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Off the beaten track
France - A survey about petroglyphs in the Alps
all data refer to year 2000

Traveller's Memories: index

The main source for this work has been the book Arte millenaria sulle rocce alpine written by my friend Dr. Enzo Bernardini - Sugar Editions.

The engraved area I am talking about is around the Mount Bego and the region covers both the two valleys known as Vallee des Merveilles and Fontanalbe. Both are in the Marittime Alps, between the two villages of Saint Dalmas de Tende and Tende in the South East of France.
Since I was a child my father took me there very often during Summer holidays in order to make me know and appreciate the places he was born and lived in.
More late I started to do the same, taking people there to discover natural beauties and ancient relics. I visited about fifteen times the places I am going to talk about and each time landscapes and savage nature left me astonished as it was the first time.
[Click here to get the simple route plan to reach the Park].

All the engraved area is now inside the National Park of Mercantour and the access is limited in order to preserve such kind of ancient relics.
I'd like to give you some information on how to contact the responsibles of the two main shelters and the Park Management Office where you can find the details about the severe rules that regulates the access to the Mercantour National Park.
Remember: in France, rules have to be respected!
[click here to get the map of limited access area].

Park Management Office
23, rue d'Italie — 06000 Nice — Tel. 00330493167888
Turism Office of Tende village
Avenue du 16 septembre 1947 — 06430 Tende — Tel. 00330493047371
Houses of Mercantour National Park
Tende: Tel. 00330493046700
Castérino: Tel. 00330493048979
La Minière, Les Meches: Tel. 00330493046866
San Martin Vesubie: Tel. 00330493032315
Height 2111m. 76 beds. Prices: 80FF to sleep, 80FF for meal, 30/32FF for breakfast.
Opened only up to the end of September. October, opened only by reservation
Before June 1st:
Monsieur (Mr.) BARINGO — Impasse des sables — 05330 Saint Chaffrey — Tel. 00330492241628
After June 1st:
Monsieur (Mr.) BARINGO — Guardian of shelter "Merveilles" — 06430 Saint Dalmas de Tende — Tel. 00330493046464
Height 2221m. 62 beds. Prices: 80FF to sleep, 80FF for meal, 30/32FF for breakfast.
Opened only up to the end of September.
Before June 1st:
Monsieur (Mr.) DURANTI — Le Village — 04660 Champterchier — Tel. 00330492319120
After June 1st:
Monsieur (Mr.) DURANTI — Guardian of shelter "Valmasque" — 06430 Saint Dalmas de Tende — Tel. 00330493046464
Petroglyphs can be found over 2000 meters up to 2600 and to reach the Vallee des Merveilles site, people need 3 more hours hike from Les Meches (one of the 2 starting point to climb up) or 4 more hours hike from Cabane de Julie. To reach the second site people need 2 more hours hike from Cabane de Julie up to Fontanalbe Site.
Even if it is possible for a good hiker make a one-day hike in 12 more hours, years of experience allow me to advise a 2-day hike following this way: Casterino — Valley of Marvels — Les Meches. This is a more soft and relaxing trip.
Best between July and October.
The hike:
1st day: Cabane de Julie (Casterino) - Shelter "Mervilles".
Climb: 830 mt;
descent: 440 mt;
hours to hike: 6 hours [plus time spent to watch around, small rest, etc.];
difficulty: expert hiker.
2nd day: Shelter "Mervilles" - Archeological (protected) Sites - Les Meches.
Climb: 330 mt [It depends on how many sites you like to visit];
descent: 710 mt [long and large military road amidst bush];
hours to hike: 2,30 hours [plus time spent to visit the sites — 2 or 3 hours];
difficulty: average hiker.
"Vallée de la Roya" series TOP 25 n° 3841.OT, 1:25000.
[click here to get the a small map of the itinerary].
For people who want to take a look to the figures without climb up to the two valleys, In Tende, just near the post office (La Poste) and the old custom, there is a small museum with many moulders which reproduce some of the engraved surfaces.
The museum is in Avenue du 16 septembre 1947 - 06430 Tende. Tel. 00330493043250, Fax 00330493043253.
It is open (except Tuesday and Sunday) from 10:30 to 18:30 (Saturday 21:00) from May 1st to October 15th. From October 16th to April 30th. During April the museum closes at 17:00.
The museum is also closed from March 12th to 24th, from November 13th to 25th, December 25th and January 1st.

The Vallee des Merveilles is so called because there are a lot of lakes, rocks of various color, trees and flowers, and thousand of engraved figures. The place was well known by people who lived there and around and my grandfather told me about the work made to catalog the figures. Just staring from 1927 up to 1942 Carlo Conti was charged by the Archaeological Superintendance of Piedmont (The valley was Italian before 1947) to study the rocks. He catalogued about 35000 figures and also dug in the shelter that locals called Gias del Ciari (Shelter of the Mouse) and there he found pottery from Cardial Neolithic to early Bronze Age and some small silex blades.
He thus divided the region into 21 zones, using Roman notation (I-XXI). The C letters and the roman numbers engraved near the signs are witnesses of the work did by the Italian archeologist.
It is possible to find both prehistoric and historic engravings as well as pecked engravings and linear engravings. Pecked one are mostly prehistoric while linear one, easily made by a metal point, are mostly historic. It is often claimed that the high concentration of engarved rocks was due to the presence of two open air sanctuaries or sacred mountains (as written in the small guide on the rear of the map).
Although many places was chosen by prehistoric people because full of religious meanings, another fact to take in account is that those sandstone rocks are not exfoliated, perfectly polished by the glacier and not too hard to engrave. So is not sure that the area was a kind of sanctuary as supposed by some people.
Since three figures of high interest was found the Vallee des Merveilles has been divided in three regions: The rock of the Shaman, the Rock of the Chief and the Rock of Christ... This last one is a strange figure engraved in quite recent: the subject is a face that seems like the Christ one.

The main typologies of pecked prehistoric engravings are three: horned figures,

weapons (some daggers and halberds), grid figures (supposed to be square grids and topographic figures such as field and so on.

Prehistoric figures has been dated to the ancient Bronze Age (1800-1500 bC) because it is possible to recognize the shapes of Bronze Age daggers and halberds engraved on the rocks.
It is also possible to find few Copper Age axes, while most of the so called topographic engravings must be dated up to the first Chalcolithic period or to the late Neolithic, as demonstrated by a comparison with the identical figures in Valcamonica.
It is possible to say that the prehistoric period of Bego's site pecked engravings range from the late Neolithic to the Ancient Bronze Age, excluding the Iron Age, represented by the engravings in Valcamonica. Infact during the Iron Age the climate was supposed to be colder and people did not live in the area of Mount Bego and thus was not able to make engravings.
The themes of the engravings can be divided in two main categories: soil related figures such as topographic figures, cattle, plows) and weapons related figures (knives, daggers and halberds).
Soil related figures seem to be the older ones, often superimposed by daggers.

There was perhaps the influence of pastoral activity, but there was also perhaps a ritual intention in engraving a figure for cultural evidence or to bring good luck for the harvest.

Hunt scene
A kind of totem
Horned figures

Traveller's Memories: index
© Paolo Botton