The caves of Volp – talk by Robert Bégouën at the Symposium ‘The golden thread of the free mind’


The Tuc d’Audoubert and Trois-Frères caves were discovered in 1912 and 1914 by three teenagers, Max, Jacques and Louis Bégouën, in a village in the Ariège called Montesquieu-Avantès. They are large and decorated caves, and the decision to preserve them completely intact was taken immediately after their discovery. This point of view, very original for those days, is explained by the fact that at the moment of the discovery of the caves, the family had already been interested in the origin of life in general and in the origin of mankind in particular for two generations.

The grandfather of the three brothers, count Maximilien Bégouën (1826-1885) was indeed an erudite and multilingual humanist. Although trained as a geologist, he was nevertheless appointed as general receiver of finances in Périgueux. He soon befriended Dr. Galy, the curator of the museum in Périgord. Together with the doctor, he excavated in Laugerie-Basse and found an engraved bone from the Magdalenian. In 1872 the count was appointed in Toulouse. The domains of his research put him in touch with local antiquarians including Noulet, Garrigou, Joly, Filhol and especially the young Émile Cartailhac, who became a regular visitor to the count’s house.

Although he was an outspoken Catholic, Maximilien Bégouën published a philosophical essay in 1878 entitled: The Evolutionary Creation (Bégouën, 1879). In that publication he proposed a philosophical interpretation of the theory of evolution – at the time very controversial – that would be incompatible with the Christian concept of Genesis. His inquiring occurred many decades before the work of Bergson and Teilhard de Chardin. When the count’s two sons (including Henri, the future father of the three brothers) finished their classical studies, Maximilien took them to Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy. And the archaeological museums were not forgotten…

Henri continued his father’s research because all these subjects were of great interest to him. After studying political science in Paris and a dissertation on the Kulturkampf (Culture Battle) in Germany, he first became a journalist for Germany at the Journal of Debates. He published numerous articles on history, literature and poetry. In 1896 he was appointed delegate to the General French Residence in Tunisia. In his reports to Émile Cartailhac, who then taught the prehistory course at the University of Toulouse, he describes the impressive megalithic tombs that mark many parts of the country and that deserve better excavation and protection.

At Easter 1911, when he returned to France, he took his three sons with him to visit the cave of the Mas d’Azil. In the remnants of the researches of the great antiquary Edouard Piette, Max discovered a small broken reindeer tooth that shows traces of being pierced by humans. He describes the emotion caused by this humble discovery: ‘It was a piece of garbage, something thrown away, but what it represented was so amazing! A luminous signal that came to us from the depths of the ages, made visible to our eyes by this fragile thing that was once a jewel. This discovery, seemingly negligible, was pivotal in our lives as cave diggers and explorers.’

The next morning, the cave of the Enlène was visited, where Jacques had the unbelievable luck to find the head of a javelin decorated with a reindeer, which would be authenticated by Cartailhac. At the start of the new school year in October 1911, Max enrolled in the latter’s prehistory course at the Toulouse Faculty of Letters. He was the only student to choose prehistory as an elective for the master’s degree. Max Bégouën told me that at that time the students considered prehistory a fact and not a science!

In 1912, Émile Cartailhac was the first to be informed by the following telegram of the discovery of the Tuc d’Audoubert and its clay bison models: ‘The people of the Magdalenian also made clay sculptures, kind regards, Bégouën.’ Carthailhac’s answer was simply, ‘I’m coming.’ And he gave invaluable advice: ‘Close your cave well, do not walk about everywhere, be careful on the untrodden ground. Act with respect, even reverently. I speak plain language, as I am obliged. Kind regards to all. Cartailhac.’

No doubt he remembered his experience in the Black Hall (Salon Noir) of the cave of Niaux where he had, perhaps hastily, deepened the Palaeolithic soil. Thus he must have hoped, at the cost of destroying every archaeological traces on the ground, to isolate and protect the wall drawings. Their discoverer, Commander Molard, notes with some bitterness: ‘From the moment one had the exceptional fortune of possessing a prehistoric monument completely as it had been constructed at that time, it seems it should have been respected in its entirety and in all its parts and that neither the face nor the appearance should have been altered without justifiable reasons…’ (Molard, 1908, p. 184).

In the Tuc d’Audoubert, from the first days of the investigation, beautiful carvings were discovered, then traces of cave bears on the clay soil, traces of human feet on top, and finally and a little later the famous Clay Bisons. A narrow path was immediately blocked off and it is still forbidden to deviate from that. Two years later, in 1914, the Trois-Frères cave was discovered with its numerous and very fine Magdalenian carvings. Looking at the quantity and quality of all those remains, some of which are real works of art, the discoverers become aware of the extreme fragility of it all. The heritage they discovered is a human heritage, owned by all, but for which they feel responsible. They decided not to make it accessible to the public and to preserve it for science.

