Occitanie has played a central role in our understanding of prehistory, and Ariège boasts more prehistoric caves than any other department in France. Over a period of several months last year, I visited several of the ones that are open to the public. The prehistorians who were involved in the discovery or interpretation of these grottes were in many cases the same internationally renowned experts who explored even more famous caves which lie just outside my region (Lascaux, Les Eyzies and the Grotte de Chauvet, for example). They included people like Émile Cartailhac who, in 1882, took up a post at the faculty of science in Toulouse and became the first academic in France to teach prehistoric archaeology. And a young priest called Henri Breuil who, over the next 60 years, would become even more influential than Cartailhac. And more recently, Jean Clottes, the man who was called upon to assess the Grotte de Chauvet when it was rediscovered in 1994.
Grotte de Mas d’Azil
Lost in gentle hills to the west of Pamiers. the most astonishing aspect of the Grotte de Mas d’Azil is that you can drive right through it on the D119. For a more relaxed visit, leave your vehicle in the car park just beyond the upstream entrance, maybe pause at the café for a refreshment and then stroll underground alongside the river until you reach the ticket office and entrance to the prehistoric section.
Although the road seems out of place, its construction in the 1850s was the first step towards the discovery of the cavern’s archaeological importance. That first road was swept away by a flood in 1875, so it was rebuilt higher up. This second tranche of works unearthed prehistoric objects such as bones, tools and weapons, and given the site’s easy access, it is perhaps unsurprising that it soon attracted private collectors as well as geologists and archaeologists. In 1902 Henri Breuil discovered the first cave paintings. More rock art has been discovered since – both painted and engraved – but at Mas d’Azil, the greatest interest lies in the objects.
Among the most intriguing finds is a tooth carved with an ibex on each side. A fine piece of work, no doubt, but it was the tooth itself that caught the eye of the archaeologists: it belonged to a sperm whale. Now, even in prehistoric times there were no sperm whales anywhere near Mas d’Azil. The presence of this tooth, and the wide range of materials, styles and techniques used to make many of the other objects found here suggest that Mas d’Azil was an important trading centre, or at least a communications hub through which Stone Age traders passed regularly.
Many of the other objects found in this cave (or in some cases, copies) are on display at the Museum of Prehistory in the village of Le Mas d’Azil a couple of kilometres downstream.
FOLLOW THESE LINKS TO READ OTHER SECTIONS OF THIS POST:
Prehistoric caves of Occitanie 1: Grotte d’Aurignac
Prehistoric caves of Occitanie 2: Grotte de Niaux
Prehistoric caves of Occitanie 3: Grotte de Bédeilhac
Prehistoric caves of Occitanie 4: Grotte de Gargas
Prehistoric caves of Occitanie 6: Caune de l’Arago and the Tautavel museum of prehistory
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Colin Duncan Taylor
"I have been living in the south of France for 20 years, and through my books and my blog, I endeavour to share my love for the history and gastronomy of Occitanie and the Pyrenees."