Prehistoric Mont Bégo, France / Q-Mag.org

Ancient History: The Magic Art and Wonder of Prehistoric Mount Bégo

Introduction

Mont Bégo (Mount Bego) is a 9,423 m tall mountain in southeastern France. It’s also in the southwestern Alps. The Mediterranean Sea is 40 km away. Tourists appreciate its surreal landscape. Geologists study its bizarre form. Archaeologists study the prehistoric petroglyphs in its stone. This site has the greatest collection of them in Europe.

Mont Bégo was reached by prehistoric times / Q-Mag.org
Mont Bégo was reached in prehistoric times / Q-Mag.org
The location of Mont Bégo in southeastern France. / art-rupestre.chez-alice.fr
The location of Mont Bégo in southeastern France. / art-rupestre.chez-alice.fr

3 major valleys surround Mont Bégo. They are: Fontanalbe, Minière, and Vallée des Merveilles. The altitude of the peaks here rise between 2,500 and 3,000 m. The valleys appeared at the prehistoric Last Glacial Period (up to 11,000+ years past). They’re accessible by foot for 4 months a year.

The 1st account of Mont Bégo comes in 1821 from a French doctor, François-Emmanuel Fodéré. Prehistoric humans have known about Mont Bégo for millennia. We will see accounts from both the inside and outside. In addition, both natural and human prehistoric forces shaped this place for far longer.

A topographic view of the area around Mont Bégo (red dot). Viewers can see the Fontanalbe Valley (northeast), the Minière Valley (southeast), and the Merveilles Valley (Valley of Wonders) (west)./ Google Maps
A topographic view of the area around Mont Bégo (red dot). Viewers can see the Fontanalbe Valley (northeast), the Minière Valley (southeast), and the Merveilles Valley (Valley of Wonders) (west)./ Google Maps

Prehistoric writing on the wall

We begin with a brief overview of the petroglyphs. They’re what people think most about Mont Bégo. There are many types of petroglyphs. What’s strange is that they depict no more than a few themes.

Most are 0.5 to 5 mm deep. Prehistoric engravers preferred the flattest and smoothest surfaces. With stone tools, they dug micro-cupule holes to remove the red rock surface. Some think the glyphs came from a short, sustained prehistoric period. Others say the tradition has been continued far longer than we thought.

Petroglyph engraving by prehistoric cast percussion. / Arts rupestres (Dr. Jérôme MAGAIL)
Petroglyph engraving by prehistoric cast percussion. / Arts rupestres (Dr. Jérôme MAGAIL)

Prehistoric Bulls

The most iconic petroglyphs resemble bull heads. Scientists call them corniform petroglyphs. They’re 46% of the total, and 76% of “likenesses”. A minority of them are “yoked”. The bull’s head is a simple shape. Horns emerge from the head.

Bull (corniform) prehistoric petroglyphs. / Q-Mag.org
Bull (corniform) prehistoric petroglyphs. / Q-Mag.org

Geometric works

Geometric works show outlines of complex shapes. There are 3 main types: rayed (suns), closed (shapes), and reticulated (grid-like). Later, we’ll review details about the last of these. Some suppose they depict divided fields. Some would’ve had streams running through them.

Other reticulated petroglyphs depict house layouts. All of these mentioned human arrangements would’ve followed geomancy. The sacred demarcation of space persists for millennia more. It’s how prehistoric chaos becomes cosmic space.

Rayed and reticulated geometric prehistoric petroglyphs. / Q-Mag.org
Rayed and reticulated geometric prehistoric petroglyphs. / Q-Mag.org

Geometric figures make up a smaller percentage of the total count (7-12.5%). They may be among the oldest petroglyphs here.

Prehistoric Weapons/Tools

Some petroglyphs depict weapons. The 2 most common weapons are prehistoric halberds and daggers. The latter helped scientists date the petroglyphs. Scientists compared them to known metal weapons from other prehistoric cultures. These make up 4-7% of the engravings.