Henri Bégouën instructs Abbé Breuil to make an inventory of the drawings on the limestone walls. For many years, Breuil would fulfill his mission with the talent he is known for. He often came to visit us in Pujol during the summer holidays. He was an intimate figure who, through his intelligence and great openness of mind, was able to adapt to the level of the children and teenagers that we were. In the evenings by the fireplace in the living room, all the major topics of conversation were discussed with my parents.

Father Teilhard also became a close friend of the family, in fact to the extent that the Jesuits recently published a book entitled: Rays of friendship, correspondence with the Bégouën family (1922 – 1955). A photo captures his and Abbé Breuil’s visit to Niaux’s cave. They were taken there by Henri and Louis Bégouën. It is quite possible that on that occasion they met Monsieur Gadal, whom we focus on this week.

Over the years, Henri Bégouën went on to publish numerous articles on the caves of the Volp and prehistory. The search for the greatness of man’s place in nature was to occupy him throughout his life. In 1925, along with Breuil and Obermeyer, he was one of those Christian thinkers who exercised some influence on the Vatican not to allow the principle of evolution to be condemned by the Church.

To explain prehistoric art, he became an advocate of the magic of the hunt. Later he would also argue that magic, whether that of hunting or that of fertility, could not explain all prehistoric art.

The same goes for the other important theories that have been developed since then. Mankind is so complex and diverse in the grandeur of time and space. 19 Cartailhac died in 1921 and was succeeded by Henri Bégouën as teacher of the prehistory course at the Faculty of Arts in Toulouse. Immediately after the defeat of 1940, as a man of conviction, he did not hesitate to take sides, despite the associated danger: the opening lesson of his Prehistoric Archeology course of 13 November 1940 has remained in the memory. ‘One may suffer defeat,’ he said, ‘but it would be dishonourable to accept it.’ And he affirmed his belief in a future ideal of brotherhood among peoples based on the principle of racial equality, a very sensitive subject at that terrible time. Henri Bégouën, closely watched by the Gestapo, owes it to a Wehrmacht officer that he was not arrested. That old-fashioned officer, you might say, made his file disappear when he was stationed in Toulouse. Much later, in 1951, he would write him an amiable letter in perfect French, to inform him!

In 1963, aged 23, I decided to settle in the Ariège in order to contribute to the future of the caves of the Volp. As a child I went with my father and helped him on his visits to the caves, which were only accessible to prehistorians. Those visits have brought me a lot: listening to substantiated comments on a work of art, seeing a tear flow for the Clay Bisons, observing, listening to the silence. All this formed the fertile seed for a future passion!

As a consequence of the division within the family in 1921, not taking into account the value of the caves, it was Louis Bégouën, my father, who inherited them. He single-handedly explored the cave of the Enlène, until he stopped working in 1937 in order to preserve the intact excavations. This exceptional attitude enabled me, together with Jean Clottes and his entire team, to resume the fruitful excavations from 1976 to 1990, taking care not to exhaust the deposits and thus preserve them for future generations.
When the work on the site in Enlène came to an end, we started with a limited and select team in Tuc d’Audoubert, from 1990 to 2004, with its approximately 350 drawings and numerous human traces. This research was classified as of national importance by the Minister of Culture.

From that moment on, the idea arose to publish our work and 20 thus make known the archaeological and artistic richness of our caves to as many people as possible. Because of their fragility, the caves are still kept carefully closed. Thus, one after the other, three monographs came about:

    • The secret sanctuary of the Bisons from 14000 years ago in the cave of the Tuc d’Audoubert (2009)
    • The cave of The Three Brothers (Les Trois Frères), anthology of an exceptional prehistoric sanctuary (2014)
    • The cave of Enlène, immersion in a Magdalenian dwelling (2019)

These three monographs provide an overview of the various prehistoric human activities that we have been able to observe in the archaeological layers on the bottom and the walls of the three caves of the Volp. It gives me great satisfaction to have produced these publications with talented employees.

Our family foundation, l’Association Louis Bégouën, created in 1989, which aims to own, conserve and study our caves, has been the instrument that has made its work and its financing possible. I must add that Jeanne, my wife, has received all these researchers at home in Pujol, bringing a note of hospitality, comfort and good humour to the whole team.

Ladies and gentlemen, I now propose that you take a look at some slides of Magdalenian art from the caves of the Volp. I hope these images give you a glimpse of the human wealth, sense of beauty and spirituality that emanate from them. For a few moments I would like to make you forget the present time and enter imaginatively into the rich world of ‘wild thought’ that Claude Lévi-Strauss has so masterfully described.

To this end, let us supplement rational thought with the vision of the poet and, with Baudelaire, rediscover the emotion and instinctive knowledge that this produces: ‘Happy is he who floats above life and understands effortlessly the language of flowers and of silent things.’ For, though the images you will see remain forever silent, their capacity for resonance in the depths of ourselves, thankfully, brings us very close to those who made them, and that is quite a lot!

Robert Bégouën, historian, founder of the Foundation Louis Bégouën, curator of the three caves of the Volp



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