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lake long at 2,000m altitude, mount bego on leftlake long at 2,000m altitude, mount bego on left

Vallée des Merveilles

Rock Art in the French Sea Alps
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Introduction     

These unique engravings at an altitude of 2,500 meters is possibly the highest pre-historic rock art site worldwide. The orange red oxidized rock surfaces used for over 40,000 engravings make it certainly a very special ceremonial site worthwhile visiting. “Marvelous Valley” is the best translation for this unique Neolithic engraving site. The alpine setting is really astonishingly beautiful. Is there a better name for it? If I would have been its first discoverer, I would have called it the Valley of Surprises. Because this was the feeling I got, when we slowly climbed higher and higher and suddenly there was the first red rock covered with horned heads. Unique it truly is as well, because it is the only site in the world, which lies at an amazing altitude of 2,500 meters. The thousands of engraved rocks lie scattered in two alpine valleys around Mont Bégo. I really would not call them valleys, because they lie on the slopes at the highest point at the dead end of those valleys. One thing is very obvious, these high lying valleys were never inhabited. So they certainly were used as pure cult sites. And it looks like, that various ceremonies were practiced here only by a privileged few.

 

typical glacier scrated walltypical glacier scrated wallSituation & Orientation     

Vallée des Merveilles and Fontanalba are situated in the French Sea Alps some 100 km north of Monaco. The two valleys are part of the huge Mercantour National Park, which is stretching along the Italian French border. This region belonged until 1947 to Italy and was assigned to France in a peace treaty. But still today Italian is often spoken and the valleys are frequented by Italians keen on hiking and mountaineering. Mont Bégo lies close to the small alpine town of Tende, which hosts a small museum really worthwhile visiting. I found the small book shop well equipped with books in various languages. From there it is only 20 km to the alpine hamlet of Casterino at an altitude of 1,500 meters. So it takes time to get there over a mountain pass like route with many hairpin bends. Therefore it is advisable to stay at one of the three small hotels in Casterino, because both tours start from there.

 rock formation with the famous “sourcerer” motivrock formation with the famous “sourcerer” motiv

 

Alpine Rock Art     

In the Vallée des Merveilles there are about 60% of all rock art motives and the rest is situated at Fontanalba. In total around 3,700 rocks are covered with about 40,000 engraved depictions and symbols in both valleys. Situated at an altitude of up to 2,700 meters, they are the highest Neolithic rock art in Europe and possibly worldwide. Glaciers from the last Ice Age, which finally disappeared around 6,000 BC, shaved the rock surfaces flat and left them with many shallow horizontal scratches. These were hard schist rocks and they represent 80% of the engraving glacier shaved rock surface with reddish oxidationglacier shaved rock surface with reddish oxidationsurfaces. This gives the valleys a defined beauty and uniqueness, which leaves a deep impression on its visitors.

Unreal Red Orange     

A high iron concentration in the rocks created over time a unique red orange oxidation on their surface. At other rock art sites in northern Africa or the Middle East they are called “desert varnish”. These surfaces are normally found on the wind opposite side of the valleys. The creation process takes over a thousand years. In full sunlight the bright orange looks truly unreal. Only these colored surfaces were used for the typical Vallée des Merveilles rock art. The orange red makes it easy to  “soucerer” motif displaded in large on front page “soucerer” motif displaded in large on front pagerecognize the engraved and scratched motives and symbols, which were all created between 3,200 to 1,800 BC.

 

Ancient Population     

Once the glaciers had disappeared the region was slowly populated. The rock art creators were farmers, herders as well as early miners. Herders were looking for summer pastures for their cattle, sheep and goats and moved their herds up the mountains. Miners found copper and later iron, which was an important raw material for weapons. In this way these isolated and bare places were found.

 straight & curved horn motifs above “soucerer”straight & curved horn motifs above “soucerer”

No Settlements Found    

Because of the rough and hostile climate there were no permanent settlement sites at this altitude. These certainly were built in the lower lying valleys around Tende. But no settlements have been discovered there yet. Possibly the medival settlements along the salt route were built on top. We can assume, that the local herders explored these alpine valleys and used the lower parts with pastures. But the higher lying bare rocky parts above the tree and shrub line were ideal for ritual and cult purposes. It is obvious that the high altitude had an important cosmic relevance. We can also assume that Mont Bégo as highest point in the area might have been regarded as a holy mountain. Taking the ritual center idea further, it is possible that only shamans and clan leaders were allowed to practice their sacrifices to gods and other ceremonies at these sites.

