Man and nature, limestone and water
Landmarks denoting the passing centuries are particularly numerous in the Lot. Traces of the art present in our distant ancestors’ daily lives, cave paintings, specimens of tools, vestiges of human occupation abound. Living water is omnipresent beneath the causse and has shaped fantastical landscapes under the thick rock vaults.
The Lot Departement has enormous potential for archaeological discoveries, both historic and prehistoric. Within the Midi-Pyrenees region, it is a centre of excellence in archaeological research. Various museums present the Lot’s paleontological and archaeological wealth to the public. Prehistory (caves, rock shelters, animal traps, dolmens, etc.) is by far the dominant subject and period at Departemental level; yet the Lot has other potentially important elements (protohistoric hill-forts, remarkable mediaeval civil, religious and military architecture, etc.).
Paleontology occupies an important place in the Lot’s heritage. Two areas are recognised as being of worldwide significance:
- the phosphorite sites on the Causse de Limogne. These sites in Quercy have already enriched the collections of some of the largest museums on the planet, as certain animal species are only known of through one single specimen found on one of these sites.
- the Secondary era rocks containing dinosaur prints, concentrated in a west-east band (from Crayssac to Figeac) to the north of the Lot valley. The best known of these is Pterosaur Beach in the commune of Crayssac.
To these should also be added the important discoveries of fauna found in cavities in the limestone. During the A20 motorway building work, the skeleton of a Cave lioness was found, quite by chance, whilst a cavity was being cleared on the Brive-Souillac section. The discovery of this young cave lioness, species which appeared in Europe about 300 000 years ago and died out about 12 000 years ago, was an exceptional event.
The first human communities appeared in Quercy around 300 to 400,000 years B.C. About 40,000 years B.C., a new wave of human colonisation, by Cro-Magnon Man, progressively took the place of the last Neanderthals. Very many sites in the Lot attest to the presence of numerous communities installed in caves or rock shelters in the valleys, and even in encampments on the plateaux. Cave art has been the major factor in bringing these communities to our attention. They used vast underground cave networks (Pech Merle in Cabrerets, Cougnac in Payrignac, etc.) as well as small caves (Les Merveilles in Rocamadour, Lagrave in Faycelles, etc.). In all, more than 20 sites in the Lot harbour painted or engraved prehistoric artworks. Two prime sites open to the public stand out: the paintings in the Pech Merle caves above Cabrerets and in Cougnac caves in Payrignac. In the Neolithic period, in caves or shelters, different cultures emerged, defining regional profiles. It was at the end of this period, between 3,200 and 2,000 years B.C., that the first megalithic burial sites were constructed. The Lot has the third largest number of megalithic monuments in France, about 500, after the Aveyron and the Ardeche.
During the protohistoric period, the society of the local Gauls (Cadurci) began to develop, opening up to Central European and Mediterranean influences. Largely dominated by rock shelter dwellings during the BronzeAge (roughly 2,000 to 750B.C.), the landscape of Quercy changed between 750 and 51 B.C. Farming hamlets developed, and a move towards urbanisation began with the construction of hill forts protected by a dry stone rampart or a “murus gallicus”, i.e. a structure made of wooden beams held together by iron nails and filled in with stone rubble, with dressed stone on the outer face. The majority of information we have about these populations comes from the funerary monuments in the many tumulus burial sites excavated in Quercy.
The end of this period was marked by a violent event which brought Quercy into history proper: the siege of Uxellodunum (Puy d’lssolud in Vayrac) in 51 B.C., the final episode of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars. The territory of the Cadurci was integrated into the province of Aquitaine. Big cities grew up or were transformed on the Roman model: a very few vestiges still remain in Cahors, such as the Arc de Diane, once part of the baths. Aqueducts serving provincial capitals, along with roads, were the principal elements of development that the Romans brought to their conquered territories. This is the case of the aqueduct that brought water to Cahors (Divona Cadurci) from the Vers valley, from the 1st to 5th century A.D. Amongst the aqueducts serving provincial capitals in Roman Gaul, that of Cahors is one of the most spectacular and best-preserved in the whole country.
Limestone and Water – The Gigantic Chasm
A must-see for thousands of tourists, Padirac Chasm is astonishing first of all by its sheer size: a round hole more than thirty metres wide by seventy-five metres deep. Since the chasm was discovered in 1889, people have wondered when and how the roof of part of this cave complex collapsed, blocking the course of an underground river. From the time of the discovery until the present day, several expeditions have explored the river and underground galleries. In 1996, a team of speleologists traversed all the 21 km of galleries for the first time, going through the 22 siphons between the chasm and the Finou resurgence.
An amazing “journey to the centre of the earth” is offered by the Lacave caves. Subtle ultra-violet or coloured lighting effects make fantastical cities emerge from the stone. Down in the limpid waters, concretions and petrified cascades reach back to the depths of Time.
Close to the Dordogne, the Cougnac caves offer the visitor a labyrinth of snow-white concretions and beautiful cave paintings. The particular interest of these caves resides in the abundance of fascinating rock formations surrounding some remarkable prehistoric paintings: ibex, mammoths, large deer, sketchy human figures, various signs, etc. Not forgetting the caves of Bellevue in Marcilhac sur Cele, the Merveilles cave in l’Hospitalet in Rocamadour, the Presque caves near St. Cere ….
© CDT du Lot
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