Halberd and dagger prehistoric petroglyph. / Q-Mag.org
Halberd and dagger prehistoric petroglyph. / Q-Mag.org

Anthropomorphic Depictions

The rarest class of petroglyphs are “active” humanoids. They’ve raised their arms, holding a weapon or other object. We will look at one of them later. It’s known as the “Sorcerer”. Scientists named of the most special humanoid petroglyphs “Christ”. Its face draws up sympathies of austere pain and conviction.

"Christ" prehistoric petroglyph. / Q-Mag.org
“Christ” prehistoric petroglyph. / Q-Mag.org

Non-representative glyphs

A significant portion of engravings are cup-shaped markings. They can be alone or in groups. Most don’t have any discernible place with the above classes. Some of them might be incomplete petroglyphs. Some could be “drafts”.

This is uncertain. Others think drafts involved a full outline prior to engraving.

Some scholars have identified a few petroglyphs as sundials. Besides this, did the ancient pastoralist of Mont Bégo engrave for protection? Mere decoration? Information? We could tackle these questions just for Mont Bégo. But we’ll end up looking for answers across all of prehistoric Europe.

As I write about Mont Bégo, I'm reminded of Lascaux. The latter would be prehistoric to the former. / History.com
As I write about Mont Bégo, I’m reminded of Lascaux. The latter would be prehistoric to the former. / History.com

Geology

The Vallée des Merveilles (Valley of Wonders) rises to 2,000 and 2,500 m. This puts it in the “middle” and “high” range. The valley’s surrounding massifs run northwest and southeast. These massifs have metamorphic and granitic rocks.

Carboniferous and Pliocene sedimentary rocks rest on top. These include conglomerates, sandstones, arkoses, and mudstones. This area has a messy geologic history. One can find more kinds of rocks there. Tectonic and glacial forces both shaped the amazing Valley of Wonders.

Vallée des Merveilles (Valley of Wonders). Its origins lay in prehistoric times / France Voyage
Vallée des Merveilles (Valley of Wonders). Its origins lay in prehistoric times / France Voyage

Glacial Effects

Going back 20,000 years brings us to the Last Glacial Maximum. Back then, glaciers reached the base of Mont Bégo. These glaciers came from the Valley of Wonders and Minière Valley. They left behind Permian stone blocks. The longest and narrowest valley is the Minière Valley. The two tallest mountains above it are Grand Capelet and Mont Bégo. There is an abundance of cirques (round, deep basins) throughout this valley. Cirques dot nearby valleys.

From left to right: Vallée des Merveilles (Valley of Wonders), Mont Bégo, and the Minière Valley further right. / Google Maps
From left to right: Vallée des Merveilles (Valley of Wonders), Mont Bégo, and the Minière Valley further right. / Google Maps

When the glaciers melted, the exposed rocks underwent oxidation. They turned red. Bronze Age artists carved through the red surface. That’s why their petroglyphs are a different color from the surrounding rock. The oldest engravings have since gained a patina.

Vegetation

In 1868, an English botanist named M.F.G.S. Moggridge visited Mont Bégo. He was the first to describe the petroglyphs as prehistoric. The prehistorian Emile Rivière continued his work in 1877. In 1885, another botanist named Clarence Bicknell studied the valley flora. He ended up doing a lot of petroglyph research at Mount Bégo.

Let’s go back to 9,000BC (~11,000BP). After the Late Glacial Period, lakes formed, plants grew, and peat occurred. The first vegetation near Mont Bégo was a kind of steppe (Older Dryas). Juniper and pine trees followed. These forests didn’t grow above 2,400 m. This altitude has the greatest focus of engravings. It is close to the base of Mont Bégo (2,872 m). Later, a cold spell killed off some plants (Younger Dryas).

Mont Bégo vegetation goes back to prehistoric times / Atlas Obscura
Mont Bégo vegetation goes back to prehistoric times / Atlas Obscura

Evidence exists of pastoral activity between 3,500 and 3,000BP.

The next “Subboreal” period had grasses and plaintains. Humans cut down large larch forests in this time. Close to 1500BC, agriculture expanded with cereals. In the summer, humans settled down on the lower slopes of Mont Bégo.

