Monday, January 17, 2011

An Archeology Dig Site in Southern France

Suddenly I no longer wanted to idle away the morning watching the sun rise.  Dropping a few Euros on the table I stood, shrugged into my jacket and followed the Professeur out to his pride and joy, a vintage grey Citroen and we headed out of Marseilles.  As usual he drove like a maniac.  My fingers dug into the upholstery as the car swept through the streets.  What scared me even more was that, like a true Frenchman, the Professeur waved his arms a lot as recounted the tale of the cave’s discovery.
“I have a student at the university, Marcel Depuis.  He is both young and athletic, a very outdoors type of person.  In his spare time he is a volunteer with the local search and rescue group. 
About 6 months ago, some tourists were hiking around the Garbalan when a crevice opened up and swallowed one of them.  His partners called for the rescue squad and luckily young Marcel was part of the team.  They extricated the tourist from his predicament and as he was only slightly injured he quickly went on his way.  However, during the rescue Marcel had noticed that the newly opened crevice had a deeper opening where it entered the rock face, hidden from the outside, only revealed now because of the clumsy tourists fall.
Have you heard of the Chauvet cave?”   He veered off subject as he swerved around a pedestrian who’d been foolish enough to step off the sidewalk.  “It was found just a few years, less than two hundred kilometers north of where we are right now.  It contains some of the finest Stone Age cave art ever found in France, believed to be as much as thirty thousand years old.  Perhaps Marcel had dreams of finding another such wonder.  Anyway, he explored the cave and found it led directly back into the cliff for several hundred feet and then ended in a small grotto.  At that point he acted with surprising intelligence for one so young.  He touched nothing and reported his find to me.  I may even give him an A for his course work for that single action.”
He chuckled to himself, turned onto the main highway heading east and the Citroen surged forward.  I’m sure he thought he was on a German Autobahn!
“So,” he continued, calmly ignoring both the traffic and my reactions.  “Marcel and I came down here the next day.  The grotto is small, but holds dozens of large clay amphorae, the kind the ancient Greeks used for storing food stuffs like grain and wine.   I took many pictures.  As you may know, the University Chancellor and I are on very good terms and when I showed him the pictures he immediately agreed to fund an excavation.  Within two weeks we had removed a single amphora back to the University.  When we opened the vase, we found it contained almost forty scrolls, all sealed in wax.  It took almost four weeks of careful work to open the first few scrolls and that’s when it got really exciting.  The first scroll we unrolled was written in first century Aramaic, the second in Coptic, the third in Hebrew and the forth in early Greek.   That was when I called you to join us!”
We’d been driving east from Marseille all this time and by now I thought I could see occasional glimpses of the Garbalan through the trees.   The hills gradually rose around us as we approached the town of Aubagne and the white crown of rock that was the Garbalan Massif formed a striking backdrop to the town.
The Professeur drove into the centre of town and then headed north, mounting up the slopes of the Garbalan itself.   As the trees fell away from the sides of the road I could finally see the Massif clearly.  What had looked like a snow cap from a distance turned out to be a surprisingly white rock, almost completely bare of vegetation.  Where the sun hit the rock it shone as if illuminated from within.  The crest of the Garbalan made me think of an eyebrow, looming out slightly over empty space. Two thousand two hundred feet high doesn’t sound particularly high as mountains go, but from under the peak it gave me an uncomfortable feeling.  The mountain hung above me, brooding, as if waiting to fall and crush me.  About three quarters of the way up the Professeur swung the car off the dirt road and parked beside a couple of other cars on the hillside.  We got out and I looked around.  Marseille lay towards the west, on my right.  The valley spread out below me, changing from the white rock around me to dusty brown and then into the bright rich greens of the spring trees of southern France.  Beyond, on the horizon, I could see the brilliant blue of the Mediterranean, sunlight glinting off the waves.
The Professeur came up behind me. 
“Beautiful is it not?  They say that the galleys of ancient Rome and Egypt used this mount as their guide, like a lighthouse beacon, to lead them from far out at sea in towards the port of Massilia, which in time became Marseille.  If the winds were good, the trip from Alexandria to Massilia would normally take perhaps 20 to 25 days.  This gleaming mount behind us must have been a welcoming sight to see after so many days on the water.    I’m sure I would have been overjoyed to see it after I’d been at sea for three or four weeks in a Roman galley.  But come, we’re here for other reasons.”
He turned away, casually dismissing the incredible view and lead me towards the cliff face.
The path we followed was rough, barely even a goat trail and led to a narrow crevice in the face of the rock.   Here mounds of loose rock lay about, obviously freshly fallen from above.  A small generator sat off to one side, quietly humming to itself.
“Careful where you step.” said the Professeur.  “The team cleared away only enough to allow us to get into the cave, though they intend to come back later and see if there is anything of interest under all this rubble.  You know archeologists, quite happy to sift through tons of rock to find a single potsherd.”
I had to laugh.  I’d spent many months on dig sites, carefully removing dirt a spoonful at a time. I remembered my very first dig, with my uncle at Drumheller, in Alberta, Canada.  We spent a morning excavating a dinosaur bone from the slate, using only needle probes and fine camel-hair paint-brushes, prying the dirt away from the bone millimeter by millimeter.  I remember holding that bone, running my fingers over its surface.  I swore I could feel the millions of years of time infusing the bone, giving it something more than just weight.  Touching that bone gave me a sense of wonder that a thing could be imbued with such an aura of age, awe and mystery. I was so proud of that first bone.  I still have it somewhere, stacked away with my many other treasures.
Looking into the crevice revealed… nothing much.  From the outside it looked like it dead-ended about 40 feet in.  As the Professeur drew me in I realized that just at the end the passage did a little jog left, then a sharp turn right.  The little jog left was enough to hide the deeper entrance, making the crevice of little interest to anyone unless they actually walked all the way to the back.
