Homage to a Périgord placemaker - Hallam Movius, Jr.
Périgord is blessed with Palaeolithic caves and exceptional castles. Two Americans played a part in making one of each a destination. The legendary Josephine Baker transformed the late medieval castle at Milandes above the Dordogne into a destination for multitudes. Less well known is Hallam Movius’s legacy at the rock shelter of Abris Pataud, above the Vézère.
Movius may lack star quality, but his legacy is no less global in its impact.
Little in Périgord’s National Museum of Prehistory in Les Eyzies gives you any clue that the Harvard Professor, Hallam Movius, instigated a Palaeolithic revolution here in 1958 no more than a stone’s throw away. The Abris Pataud lies 300m. from the museum, reached by a path behind the houses on Les Eyzies’ main street. Here, beneath the falaise, Movius chose to dig on a hunch he’d find an Upper Palaeolithic section through the later millennia of the wonderfully rich Aurignacian cultures that have come to define Périgord’s prehistory.
Why here, I wondered, as the guide took us through the exceptional finds? I have yet to discover the answer.
What lasts in the mind’s eye, though, is Movius’ innovative recording grid still hanging from the roof of the cantilevered rock shelter. The grid is lettered and numbered: A, B, C, etc on the sides, with Roman numerals in the front and back. Lead plumb-bobs hang from each grid intersection. The surveying revolution meant for the first time lithics, bone tools and other objects were registered along with bare structural features in vertical time and horizontal space. Simple.
The grid at Abris Pataud
Movius went a step further and it caused a celebrated debate. He submitted his finds to the new-fangled carbon 14 dating, invented only a handful of years previously. A graphic in the compact little museum dedicated to the Abris Pataud excavations shows how this new dating fazed the French archaeologists who prided themselves on pin-pointing their sequences in time by tool technologies.
Lastly, Movius put a roof over the newly made place at some expense. Thus it was protected for posterity. The result remains a didactic example despite a revolution in site presentation.
This experience, of course, is as far from Lascaux IV (the virtual cave opened in 2016 to the cost of 60 million euros) as any site might be. But the expertly excavated and recorded excavation made in 1958 with its carefully scrutinized finds serves as a wonderful introduction to anyone visiting the arcane, nearby National Museum, or indeed Lascaux IV.
Like Josephine Baker, Movius was a placemaker, one whose legacy in terms of his methods and science reaches far beyond the trench walls of Abris Pataud.