Human Activity

First walkthroughs

Humans crossed the valleys around Mont Bégo long before the Neolithic. After the glaciers melted, humans crossed mountain passes in between valleys. By the Paleolithic, humans reached the Po river plain north, and the Mediterranean Sea south.

The location of Mont Bégo in southeastern France. / art-rupestre.chez-alice.fr
The location of Mont Bégo in southeastern France. / art-rupestre.chez-alice.fr

Major excavations on Mont Bégo began in the 1940s under Carlo Conti. He surveyed over 30,000 petroglyphs. In addition, he drew the first archaeological map of Mont Bégo.

Prehistoric shelters

An operation in 1942 uncovered the “gias del Ciari”. A gias is an Alpine rock-shelter with a livestock enclosure. Later excavations in the 90s found flint cores. These suggest humans arrived at Mont Bégo around 9000BC (~11,000BP). This was the time when glaciers were melting into lakes.

The operations found the gias with Cardial ceramics. They show Early Neolithic activity near Mont Bégo began near 5500-5300 BC (~7,500 BP). Other ceramics in the gias are dated to Bell Beaker (2350-2100BC / 4,150BP). There was material and cultural exchange across the southwestern Alps.

Map showing the extent of Cardial pottery. / Wikipedia
Map showing the extent of Cardial pottery. / Wikipedia
Cardium/Cardial pottery gets its name from the technique of production. Heart-shaped shells, or other sharp objects, were pressed into the walls. / Pinterest
Cardium/Cardial pottery gets its name from the technique of production. Heart-shaped shells, or other sharp objects, were pressed into the walls. / Pinterest

Prehistoric grazing sheep

In summer months, transhumant shepherds gathered on Mont Bégo to feed their sheep. During the summer, artists carved the famous petroglyphs which adorn the mountains. Their preferred time period was the summer solstice until mid-September. When winter came, the shepherds left Mont Bégo.

Transhumance pastoralism is an ancient and widespread tradition. / GitHub
Transhumance pastoralism is an ancient and widespread tradition. / GitHub

I was here.

Suitable drawing themes and surfaces

Prehistoric visitors liked Permian pelite and sandstone. These were easier to engrave. Glaciers had polished them. Such rocks include fine-grained schistose and pelitic rocks. Some areas are smooth and flat. Others have grooves and scars.

This is the practical side to choosing a “canvas”. Others think the artists chose locations through divination. One example might be engraving wherever lightning struck. The artists made the most famous petroglyphs on Permian rocks. One example is the Sorcier (wizard) petroglyph.

This prehistroic petroglyph goes by many names, including: The Magus, Sorcerer, or Wizard. This photo shows that the glyph is a different color than the surrounding, oxidized rock. The original engravers carved past the red surface. / Q-Mag.org
This prehistoric petroglyph goes by many names, including: The Magus, Sorcerer, or Wizard. This photo shows that the glyph is a different color than the surrounding, oxidized rock. The original engravers carved past the red surface. / Q-Mag.org

We mentioned 19th century scientists who expanded our knowledge of Mont Bégo. There is another, more recent one: Henry de Lumley. From 1967, he worked on systematic plotting of all petroglyphs.

There are 2 main types of engraved petroglyphs at Mont Bégo. They are “pecked” and “incised”. Most research focuses on pecked engravings. Most of the petroglyphs belong to one of a few recurring motifs. These motifs include bulls, weapons, people, and other diagrams. This could mean that engraving these glyphs was an important rite.

Distribution of prehistoric engravings

Scholars debate the lifespan of petroglyph activity at Mont Bégo. In addition, there is a constant search for patterns in the placement of glyphs. Some even think the glyphs represent early writing.

Scientists have found ties between the engravings and their nearby geography. Les Merveilles and Fontanalbe show interesting placements of engravings. For a fun fact, 1317 rocks have 1 engraving. At the same time, 1 rock has 1377 engravings. They consist of “fringed” figures, “horned” figures, and “halberds”.

Which are the oldest? Where are they?

They found fringed figures far from the densest collection in the valley center. Fringed figures, with “reticulated” figures, are among the most ancient. These engravings have the strongest relationship with geography. They’re found closest to ancient streams and pastoral walkways at lower altitudes. These were the only ways to cross between valleys.

