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Grottes D'Arcy & St. More Massifs
Prehistoric Caves representing a timeline of human occupation says Marilyn Floyd
Cast your mind back some one and a half million years to when a warm, shallow sea lapped around the southernmost parts of the Paris basin. Imagine the coral reefs expanding thanks to trillions of tiny chalk-making creatures. When the sea finally retreated it left a massif of limestone which was shaped and eroded by the River Cure – flowing straight from the gravely granite heights of the Morvan Forest.
Where the river couldn’t cut through – it went round. Thus the two giant meanders at Arcy-sur-Cure and St. Moré were formed. There was a third meander – but time and the River dislodged a giant rock, now called ‘Rocher de la Vierge’, which fell in its path and made it change course. Over the millennia rain, slightly acidic with carbon dioxide, ate into the limestone and formed the cave network. The resulting area is designated an ‘historical monument and an archaeological site of national interest’.
It comes highly recommended. You can take a guided tour through the Great Cave of Arcy, or boldly go on your own to explore the caves of St. Moré – this latter expedition being only for the truly intrepid, and sound of wind and limb.
"There’s a large pond in which an upside-down reflection of the cave above presents a plausible miniature world with a village, shoreline and crenellated castle."
In the Grottes d’Arcy prepare to be astonished at the limestone rock formations. This is Wookey Hole on a grand scale. You can be forgiven for believing at times that you are on a sci-fi film set. It seems improbable that such fantastic shapes and sculptures have been fashioned simply through the action of water on calcareous rock. The ‘mites and ‘tites transform caverns into weird rooms of cathedral proportions. It’s no wonder that in our attempts to comprehend and order what we see, that we’ve given homely names to certain structures and formations. So we wander through ‘La Salle de la Danse’ (The Dance Room), ‘La Salle de la Draperie’ (The Room of Curtains), the ‘La Salle des Vagues de la Mer’ (Sea Waves Room) and ‘Lavoir des Fées’ (The Fairies’ Wash House). There’s a large pond in which an upside-down reflection of the cave above presents a plausible miniature world with a village, shoreline and crenellated castle. We can let our imaginations loose on the random shapes that seem to resonate with religious significance – ‘Le Calvaire’ (the Calvaries), ‘La Salle de la Vierge’ (Virgins with Child), ‘Le Cierge Pascal’ (the Pascal Candle) and of course, the ‘La Coquille St. Jaques (Scallop Shell) – the familiar emblem of pilgrims on this ancient route to Compostela under the guardianship of the Knights Templar. We’re certainly in a place of extraordinary manifestations.
A Timeline of Evolution
One of the most astonishing aspects of this whole site is that it represents a timeline of human occupation. Remains of almost all the stages of human evolution have been discovered here, their origins dating back more than 250,000 years. The most ancient are bone fragments from Neanderthal man found in the Hyena Cave and more recently in June 2014 in the Bison Cave when the University of Montreal team under Luc Doyon and his team revealed that the bone tools were used by Neanderthal man dating to between 55,000 and 60,000 years of age. The edges of the implements have been honed with a hard surface, probably rock, and the tools are thought to have been used for butchering game and multiple uses such as scraping hides.
Neanderthals disappeared about 30,000 years ago to be followed by Cro Magnon man who, it is said, differed very little from us. He was essentially a hunter-gatherer, used tools and weapons for hunting, and was responsible for the cave paintings and engravings. He would probably have brought back the kill to the rest of his family/tribe living in the outer caves. The reindeer provided almost everything on Mrs. Cro Magnon’s shopping list. But horses, mammoths and ibex have also been identified. (see Solutré) Neolithic man followed him. Quite what happened to Cro Magnon remains a mystery.
"The Great Cave contains engravings and paintings of 20 mammoths."
Some of the earliest art ever discovered has been found in the Arcy caves. The Horse Cave, which is not open to the public because of its inaccessibility and the vulnerability of the art work, contains engravings in a good state of preservation. There are bison, deer and abstract designs, and eight more or less complete mammoths. The Great Cave contains engravings and paintings of 20 mammoths (including a carved one), bears, oxen, horses, a rhinoceros, bison, a bird and a big cat and eight hand prints. There are also miscellaneous designs. As with all prehistoric art you need a good imagination. The guide will happily help you to look and see what’s there. But the hand prints are quite distinctive. And eerie. What on earth was their purpose?
The guide is French, but there is a free photocopied sheet in English to accompany your tour of the caves.
La Roche Taillee
As well as the caves, the environs of the Arcy and St. Moré massif present some other ancient attractions. If you walk from the Grottes d’Arcy car park along the meander of the River Cure towards St. Moré you will pass two pathways rising steeply up the cliff to your right.
Carving of a Wood Nymph
The first is signposted ‘La Roche Taillée’. Follow these signs and after about 3 kms you will come to a Merovingian sarcophagus quarry in the side of a solid cliff-face. It looks as if the workers downed-tools and just walked off the job. There are half quarried slabs, and work-in-progress. There’s no explanation as to why there is this Marie Celeste feel about the place. In the 1930s an artist responded to the strange atmosphere by carving the head and torso of a wood nymph out of a piece of fallen rock. It’s not at all obvious, and you have to really look to see it.
The second pathway off to your right has lost its signpost. It can only be identified by the log steps that have been helpfully placed at the beginning to make the climb easier. It leads to a clear pool fed by a spring coming out of the cliff side. It is a magical discovery.
It is now a Catholic shrine and was until the last century, the destination for an annual pilgrimage from the small village of Girolles. Although how elderly people – or youngsters come to that – managed to clamber up there remains a mystery. But before the Church got hold of it, it was dedicated to the ancient Celtic god Borvo.
Borvo was a male healing spring deity and is often depicted as a naked man sitting on a rock holding a cup or plate of fruit. His name is associated in Burgundy with settlements near springs or spa waters such as Bourbon-Lancy.
From yet another era the Romans had a strong presence at Camp Cora on the cliffs above St. Moré. This is a well-signposted and interesting site showing the fortifications and ramparts built of stone in a herringbone design.
Agrippa’s road from Boulogne to Lyon passes by, and fords the River Cure at St. Moré. Beyond the Camp site there is a magnificent view of the River Cure valley towards Voutenay.
Up there amongst the rare wild flowers and lark song it is possible to feel a part of the human continuum that has been in this valley since time began.
How to Get There
The Grottes d’Arcy are to be found south of Arcy-sur-Cure with the entrance to the car park off the main N6 road some 15 km north of Avallon.
Open from April to November, 10.00–12.00 and 14.00–17.30.
Archaeological excursions to the St. Moré sites
on the river meander, including Camp Cora
Places to stay