 

composition with horned heads, two daggers, 
plough in the middle and geometric motifs composition with horned heads, two daggers, plough in the middle and geometric motifs composition with multiple motifs - horned heads, 
daggers, possibly dog & filigrane tree form composition with multiple motifs - horned heads, daggers, possibly dog & filigrane tree form

 

 

 

 

 









Cosmic Importance    

The motives of engravings suggest that rituals possibly included intensive fertility cults, various sacrifices to divinities, regular cosmological contacts and the search for oracles. In addition some motives and symbols might be glacier flat shaved rockglacier flat shaved rockexplained in connection with ownership and justice purposes, plus burial rituals. This assumption can be made based on various facts, the high altitude of the site close to gods, the numerous divine motives and finally the missing of general motives, which are present at other lower lying sites in Europe.

 

Dream Picture     

The enormous quietness with only the sound of wind to hear, I had the overwhelming feeling to be totally at the mercy of these impressive mountains and pure natural forces. A film started to play in front of my eyes. I saw a small group people in long white robes coming up the steep mountain slope. An elder was leading the others and used a long baton to balance himself between the huge boulders. As he stopped I recognized the reddish colored flat rock surface with a small grassless area in front. The group waited at a distance and the elder performed a singing ritual and touched the rock regularly. One of the group gave him a ceramic water can, which he used to clean to rock. Now I saw the various engravings around a human looking figure with horns. The group also sacrifized food to the gods. They stayed the whole night and sang and danced around a fire place, until the elder fall into trance. He behaved and shouted weirdly and pointed various times to the figure on the rock. They came here to pray for good harvests and the important contact with the deities have been established. Their wishes were passed on via their representative on earth the shaman. When the morning broke, they quietly returned down the mountain as if nothing has happened. This could have been one of the many different ceremonies being performed here I imagined. But unfortunately all this is an assumption with no archaeological proof.

 

famous “soucerer”famous “soucerer”previously a horned head 
converted later in to face
today called “christ”previously a horned head converted later in to face today called “christ” rare geometric squares rare geometric squares

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Similar Valcamonica   

One site with similar depictions must be mentioned here. With over 400,000 motives this is the biggest Neolithic rock art site in the Alps. It is situated 70 km north of Brescia in northern Italy. The distance between the two sites is around 400 km. Nevertheless we find many similar signs. But the engravings started around the same time about 5,000 years ago. Please see the table in this article for this comparison.

 

farmer with plough & 2 oxenfarmer with plough & 2 oxen

 Various Motives

Compared to other rock art sites I visited, the number of different motives of engravings is more limited here. We can divide them into four groups of depictions and symbols. The majority approximately two thirds are horned animals. Mostly heads only have been depicted with simple straight or curved horns. They possibly represent a bull god with a fertility or strength connotation. I could not follow the water praising theory linking the horns  to praising arms, which was explained by some local guides. With the inherent climatic conditions at the time water was not the problem. Unfortunately they are not experts on rock art.

 

 two different ploughstwo different ploughs

 

 

 

 

 

 

Depicted Deities

Rather rare here are anthropomorphic figures. Nevertheless these few made Vallée des Merveilles famous. These  another rock with plenty of motifs another rock with plenty of motifsengravings seem to represent divine figures. We can assume, that two main divine powers were worshipped and sacrificed to. First and most important was the bull good worshipped for fertility. Secondly the earth goddess was prayed to for good harvests, because inhabitants were settled farmers and fully dependent on sufficient harvests.

 

Famous Figures

There is a rather important distinction, which indicate gods and divine figures at this site. They were always carved with inward turned feet. Normal human close up detail of the rock aboveclose up detail of the rock abovefigures were depicted in the usual way with outward pointing feet. Some figures are shown with weapons indicating either field work or unknown rituals. The most famous human figures are called by locals the “saucer”, “christ”, “tribal chief”, “dancer” or “zickzack armed man”.

 

Fighting Scenes

But it is interesting that at Vallée des Merveilles fighting scenes found at various other rock art sites are absent here. Only a few engravings could

motives on rocks can be easily overseenmotives on rocks can be easily overseenbe identified more as competitive sport scenes than warrior fighting activities. But this does not mean that fighting took not place in the area. Only that it was not part of the rituals practiced here.

 

Plough Pulling Motifs

We already mentioned that farming at the time was the main life supporting activity. Therefore it is no surprise to find amongst the engravings various interesting plough pulling depictions. These creations always include two oxen pulling the plough with a human figure behind. The perspective is shown in the rather simple flat view from the top. Sometimes the plough is even depicted alone.