In Les Merveilles, we find many engravings on the tops of rocks. In addition, most face south, no matter the geography. There aren’t many more ties which scientists can spot yet with certainty.

Roche de l’Aute – The “Altar Rock”

The base of Mont Bégo (2318-2335 m) has a rock named Roche de l’Aute. The rock is about 60 m long and 30 m wide. Bicknell called it the “Altar Rock”. This rock appeared to be more sacred than others. It has the greatest number of engravings of any rock there. Hundreds of figurines and dagger motifs decorate it. A ridge divides this rock into northern and southern halves. In addition, an orange patina coats this rock.

Prehistoric petroglyphs on Roche de l'Autel (Altar Rock), Mont Bégo / Research Gate (Huet & Bianchi 2016)
Prehistoric petroglyphs on Roche de l’Autel (Altar Rock), Mont Bégo / Research Gate (Huet & Bianchi 2016)

Why is the “Sacred Rock” sacred?

There’s no certain reason why Roche de l’Aute has the most engravings. Some say the view from Roche de l’Aute is the most spectacular in the area. This could’ve motivated ancient artists to focus their work on this rock. But the view from other rocks is comparable. Roche de l’Aute does have a unique triangular shape.

There are specific patterns at the Roche de l’Aute. Reticulated figures come before daggers and horned figures. Reticulated figures cluster on the southern faces. In contrast, horned figures and daggers cluster on the northern faces. In addition, the oldest engravings gather closer to the rock’s edge.

Dagger engravings are the most effective index for relative dating. Scientists matched them to Chalcolithic copper and early bronze daggers. These daggers pop up at many sites around the Mediterranean. Based on this, scientists pinpoint the engraving at Mount Bégoto 4,000 BP. This means around 3200 and 1700BC.

Where do the blades point?

Dagger petroglyph, Mont Bégo / Arts rupestres (Dr. Jérôme MAGAIL)
Dagger petroglyph, Mont Bégo / Arts rupestres (Dr. Jérôme MAGAIL)

The dagger likenesses at Mount Bégo may represent real metal blades. These blades may have come from the nearby metalworking Rinaldone culture. This culture thrived in northern Italy.

On the other hand, the dagger engravings may be symbolic. Geospatial analysis allows scientists to test hypotheses. More analysis has yet to be done on Fontanalbe valley. So far, the oldest engravings cluster on the lower, southern rock edges. Finding more patterns depends as much on current human choice as back then.

Prehistoric belief: then vs. now

We’re not the first to fumble with the code. Seneca was a 1st century Roman philosopher and statesman. He contrasted his “modern Rome” against archaic mountain cultures.

“Whereas we, the Romans, believe lightning to be released as a result of the collision of the clouds, the ancients believed that clouds collide so as to release lightning, for as they attribute all to the deity, they are led to believe not that things have a meaning in so far as they occur, but rather that they occur because they must have a meaning”. ~Seneca the Younger.

Seneca the Younger was referring to the Etruscans. / Smarthistory
Seneca the Younger was referring to the Etruscans. / Smarthistory

The prehistoric peoples of Mont Bégo might’ve been a similar stock. The petroglyphs evidence the awareness of a natural whole. Sun, storms, sheep, and stones formed the Mont Bégo cosmos.

The unknown scares some…

Medieval Europeans knew of these petroglyphs. At that time, they thought of Mont Bégo as cursed and demonic. They thought the site was near Hell. In addition, people of peculiar Christian sects visited the area. Inquisitors burned them at Mount Bégo for their beliefs. A few medieval visitors engraved their own glyphs.

Cathares and Waldensians were burned at Mont Bégo. They faced heavy persecution from the Church. / Wikipedia (Boucicaut Master)
Cathares and Waldensians were burned at Mont Bégo. They faced heavy persecution from the Church. / Wikipedia (Boucicaut Master)

In the 1460s, Pierre de Montfort visited the site himself. He said this about it in his travelogue.

“It was an infernal place with figures of the devil and thousand demons everywhere cut in the rocks… But for a little, my soul would have failed me!” ~Pierre de Montfort (1460).

…and arouses others.

Locals named the Valley of Wonders so for its awesome thunderstorms. “Merveilles” is closer in meaning to the supernatural. It can even mean “fairy-like”. Farmers nearby believed the valley was wondrous.

A view of Vallée des Merveilles with petroglyphs. / Menton, Riviera & Merveilles Tourist Office
A view of Vallée des Merveilles with petroglyphs. / Menton, Riviera & Merveilles Tourist Office

The Valley of Wonders and Fontanalbe are sites of archaeology. Each valley has around 2,000 engraved rocks and 10,000 “pecked” engravings. There are more engravings of other kinds at Mount Bégo. Some think the ancient site would’ve looked similar to the modern site.

Reconstructing archaic beliefs is a constant challenge. It requires the total defamiliarization of secular vs. sacred. To ponder Mont Bégo with efficacy, we must reopen cosmology. Curiosity is the common human thread. Both a modern scientist and “Bégo Man” would understand the quest to know.

Study of cosmology is a rich tool for understanding ancient societies. / University of Idaho
Study of cosmology is a rich tool for understanding ancient societies. / University of Idaho

How far can we go back?

There is an ancient legend about the Fontanalbe Valley. It conveys the prehistoric, primal urge to grapple with natural forces for survival.

An ancient, young shepherd learned that the sun spends the night in the spirit world. This didn’t satisfy him. He wanted to see the sun rise from the most sacred peak (Mont Bégo). But while he climbed, he felt plagued by guilt and “sin”.

He tripped, and fell to his death. The settling snow made it hard for the people to retrieve his body. A miraculous, flickering light kept its place known at Mount Bégo. In the spring, they didn’t find the boy. They found a revenant woman. She led them to the death spot. A new stream flowed where before there was none. The surrounding area was enriched with beautiful flora.

Things which we view as every day were miracles to the ancients. / THE FRENCH RIVIERA BLOG BY KEVIN HIN
Things which we view as every day were miracles to the ancients. / THE FRENCH RIVIERA BLOG BY KEVIN HIN

Cultural Significance in Prehistoric Anthropology

Once in a while, Earth wobbles like a carefree shepherd boy. At times, it trips away from the sun. When that happens, the Earth, in part, gets knocked out cold.

Prehistoric resurrection / Shutterstock
Prehistoric resurrection / Shutterstock

For hundreds of thousands of years, Mount Bégo was dead. It lay buried under prehistoric glaciers. When the Last Glacial Maximum came with spring, new life appeared. In the time since, magic and science have both blossomed. In the present, we have the experiences of all our ancestors to use both. We may continue to explore entire valleys of marvel and wonder.

Works Cited

de Grazia, A.-M. (n.d.). The Petroglyphs of Mount Bégo. 40,000 petroglyphs of Mount Bego and the Valley of Marvels. Retrieved February 14, 2022, from https://q-mag.org/the-petroglyphs-of-mount-bego.html
https://q-mag.org/the-petroglyphs-of-mount-bego.html

Huet, Thomas, and Nicoletta Bianchi. “A Study of the Roche de l’Autel’s Pecked Engravings, Les Merveilles Sector, Mont Bego Area (Alpes-Maritimes, France).” Journal of archaeological science, reports 5 (2016): 105–118. Web.

J. Arts rupestres – anthropologie – archeoastronomie. Accessed February 16, 2022. http://art-rupestre.chez-alice.fr/publications/publicationmontbegoenglish.htm.
http://art-rupestre.chez-alice.fr/publications/publicationmontbegoenglish.htm

Lannoy, Richard. “Monte Bego: The Birth of Sacred Space.” India International Centre Quarterly 30, no. 3/4 (2003): 174–96. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23006133.

Magail J., Simon P. (2014) Glacial Landscapes and Protohistoric Cultural Heritage of the Mount Bego Region, Southern French Alps. In: Fort M., André MF. (eds) Landscapes and Landforms of France. World Geomorphological Landscapes. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi-org.proxy.wexler.hunter.cuny.edu/10.1007/978-94-007-7022-5_21

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