As I moved into the crevice the walls above me sloped inwards and then joined overhead, forming an enclosed cave.  The tourist must have fallen in from above the front of the crevice and slide towards the back.  It was only the fact that the rescue team had to move deeper into the crevice to get the man out that Marcel had noticed the deeper cave entrance at all.  Such is the game of archeology; sometimes walking one extra foot can mean the difference between making a discovery and missing it entirely.
We rounded the sharp right turn at the back of the crevice and moved deeper into the cave, careful not to trip on the power cords weaving across the uneven rock floor.  There were flood lights every few feet, illuminating the dark.  The tunnel was no more than five feet wide here and it meandered around as it went back, so you couldn’t see more than twenty feet or so in front of you before the line of sight was blocked by the cave walls.  Looking at the ceiling I could see smoke trails, possibly left by ancient torches two thousand years in the past.  The passage extended back a long way, three or four hundred feet at least.  At the end of the tunnel it opened up into a fairly large grotto, maybe forty feet across, roughly circular in shape, with a domed ceiling.   The floor was surprisingly smooth and even and I thought that perhaps it may have been artificially leveled at some time in the past.  Towards the back of the grotto the floor sloped gently up and formed a slightly raised platform.  On the platform lay a number of large amphorae, most still half covered under broken rubble.
There were four people in the grotto, three working carefully around an amphora, in the process of extricating it.  The forth was taking photos as the excavation progressed.  He noticed us as we approached and turned to greet us. 
“Ah, Professeur.  Welcome.  And you mademoiselle, must be Jeanne-Marie, our expert translator.  I am Jacques Denois, the supposed leader of this little dig.”
He smiled, transferred the camera to his left hand and shook hands with us. 
“What do you think?” he exclaimed, making a sweeping gesture back towards the platform.  “We’ve extracted 10 jars so far and believe there are probably at least thirty more hidden under the rubble.”
He walked us around the cave, pointing out where they’d extracted the amphora and the smoke marks on the walls that must have come from ancient torches.  Jacque motioned towards the back of the cave.  “Look at the cave and the way the jars are stored and tell me if you see anything interesting.”
He gave us a few minutes.  I scanned the cave, looking for anything out of the ordinary.  Nothing really jumped out at me, but then I haven’t been in many caves.
“You may not have ever had the chance,” he continued after a moment, “but I was lucky enough to be able to visit the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in Israel.  A couple of years later, I also saw the caves where the Nag Hammadi Scrolls were found in Egypt.  In both locations I got the feeling that the people who hid the scrolls simply dumped them in the first available cave, possibly in a hurry.  The scrolls were put in jars, the jars sealed and then placed in the caves, apparently with no great planning.  This cave is different.  Do you see?”  He gestured again towards the raised area.
“These jars are placed on the platform at the back of the cave, which is raised a little higher than the cave floor.  Not only that, but they are laid on a bed of broken rock, almost a gravel.  The back of the cave slopes very gently down to the front of the cave and you may not have noticed it when you came in, but the tunnel entrance to the cave is also very gently sloped.  If any water leaking from the rocks above us were to enter this cave, it would tend to flow quite naturally out the entrance and away down the hill outside.   Any water around the jars would flow through the loose rocks under the jars, rather than around the jars themselves.”
“Not only that,” he continued, excitement creeping into his voice, “but the jars themselves are unusual.  Each one is covered with a thick wax coating.  The one jar that we’ve already opened had a thick wax coating on both the outside and the inside and the mouth of the jar was very heavily sealed, much more so than you would normally expect.  All the jars are laid on the rocks in the same way, lying down on their sides, but with the mouth higher than the rest of the jar itself.  It would be exceedingly hard for water to enter the jars.  In fact I’d guess the cave would have to be flooded to a depth of four or five feet before that would happen.  A most unlikely event.  The loose rock covering the jars also provides protection from any debris falling from the cave roof above.”
“In my estimation and I see from your expressions that you already think the same, this cave was very carefully designed and prepared to store the jars, probably with the intention of protecting them for many years.  It obviously worked with amazing success.  If the initial dating of the first scrolls is correct, this secret cache of jars was deliberately and carefully hidden some 2,000 years ago and has remained hidden and undisturbed ever since.  The first jar contained some forty scrolls.  If the others also contain documents, well, we’ll have found a veritable library.”
“Astounding!”  Exclaimed the Professeur, shaking his head.  “Simply astounding!” 
For once, he seemed to be at a loss for words.  The idea raised all sorts of questions.  Who would go to so much effort to protect these amphorae?  Why?  What was so important about them?  Was the intent really to hide them for all this time, or was that an accident?  What could be in the jars that warranted such care?  If they did contain scrolls, then perhaps the documents themselves would reveal the answers.  I thought of all the languages the first few scrolls had covered.  Perhaps we’d end up with more questions than answers.
We walked carefully around the cave for a few more minutes, each lost in our own thoughts.  This cave could hold all sorts of surprises.
“Well, Jacques,” the Professeur said, obviously a bit tired of looking at rocks now the initial excitement was over.  “We should have the lab in Marseille set up and running in the next few days.  Now that Jeanne-Marie is here we will soon find out what we have.”
“Excellent!” replied Jacques.  “And we should have the next few jars ready for shipment within a day or so.  Progress on all fronts!”
With that we said our goodbyes and made our way back down the tunnel, emerging at last into the sunlight.  The view from the rocks out towards the sea had a different feel to it now.  If I squinted my eyes a bit I could almost see the ancient galleys making their way west along the coast, skimming across the crested waves, heading towards port in ancient Massilia.  The drive back to Marseille was surprisingly quiet, as we each mulled over our own thoughts.

No comments:

Post a Comment