Prehistoric Impressionism

20,000 Year-Old Baubles, Bangles and Arrows

St. Germain-en-Laye:- Friday, 5. July 1996:- Last night's TV-news weather forecast showed the best map of the week - a really good one for a change, and when I half-woke around four to hear rain hitting the window ledges like petit-pois, I did not worry about it, figuring all would be clear by daylight.

In daylight the ledges were still pinging and blue skies looked to be weeks away. Life is all about switching plans, and I can imagine that all over town, plans are being switched while lingering at bit longer over petit-déjeuners, and the guide books are being examined for what there might be in the way of dry fall-backs for today.

The ministries of Culture and Tourism have their top ten sights; I forget which are one and two, and Versailles is three, but today my fall-back is the fourth-placed National Antiquities Museum, located in the château at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, out at the western end of RER line 'A,' opposite Disneyland-Paris at the eastern end. Today at Versailles you will get to trudge across a lot of stones before getting under cover - while if you choose the 'Antiquities', it is located only a short dash from the RER exit.

This is another one of those subjects I know absolutely nothing about - as a result of being from a colonial place where the trees are the oldest things around except for rocks.

This museum is supposed to have the world's richest prehistoric collection of its kind - there is a reconstruction of the famous Lascaux Caves for example - a 22,000 year-old 'Dame,'- the first representation of a human face - found at Brassempouy, some of Obelix' menhirs, solid gold objects - even I thought they looked like gold! - from the bronze age, a passel of Gallic gods and a lot of stuff the Romans forgot to take when they left. There are an incredible variety of sharp things made by hand from various materials, and these were household items - the war-like stuff looks even more dangerous.

Outside it is raining and inside this not altogether dim château, with its interior courtyard, there are these lightly-lit window-box displays. In the Paleolithic chamber one end starts with a date of - I forgot to look - but where I started it was 22,000 years ago. Think about that a little bit.

What we think of as 'our' history has about 4000 years and if you subtract this, you are left with 18,000 years before then. Springs, summers, winters and falls - 18,000 of them. As you walk from one display to the next, 2000 years slip by, in about three metres. What this is supposed to be, are remains from the end of the 'Old' Stone Age, otherwise known as pre-history - from before 'our' history.

Although I have permission to take photos, my camera is not good in dim light and is useless for small objects - so take my word for it that there are small objects here - 20,000 or 18,000 years old - that are incredibly fine: little sculptures of animals, little drawings of people - and these are obviously decorations; spare-time objects, made for fun. I am thinking, little drawings - on bone - no mistakes allowed; so maybe one of my part-time professions is older than the one they always say is oldest. I have something in common with these people.

After a glance at the Neolithic chamber - there are a couple of skeletons here, in what looks like a reconstructed tomb. These bones were... People - a long long time ago. But people. As flesh and blood we don't last long, but as bones... How long is forever anyway?

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The Bronze Age chamber is not about suntans, it is about the metal; alloys of copper and tin. The 'age' part comes after 'stone' and before the use of 'iron.' Among other objects, there are two cuirasses, dated from eight or ninth century BC - almost like last week - and it is interesting to see their size and estimate their fit.

The curious cone-shaped vessel from the middle Bronze Age, is the justly famous 'Avanton' of Vienne. A surprising number of the objects on display were found quite close to Paris; in the Oise valley or the Marne, for example.

A little further on, past the first Iron Age chamber, I end at a display of Gallic pieces, dating from before Roman times. If the photo is clear enough, you will see that helmets - the Casque d'Amfrenille - have not evolved all that much - but a nose-to-the-glass view reveals these ones to have forms that are slightly fanciful, with their well-shaped curves and perhaps they were worn more at parties than at fights.

Rather than continue to expose my ignorance and obvious lack of adequate references, I would like to point out to all readers who are interested in art and design, that there is a considerable amount of it in the pieces displayed in this museum - and even if you have no interest in pre-history, the level of design sense and the sophistication of execution of many of the items on exhibit, make the museum worth a visit - just to see these good things for what they are.

Although not always on display, the museum has a inventory of three million objects. Besides the permanent exposition, there are temporary displays, such as the just-ending 450-object 'Pyrenees' prehistoric show.

The museum contains a bookshop and a boutique, which are to be improved, and a documentation centre will soon be opened, with free access.

While I've mentioned that the National Antiquities Museum is in the château at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, this is actually the Château-Vieux, built by François the First, from 1539 to 1549. The present building started off as a monastery in 1015, a chapel was added in 1238 which served as the model for the Sainte Chapelle in Paris and the whole place burned in a fire caused by the Price of Wales in 1346, and was reconstructed by Charles the Fifth along with a library. The architecture was typical of the Renaissance and has been overlaid by later renovations, but is about the be restored.

Louis XIV began using the château as a residence and did so for twenty years until he moved to Versailles, and the exiled Stuarts moved in from 1698. James the Second died here in 1701.

In a recent history about Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser, she described Mary's life here and wrote that the court have to move out every three months in order for the place to aired. The court would then go to Rambouillet château or Fontainebleau and stay there for three months, until forced to leave. This moving on to clean châteaux was a regular feature of court life, and not merely travelling around for the pleasure of it, as the roads were pretty bad, especially in the spring.

The Revolution used the château to lodge suspects, Napoléon used it as a cavalry school, and under the Restoration it became a military prison.

valentine.jpg (8k) In 1862, Napoléon III named it as a Antiquities museum, and although it was falling apart, it was classed as a historical monument in 1863. Restoration started then, and further renovations were dedicated by André Malraux in 1962. A model of the domain during the time of Louis XIII can be found in the chapel.

The National Antiquities Museum at the Saint-Germain-en-Laye Château. Open 9:00 to 17:15 daily except Tuesdays. Tel. (1) 34 51 53 65, Fax (1) 34 51 73 93 - for guided tours, conferences: reservations Tel. (1) 34 51 65 36. Last station on Line 'A' of the RER, about a 25 minute ride from the RER-Etoile. Entry free for under 18, reduced for 18-25 and for over 60. The museum is accessible for the handicapped.

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