Monday, October 31, 2011

Skulls and Bones

Fossil Hominid skull casts at Pech Merle, France

Cave Bear skull at Pech Merle Museum

This Cave Bear skull from Pech Merle is encrusted in minerals from the cave.

Cave Bear mandible, Pech Merle.

Shark Jaw, Aquarium, San Sebastien, Spain

This Bowhead Whale skeleton in the Aquarium in San Sebastien

Bowhead Whale skeleton, San Sebastien Aquarium (Click to Enlarge)

Grinning skull casts at Pech Merle.

Hominid Skull casts at Pech Merle, France

La Chapelle-aux-Saints skull cast, Musée de l'Homme de Néandertal, France 

The Old Man of La Chapelle-Aux-Saints reconstructed burial in the Musée de l'Homme de Néandertal, France

Photo Credits: Tim Rast

Friday, October 28, 2011

Shades of Sarlat

We had wonderful warm October nights in Sarlat and dined outside in the streets of the medieval walled city on most evenings.  The golden stone of the historic buildings begged to be photographed by moonlight and gas lamp.  Every night after supper, I lingered on the walk back to our rooms and tried to capture some of the magic of the place.  The long exposures created some ghostly effects.  Have a great Halloween weekend!


Photo Credits: Tim Rast

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Old Man of La Chapelle-aux-Saints

The Old Man
In 1908, three priests found the most complete Neandertal skeleton that had ever been unearthed.  Amadee and Jean Bouyssonie and L. Bardon found the remains buried in a small cave next to the graveyard in the tiny French town of La Chapelle-aux-Saints. Over time, Bardon and the Bouyssonie brothers' discovery became known as The Old Man of La Chapelle.
The Old Man of La Chapelle-aux-Saints was found in the cave behind the blue tarp. The hand holding a biface is a monument erected in 2008 to mark the 100th anniversary of the discovery.

Cast of the Old Man's skull
The discovery generated controversy, and since the discoverers were priests they suffered particular criticism and ridicule in the press.  The initial reconstruction of the Old Man by the paleontologist Marcellin Boule didn't do the men any favours.  No one had seen such a complete Neandertal skeleton before, and when Boule added flesh to the bones he created a stooping, bent kneed, fur-covered creature with divergent big toes that looked more ape than human.  It was the original monkey man and helped establish the stereotype of the brutish dimwitted caveman.

Drawings of the cave and the position of the burial in the shallow depression at its base. (detail of interpretive panel)
Boule's 1911-1913 Reconstruction
Over the past century, the skeleton has been re-examined and re-interpreted several times.  In the 1950s, it was discovered that the Old Man had suffered from arthritis, and perhaps this had mislead Boule in his reconstruction.   But even that wouldn't account for all the primitive features that he gave the creature.  Today, its seems that Boule was operating under a preconceived notion of what a Neandertal should look like and he fit the fragmentary remains of the Old Man into that model.  Its too bad, he was obviously a talented anatomist and the bust he created of the Old Man's musculature, without any hair or apish post-cranial features is a remarkable portrait of a human being.

The reconstruction of the burial inside the Museum.  The interpreter who guided us through the museum was fantastic.

Quartz artifacts 
The story of the Old Man of La Chapelle-aux-Saints is presented in the Musée de l'Homme de Néandertal in La Chapelle-aux-Saints.  A reconstruction of the skeleton as it was found curled in the fetal position in a shallow depression inside the small limestone cave is the centerpiece of the museum.  The original bones are in Paris.  The Old Man was the Neandertal type specimen and La Chapelle-aux-Saints is discussed in nearly every introductory archaeology and Physical anthropology textbook ever written, but the story told in the Musée de l'Homme de Néandertal is a very personal story of the discovery of an exceptional find by local priests.

The museum had lots of hands-on interpretive materials for visiting schoolkids.  If I had a regret from this trip it was that I didn't find any flint to bring home.

Dr. Gyula Skultety's Reconstruction 1996
By their nature, human remains tell a very personal story.  The Old Man may have lived up to 60,000 years ago, but the inferences made from his remains suggest he was part of a family who cared for him in life.  Most of his teeth were missing and had been missing for so long that the bone along the gum line had healed over.  Given Neandertal's meat heavy diet, its been suggested that the Old Man may not have been able to feed himself without some difficulty.  Perhaps someone was grinding or pre-chewing his food for him.
Amadee and Jean Bouyssonie and L. Bardon found the Old Man in the cave with the tarp in front of it.