 

Geometric Forms

But there are also numerous geometric designs of still unknown meaning and purpose. We can see here the typical crosses, stars, circles, including concentric circles and spirals. Spirals appear in two forms, either of the outgoing open type or as closed version. Rectangular boxes never appear single, but always as square chess board or in rectangular form or in net shape.

 

 composition with multiple motifs - horned heads, 
daggers, possibly dog & filigrane tree form composition with multiple motifs - horned heads, daggers, possibly dog & filigrane tree form Plenty Weapons

I was surprised to see many single weapons here. Only few are shown being used or attached to a human figure. At other sites I was used to see weapons always in use, meaning in the hands of warrior. The depiction of various daggers in line might indicate that they were produced here for trade and represented an important income and wealth accumulation. In addition we recognized halberds, axes of various forms and sickles for farming purposes.

 

Rocks Engraved

The great majority of rocks used for engravings are schist. In the Vallée des Merveilles and Fontanalba Valley they come in different base colors. Only a few are typical blackish schist, but the majority is of a more greyish to yellowish color. But the engraved surfaces are all greyish with different patina indicating their age.

 

Engraving Techniques

Most engravings are done by pecking. Only a few images were created by direct pecking with a hand axe stone tool. This technique was normally is first used and is regarded as the more ancient way to create rock art images. Therefore these depictions look rather crude. More precise pecking was possible using a second stone tool as chisel, called indirect pecking. Most engraved motived were generated using this technique.

 

Scratching Techniquesummary of various motives found at different sites, many of which are also found heresummary of various motives found at different sites, many of which are also found here

Scratching was used here at a later stage for filigree line figures, which are difficult to recognize today. These images can best be seen at night with an artificial light source illuminating it from a side angle. Scratching can also be used when rock surfaces are covered with oxidation like it is typical for Vallée des Merveilles. The colored surface can be scratched away easily with a stone tool scraper, also used to prepare hides. This tool can be re-sharpened easily on site to work on a larger composition.

 

Engravings Patina

On various photos we see the difference in patina of the engravings. The older the darker the engraved areas are. In this way we can also see, that the directly pecked images are older, then the more precise indirectly pecked motives. Some few rocks contained copper and oxidized in a greenish color.

 

another interesting depiction of plough pullinganother interesting depiction of plough pullingone of the few cup mark circles seen hereone of the few cup mark circles seen here

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Fallen Rock

This rock is a perfect example of well-preserved carvings. I looks astonishing new, like engraved yesterday without any patina and traces of aging. The reason is, that it must have been partly covered and protected by a huge fallen boulder. This must have happened shortly after the images were engraved. But the motives indicate, that they do not belong to the initial and most active period of engravings.

 

Summary

Vallée des Merveilles is really worthwhile the long trip and the necessary high altitude hike to get there. The orange red color of the rock surfaces is so fascinating and gives the engravings a special effect and certainly uniqueness. The color changes depending on sunlight and cloud conditions from light pink to rose and bright orange red. I found this spectacle a nice play of light and color. It is unfortunate that these engravings have not been studied in detail, like at other sites. But again I have to admit that rock art interpretation is a difficult subject.

 

Travel Tips

The Vallee des Merveilles sites can only be visited during summer, when the snow has melted totally. You can fly to Nice, rent a car and drive the 150 km to Tende or Casterino. Tende has a museum worthwhile visiting first. The bookshop is well equipped with books in various languages. I would recommend the Chamois d’Or Hotel at Casterino, starting point of both tours Tel: +33 493046666. Casterino consists only of 3 small hotels/hostels and lies at an altitude of 1,500 meters. Book your guide beforehand online or via the hotel. Without guide you will not be able to find all sites and the most important sites are only allowed to be visited with guides. The guides will take you by 4x4 on a very rocky path along many steep cliffs up to 2,000 meters. You and your gear need to be fit for mountain hiking and the two tours will take a full day.

 

Further Reading

Emmanuel Breteau, Roches de Memoire, 5,000 ans d'art rupestre dans les Alpes, Editions Errance, Paris (2010). ISBN 978-2-87772-422-7.

Wilfried Klein, Vallee des Merveilles et Fontanalbe (2012)

 

Weblinks

http://www.mercantour.eu/index.php/nature-et-culture/la-vallee-des-merveilles

http://www.destination-merveilles.com/vallee-merveilles/

http://www.museedesmerveilles.com