground was strewn with giant-sized blocks of rock and the vaulted ceiling was covered with innumerable stalactites of various lengths and sizes. The atmosphere, too, had changed and had become almost otherworldly, bleak, confined and claustrophobic. More by instinct than by sight or judgment, they found ways of climbing over the rocks, or else, of squeezing between them. And still the uneven terrain continued, taking them sometimes down, then up and down again; walls suddenly closed in on them only to widen out once more while unexpected overhanging rocks had to be dodged time and again.
→ Cave Art: An Intuition of Eternity
→ Dr. Ilse Vickers
→ Bradshaw Foundation Homepage
→ French Cave Paintings & Rock Art Archive