The cows who watch the caves
The cave itself is about 2km away from the museum.  Its one of a series of 5 or 6 small limestone caves that are visible from the side of the road.  They are protected by a fence, but are still clearly visible from the paths leading past them.  Cattle graze in a pasture on the other side of the road.   Over the years the other caves have been excavated and artifacts have been found in them, but no other burials have been found at the site.

Panorama of the fenced off slope containing the cave.  The scaffolding and awnings are built over other caves that have been the subject of excavation over the past century.

Diagram of the burial within the cave
This fall, there is a team excavating in the original cave and according to the interpreter in the museum, they are looking at the soil to help date the site and determine if the shallow depression that the Old Man was found in was made naturally or by Neandertal hands.  Unfortunately they are only working on weekends and we visited the site on a Tuesday so we didn't have a chance to chat with the researchers.  After 100 years, there are still stories coming out of La Chapelle-aux-Saints.

The site is immediately next to the road, graveyard and church property in La Chapelle-aux-Saints.

 Photo Credits:
1-11, 13, 14: Tim Rast (Photos from inside the Musée de l'Homme de Néandertal in La Chapelle-aux-Saints and the La Chapelle-aux-Saints cave site.)
12: Lori White

Monday, October 24, 2011

Esco, Spain

Church of San Miguel, Esco
We stumbled across this amazing little Spanish ghost town in the foothills of the Pyrenees.  One of the benefits of renting a van for the trip was that we had a lot of control over our schedule, so when opportunities like Esco presented themselves we could pull off the road and explore them.

Esco, an abandoned Spanish hill town (click to enlarge)

Graffiti on crumbling walls
We knew nothing about this town when we wandered through it.  We didn't know when it was built or why or how it was abandoned.  There was graffiti on some of the walls and broken wine bottles in some of the buildings, but that debris seemed to be relatively recent.  The roofs and interior floors of the houses had all collapsed, although many of the stone walls remained.  The only sign of life was a small farm nestled in the far end of the town.

Only 4 people remain, tending sheep

Plaster wall design
There were power lines running through the town, but they were mounted on the outside of the walls and looked as though they were installed after the town was abandoned.  We couldn't see any signs of electrical switches or outlets inside the buildings.  We didn't see any plastics or wallpaper or anything at all that looked modern.  Everything seemed very old.

The power lines don't feed into the buildings - they were mounted on the outside.  This building seemed to have a story; Why  are there bars on the window of this big building? Was it to keep people out or in?
Looking up at the church tower
Now at home in St. John's, I've been scouring the internet to find out a little more about this peculiar place.  Most of the information that I've found so far is in Spanish, but there's actually quite a lot written about the town.  There is an association with a website dedicated to preserving the community: ASOCIACIÓN PRO RECONSTRUCCIÓN DE ESCO and a blog dedicated to the town: Esco, un pueblo de Aragón. (Note: in the Google translated pages "Esco" is often translated as "Scotland".)  The blog even has a map of the town with each residence and building identified.

Centuries of history, decades of disuse

Narrow paths
It seems that Esco was one of three communities abandoned in the 1960s as the result of a large dam built on on the Aragon River, which created the Yesa Reservoir.  This is a dry province of Spain and control of the river seems to have played an important role in shaping the region for centuries.  The dam which led to the abandonment of Esco was in the works since the 1920s. The town itself wasn't flooded, but the fertile fields that the residents farmed now lie at the bottom of the reservoir.

The entrance to the town
Ancient Stone walls and timbers
The dam cut off the community's means of making a living.  If I'm reading the google-translated history correctly, the town has been on the books for 1000 years and the large church at its core may date to the 12th century.  In AD 1047, Esco gave tithes to the Monastery at Leire. Today, the only inhabitants are a father and his 3 sons, who raise sheep.   

Here's a short video clip that I took standing in front of the church and looking down on to the town:

Tumbled down town

Sunbleached roof timbers, collapsing under the weight of the tiles.

The floors and roofs were all supported by timbers and when those collapse the buildings become a hollow shell.

The main door and bell tower of the Church of San Miguel

Inside the Church

The ceiling of the church has fallen in below the bell tower.  It looks like at least one floor above  has yet to collapse.
The view down from the church.  Lori is walking in the foreground.

Esco, Spain

Photo Credits: 
1, 2, 4-9, 12-19: Tim Rast
3, 10, 11: Lori White
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