Pech Merle Cave, a major tourist site

Pech Merle Cave is one of the key tourist sites in the Célé Valley.

Pech Merle Cave - Neolithic Mother-Goddess
Neolithic Mother-Goddess

However, Pech Merle is less famous than Lascaux, in the neighbouring Vézère Valley in the Dordogne.

Both caves were discovered in the inter war, but Lascaux benefited from an excessive notoriety that led it almost to the edge of disaster.

Pech Merle is indeed ran in a far less high profile way; the number of visitors is indeed limited to 25 per visit which are spaced every 20mn.

There are therefore never more than 75 visitors at the same time in the cave; the third group begins the tour, while the first ends it and the second is half-way through.

The moisture produced by respiration and body heat therefore has minimal impact.

The cave is huge and spreads out over hundreds of meters so groups are never near each other.

The guide controls the light system during his/her commentary to avoid the warming of air and therefore the appearance of moisture.

Reconstitution of painting in Pech Merle Cave Museum
Reconstitution of painting in Pech Merle Museum

These restrictions are necessary in order to avoid a situation similar to that of Lascaux.

In high season, the ticket office doesn’t sell more than 10 reserved tickets per visit.

The 15 remaining tickets are therefore available to whoever couldn’t book on line or by phone and made the effort of coming for the opening of the cave at 9am.

This fair system gives everyone a chance.

The story of the discovery of Pech Merle Cave is straight out of a popular French novel.

The discovery of Pech Merle

Pech Merle Cave - Cave paintings - Ibex
Cave paintings – Ibex

Two teenagers, who were inspecting a gallery used as a refuge during the French Revolution, discovered the entrance to Pech Merle Cave in 1922.

They then decided to push farther down into the galleries.

To their astonishment, they discovered 35.000 to 20.000-year old wall paintings; those depicted horses, mammoths, bison and bears, but also human figures, foot prints and the extremely rare ‘negative hands’.

Pech Merle is indeed one of the few caves to possess representations of human beings.

The research continued, even after the opening of the cave to the public and the original entrance to the cave was found in 1949.

It now serves as exit, but had to be altered because the distant artists who adorned the cave had to crawl to get inside

Galerie Préhistorique – Mammoths’ Chapel

The guided visit takes visitors along a series of chambers and galleries – don’t worry no crawling is involved.

It starts in the cave’s upper level; a magnificent 7m long frieze depicting mammoths, but also bison, adorn the walls of the Galerie Préhistorique – Mammoths’ Chapel.

Pech Merle Cave - Cave paintings - Horses
Cave paintings – Horses

A little farther, the artist created the shape of his mammoth by re-using the natural irregularities of the rock.

His skills were staggering; he/she only used two strokes to draw the back and belly of the animal; the natural shape and asperities of the rock form the legs, head and trunk.

It is pretty spectacular!

It is quite moving to imagine the artist walking in the darkness in the light of his (or her) torch; it’s easy to imagine his/her excitement at uncovering the basic outline of the mammoth in the face of the rock.

What went through his/her mind then?

Salle des Disques – Hall of Discs

The Hall of Discs – Salle des Disques boasts an amazing display of rock formations that are almost translucent.

Pech Merle Cave - Cave paintings - Dots
Cave paintings – Dots

Huge columns of different shapes, volumes and colours, which range from white to dark yellow and red, create a magic atmosphere; over millennia, the runoff of water shaped imaginary animals, a gigantic stone horse, a Christmas tree and a mosque – to name a few.

This is also where you’ll discover the 17,000 year old footprints of a teenager or a young woman preserved in the clay; are they the prints of the artist who engraved the bear’s head on the next gallery’s wall?

Whoever did it was hugely skilled, as he/she used the concave shape of the rock in order to create the perspective and outlines of the animal’s head.

Pech Merle cave – Negative Hands

Pech Merle Cave is worldwide known for the ‘negative hands’ prints which were discovered in the lower section of the cave; amazingly, they were superimposed at a later date on an existing frieze depicting horses.

Negative hands were obtained by pressing the hand flat on the rock; a liquefied coloured paint was then projected over with a sort of blowpipe; the print appeared once the hand was removed from the wall.

Pech Merle Cave - Negative hand
Negative hand

Their symbolism of these ‘negative hands is unknown.

A recent theory suggests that these hand-prints are feminine and not masculine; their fingers are indeed quite delicate and fine.

This theory, which I support, would change completely our appreciation of Cave Art.

These artists were perhaps shamans or priestesses; they alone had the right to go into the depths of the earth in order to draw, paint or engrave hunting scenes and religious symbols on the walls of the caves.

Try to imagine them entering the wet and black galleries to the light of their rudimentary torches; imagine them surrounded by darkness and discovering the extravagant and sometimes frightening forms of the rocks; imagine them conquering their apprehension, may be even their fear.

Their identity and the meaning of their paintings has been lost in the mists of time.

Without writing it is indeed impossible to know, and the oral tradition has left no trace either.

All we’ve been able to work out so far, is that it took about 3-4 days to create some of these astonishing friezes; the mystery remains…

Combel Gallery

Another painted gallery, connected to the Combel Gallery (exit) was later discovered; this gallery is not open to the public, as visitors would have to crawl through a 40m long and 1m wide corridor!

Tree that grows above Pech Merle cave
Tree that grows above the cave

Amazingly, the roots of an oak tree dug its way through the ceiling of the cave in order to anchor themselves in the ground.

The tree can be seen by the entrance to the cave; a big question mark painted on its bark makes it easy to identify.

Musée Amédée Lemozi

The ticket covers the entrance to the Musée Amédée Lemozi.

The museum displays Lower Paleolithic tools, weapons, bones and artifacts excavated from the many prehistoric sites in Quercy.

It also exhibits the stunning statuette of the Neolithic Mother-Goddess (the Universal Progenitor); this statuette, discovered in Capdenac-le-Haut, dates from 3150BC.

Finally, the museum is also a research centre where the various artifacts are examined and classified.

It is recommended to book online during summer – remember only 10 places available online per visit!

Department of Lot – Cabrerets
Coordinates: Lat 44.507371 – Long 1.644181

Photos via Wikimedia Commons:  Negative hand Horses and negative hand reconstitution Public Domain

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