Just Like Old Times
The Gorges de Verdon present one of Europe’s most spectacular series of vistas and they justifiably attract tens of thousands of visitors every year. But further downstream beyond the lac de Ste-Croix is a less obvious attraction that offers both spectacle and an insight into the distant past.
The Museum of Prehistory at Quinson, which opened in 2001, is Europe’s largest of its kind and benefits from its proximity to the sites where so many ancient remains were discovered. Many of these came from the Baume Bonne Grotto, researched over more than a quarter of a century by Professor Henry de Lumley, whose work inspired the museum concept.
The collection is housed in a purpose-designed building created by Britain’s celebrated Norman Foster. Its elliptical shape has been likened by some variously to a fossil, supposedly symbolic of Provence, and even a calisson, the diamond-shaped almond cake of Aix-en-Provence.
Outwardly the structure is somewhat stark and forbidding, a high and largely unbroken concrete wall, but once inside all is changed. The rear wall abutting the cliff to the north of the site echoes the stratification of the rocks, in a graphic intimation of the scale of geological time. The curved front and rear walls are echoed by the interior partitions producing a series of unusually-shaped exhibition areas.
The entrance foyer is vast, occupying nearly an eighth of the 4000+ square metres of the museum. Apart from the usual lobby facilities, the ground floor has workshops, laboratories, a library, conference suites and other facilities for scholars and researchers - for this is an active work site as well as a repository for artefacts. There is also generous space for the temporary exhibitions staged three or four times a year.
At the rear, a long curved ramp leads visitors to the permanent displays on the upper floor. A series of rooms tell the story of early man in chronological order, from the earliest known inhabitants of half a million years ago, through the paleolithic, neolithic, stone, iron and bronze ages. We see how our early ancestors evolved physically and in the development of skills, social life and habitats.
The museum takes full advantage of modern display techniques. Display cases of bones and artefacts are brought to life in an array of interactive audio-visual displays. There are also life-sized tableaux depicting typical scenes of early human life, as well as maps, charts and models. Sections of some of the sites have been carefully reconstructed in the manner of the replica Caves of Lascaux, so that we can walk through the gallery at Baudinard with its cavernous roof carved with pictures of the sun. Stunning as such features are, the most impressive achievement is a 15-minute presentation in a small auditorium.
This starts with a conventional film on a huge screen but, within minutes, the screen slides away to reveal a three-dimensional reproduction of the Baume Bonne Grotto itself, animated by striking video and son et lumière effects. In such ways, this extraordinary museum contrives to combine serious scholarship with positive fun as visitors are helped to interpret the remains of past civilisations into well-rounded pictures of living conditions in the past.
At the end, as visitors wind through the final galleries towards the exit, they are treated to yet another large-screen video presentation, summarising what we have learned and leading to the ultimate question of where mankind is heading today.
The current temporary exhibition, which runs to the museum’s winter closure on December 15, bears the rather clunky title The Magdelanians also Modelled in Clay. That makes a little more sense when you know that the Magdelanians lived around the end of the last ice age, between about 11,000-17.00 years ago, a period that included such cave art as those of the Lascaux caverns.
The operative word in the title is then ‘also’: they were known as cave painters par excellence but the fact that they also produced three-dimensional art is a relatively recent discovery. As this exhibition shows, they were capable of both decorative design on functional artefacts, but also of highly representational pottery. The sculpted clay bisons from the Tuc d’Adoubert on the Ariège notably bear witness to a degree of culture at this period that had not previously been appreciated.
The museum is on the D13 between Montmeyan and Riez and has plentiful parking space. It is open until December 15 from 10-6 daily. It reopens on February 1 after a winter break, extending its hours to 7 in the spring and 8 in the summer months.
Admission is €7 for adults, €5 for concessions and children between 6 and 18 years old. Family tickets for two adults and two children cost €19 with €2 each for additional child.
Guided tours are available for an additional €2.50 per head (audio tour guides are available in several languages too) and, for a further supplement, one may also visit the reproduction prehistoric village on the riverside and the real Baume Bonne Grotto.
For those who want to make the visit part of a day out, the nearby two-star Relais Notre-Dame is recommended for good local cuisine at modest prices. If the weather permits, meals may be taken on the large terrace overlooking the river, to which the eye is drawn by colourful kayaks.
Address:Musée de Préhistoire
des Gorges du Verdon
Route de Montmeyan
Tel: 04 92 74 09 59