The Father of Prehistory – Tournal and his Grotte   3 comments

With diesel costing close to €1.50 I’m having to justify my forays around the region. Mary can go off painting en plein air and return with the best part of €500-worth of art, but I just take snaps of old stones. Or sometimes nothing at all, having been defeated by my own map-reading or by the terrain itself, or by there actually being nothing left to find. However, since a recent hunting-and-gathering expedition bagged a big amphora from just up the road, Mary has been more warmly supportive about my mania, and comes out most times with something more than just weary resignation.

Most of the sites I’ve covered on this blog have been within a half-hour-drive : so a trip of 40 km. to see an oppidum – Le Caylar, near Agel – whose vestiges have all but vanished and about which I could find no archeological information, was a luxury or a delusion. I justified it by adding in a visit to a well-known prehistoric spot: La Grotte de Bize.

Were I simply writing a diary, I could call this cave anything I liked. But since I am also trying to win friends and influence people – particularly that augúst body of savants at the Megalithic Portal – I have to treble-check my facts. ‘So where are we off to this time?’ she asks. ‘Not sure – I think it’s the Grotte de Bize. Or the Grotte de Bixe – the IGN website has both. Depends on how close you zoom.’ I was trying for Technical but it came out Lame. ‘How close are we going to zoom? You do know where it is, I presume?’ The tone must be familiar to many. ‘Not really – because there’s a Grotte de Lasfonds, and a Grotte de Las Fons, or Les Fonts, which are right by a farm called Lasfonds – or les Fontaines on the older map – and they could both be La Grotte des Moulins, or du Moulin – but they are probably all the Grotte de Tournal, since he found it in 1827.’ Some silences have tones as well. ‘ . . . and has anyone found it since then?’ ‘Well I suppose so – it’s really well-known.’ We were parked by now in a lay-by at about where I thought it could be. But there was no sign and no path. We headed off anyway since I’m an optimist, and the faintly flattened grass did turn into a track through the trees, which brought us to this.

It was here in 1827 that the 22-year-old chemistry student Paul Tournal of Narbonne found the first ever fossilized human bones. He was a keen and observant amateur geologist who roamed the hills of the Minervois and the Corbières whenever he returned from his studies in Paris. His focus soon shifted from pure geology to archaeology : to the place humans occupied in that ancient landscape. To his enquiring and forward-thinking mind, these fossils were proof that mankind was older than 5000 years, and that the Bible had no place in science. At 28 he was one of the founder-members of la Commission Archéologique et Littéraire de Narbonne, remaining its Secretary his whole life, and establishing museums and repositories in the town. He became a journalist and thinker, based in Paris and strongly influenced by the progressive ideas of the ‘Saint-Simeonist’ group. Ahead of its time in advocating equality between the sexes, free-love and socialism – this movement took its energy from the industrial revolution – which had fascinated Paul Tournal on a visit to England in 1839. He believed that he was living through a period of enormous advancement and that networks both physical such as the railways and economic through government, would revolutionise the inequalities and restraints that ordinary people suffered.

Perhaps, by simply being French, he has never been accorded the international acclaim he rightly deserved, as one of the founders of the science of prehistory. The French Wikipedia – – doesn’t recognize him either, and he merits a mere two paragraphs in the Narbonne-wiki. After all – it’s just fossicking about with old bones and old stones.

For more cheery news about the contents of La Grande Grotte de Bize – for that I firmly assert is its real name – at least so called by the team of archaeologists that surveyed it, led by André Tavoso in 1987, to differenciate it from La Petite Grotte de Bize, just a few hundred metres up the road, which was searched by Dominique Sacchi in 1967 [ who manages to call the bigger grotte – Tournal’s one – La Grotte de Tournai . . . ] – for more info and photos – of an endangered bat, and a terrified woman – and a Very Important Notice – please continue over on La Grande Grotte de Tournal à Bize Page.

And the Le Caylar oppidum? We were defeated by the sheer verticality of the cliff – plus the fact that I had picked the wrong side to climb up. I’m saving up a few bob for the next attempt.


Posted May 19, 2008 by MH in bats, cave, grotte, languedoc, minervois, prehistory, Uncategorized

3 responses to “The Father of Prehistory – Tournal and his Grotte

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Interesting post. Maybe he’s not recognised a a father of archaeology…
    but i think than doing the observations he did (in 1827) is worth some recognition
    I do like those tales about the origins of Prehistory as a scientific discipline, but i’m more familiarised with the beginnings of the XX century

    Millán Mozota
  2. Pingback: Grande Grotte de Bize: Triangle scalene from the middle Magdalenian | Aggsbach's Paleolithic Blog

  3. A good biography within the 19th context can be found in the book:
    Men Among the Mammoths: Victorian Science and the Discovery of Human Prehistory (Science & Its Conceptual Foundations)

    An Magdalenian Instrument from the Bize-Grotto:

    Best Reaards

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: