Cave cult stirs passions of pre-historians

February 7, 1997

A DISPUTE between a distinguished archaeologist and a more junior researcher over the significance of an Alpine prehistoric site, the Vallee des Merveilles, is in the courts for the second time.

The deputy public prosecutor in Nice has announced that a civil action brought by Emilia Masson over alleged deliberate damage to a disputed cave was wrongly dismissed and has been re-opened for investigation.

Meanwhile, the Academie des Sciences has published a summary by her opponent, pre-historian Henry de Lumley, refuting categorically findings Ms Masson made at the site and presented in an earlier Note last June.

Ms Masson is a researcher with the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, based at the Institut d'etudes semitiques at the Coll ge de France. A specialist in ancient myths, religions and writings, she was contacted by Mr de Lumley, director of the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle, in 1991 and asked to give a paper at a conference on the Alpine site, Mont Bego.

Since 1967 Mr de Lumley has been in charge of research at Mont Bego, where his team has built up an exhaustive inventory of the 100,000 engravings on over 3,600 rocks. He has described her findings as "daydreams with no scientific foundations". She claims he hardly ever goes to the site, leaving inexperienced students to work on the inventory, but he insists they are qualified postgraduates led by qualified scientists.

In 1991, Ms Masson gave her paper and, invited by Mr de Lumley, visited Mont Bego for the first time. She quickly became a rival on the site where he had directed research for three decades. She produced theories and claimed discoveries that inevitably implied he had overlooked or failed to interpret evidence. Her interpretation of the site was instantaneous; she believed it was used for a cosmogonic cult. Mr de Lumley had published in 1976 his theory that it was the site of a bull cult.

"When I entered the Vallee des Merveilles and saw the mountain where most of the engravings are, I was immediately attracted to the opposite side as if by a magnet. I turned around, the clouds opened up, lit the middle of the cliff and I saw a huge face," she recalls.

The 50-metre-high "face", a natural phenomenon, was, she believed, the key to a sacred cave, the "Holy of holies". "I expected to find a cave there, used for the cult, and explored for two years, discovering it in 1994," she said.

"I consider that it is a mountainside like any other," said Mr de Lumley, who claims the rock shelter Ms Masson believes is a sacred cave had already been recorded by his team as well as engravings found there which she missed.

By 1993, Ms Masson had already published a book on her initial interpretation of the site, the Bronze Age cult and "face" . A television programme followed.

She reported in the magazine Archeologia in 1994 that she had found a cave decorated with 12 painted circular motifs and two small figures - a man and a deer - on a "smoothed wall" at the back of the cavity. If confirmed, this was unprecedented: no cave paintings had ever been found at Mont Bego. When she returned the next summer after the snow had melted, she says the cave had been vandalised.

"The rings had been scraped off, but underneath emerged engravings," she said.

A new official, Xavier Gutherz, arrived at the regional archaeology office a year ago, and Ms Masson's problems began.

In July, Mr Gutherz told Agence France Presse he "did not have a very positive impression" of her conclusions, "did not foresee his department collaborating with Mme Masson" and announced an appraisal of the cave would be carried out by "experts who have no connection with Mme Masson or M De Lumley".

Ms Masson is now contesting the report written by two experts, who spent a few hours at the site and reported finding no trace of paint, engravings or signs of vandalism. She argues that the time spent at the site was inadequate, that evidence from key witnesses was not used and that no photo-graphs or analytical results were published with it.

In a letter to Phillippe Douste-Blazy, the minister for culture, she says the way the report was carried out was "part of a series of steps to create obstacles, perhaps even to put an end to my research". She adds that her research led to "the first and only global interpretation of the site".

Ms Masson has also prepared a response to Mr de Lumley's summary to the Academy, which she complains has delayed her right to reply for six months without explanation.

His text, co-signed by 14 researchers, systematically contradicts all her findings. It says analysis of the circular motifs show they are algae belonging to the species Trentepholia diffracta and that Ms Masson incorrectly interpreted the spectra she published. It claims neither paintings nor engravings are to be found on the smooth wall at the back of the cavity and the calcite film she reports is a fracture surface.

Undeterred, Ms Masson challenges the authors to source their laboratory specimens, saying she had an exclusive permit to explore the site, making any sampling done by Mr de Lumley's team irregular. Convinced the cave circles were deliberately scraped off, doubtful about the specimens used by Mr de Lumley, stung by past pettiness such as refusals to let her use the mountain refuge, Ms Masson is fighting a lone battle.

Having published without a second expert opinion to confirm her findings, she is faced with a damning Academy summary unless she can prove its data should be discounted. An archaeologist who took part in her exploration of the site has noted in a written statement to the regional archaeology office: "In spite of the controversy. it appeared to me the duty of an archaeologist was to ignore rumours and weigh everything up before making a judgement."

"Should we not pay attention to any discovery, however banal, which might prove important later and encourage pluridisciplinary work which allows different and new approaches on a site?"

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