La Grotte de la Vache

The Cave of the Cow


Useful Information

Location: Alliat, Niaux.
(42.82084967139426, 1.5874796240460163)
Open: closed
[2021]
Fee: closed
[2021]
Classification: SpeleologyKarst cave ArchaeologyPainted Cave
Light: LightIncandescent Electric Light System
Dimension: L=250 m, A=578 m asl.
Guided tours: D=90 min. V=1,000/a [2016]
Photography: not allowed
Accessibility: yes
Bibliography: René Gailli (2003): La grotte préhistorique de la Vache à Alliat Nîmes, C. Lacour , 2003, 55 p.-XLI p. de pl. en noir et en coul. Français - French reference
Jean Clottes, Henri Delporte et al. (2004): La grotte de La Vache (Ariège) (2 vol.), Réunion des musées nationaux, 2004, 872 p., ISBN-10: 2711844994, ISBN-13: 978-2711844999 Français - French amazon
Address: Grottes de Haute Ariege, 09400 Alliat, Tel: +33-561-059506, Fax: +33-561-647061. E-mail:
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.

History

1866 visited by Félix Garrigou.
excavations by Félix Regnault.
1872 excavations by Jean-Baptiste Noulet.
1940-1964 excavations by Romain Robert, Georges Malvesin-Fabre and Louis-René Nougier.
28-JAN-1952 registered a Historic Monument.
1953 the violinist René Gailli meets Romain Robert.
1980 cave opened to the public.
2017 cave managed by Sesta and closed to the public.

Description

Grotte de la Vache (Cave of the Cow) is the smallest of the prehistoric caves at Ariège, which are open to the public. The remains of this cave date between 15,000 and 12,000 years old. The most important chamber of the cave is called Monique, where a complete camp of the hunters was excavated. After 20 years of work it was possible to reconstruct the whole camp. This includes weaponry, tools, typical game and of course the artworks.

The cave is located above Niaux and the small village Alliat. It is best reached on a 450 m long footpath from the church of Alliat, which also passes the Grotte des Fées (Fairy Cave) and the Spoulga d'Alliat (Cave Castle or fortified cave). It served as a refuge during the war of the Albigenses. The outlook from the cave entrance offers a view of the Cave of Niaux, only 500 m away on the other side of the valley. The cave was most likely named cave of the cow, because it was used as a shelter for cattle. It was actually called Caougnos de los Baccos (Caves of the Cows) in the local dialect. However, others say the name was derived from the strange shape of the rock facing the entrance to the cave. It is said to have the contours of a cow.

The cave has actually two entrances, one opening to the east is called the main entrance, while another one to the south-east is called side entrance. The 250 m long passage runs northward and has three chambers, the two entrances meet in the first chamber, which is named Salle Garrigou. A 50 m long gallery leads to the Salle Triangulaire (Triangular chamber). The third chamber named Salle de Monique was discovered by the little daughter of the archaeologist Romain Robert, Monique Robert, in 1952. And it was subsequently excavated by him for more than a decade.

The Salle Garrigou is named after the French doctor, speleologist and hydrologist Félix Garrigou. He visited the cave in 1866 and undertook excavations in this chamber revealing an archaeological layer 50 cm to 55 cm thick, very rich in Magdalenian lithic and bone material and in works of art. His excavations are stopped by a layer of flowstone. A few years later the excavations were continued by his friend Félix Regnault. He discovered bones which were broken intentionally other lithic and organic objects from the "reindeer age". Then Jean-Baptiste Noulet, the director of the Toulouse Natural History Museum, continued the excavations in 1872 and donated his discoveries to his own museum.

Then there was a long pause of almost 70 years. The techniques of the archaeologist were far more sophisticated, when the excavations were restarted by Romain Robert, Georges Malvesin-Fabre and Louis-René Nougier. In 1940 Romain Robert started at the south-eastern entrance. One year later he was visited by Abbé Henri Breuil who suggested to to excavate the first chamber. He finds an intact archaeological layer and excavated it until 1950. In 1952 He discovered the Monique room and excavated it until 1964, some say until 1967. So he actually spent at least 25 years of his life in this cave and collected a large number of objects.

The violinist René Gailli meets Romain Robert at the cave in 1953. It changed his life and he became hooked. He produced monographs on the caves of Niaux, Les Églises and Bédeilhac. In 1964 he organized the first visits at Bédeilhac, guiding himself. In 1979 he proposed to the mayor of Alliat to open the Cave of the Cow, which was actually done in 1980. He gave lectures on prehistory and wrote books on the Ariège and its cave, and he was the curator of the Bédeilhac Cave and La Vache Cave for many decades, keeping them independent from Sesta, the service for operating tourist sites in Ariège.

The main discoveries at La Vache were sculpted bones and ivory. There were also uncountable Magdalenian tools, arrowheads, and other debris. So this was the place where the artists of Bédeilhac actually lived. And that's the reason why there are no paintings and no engravings, while Niaux has no remains of meals or evidence of habitation, no artefacts apart from a single bone needle. So the cave is today actually a sort of cave archaeology museum. The most spectacular discovery is a fragment of a bone with engraved cave lions, and a second bone with two wolves facing one another. Then there is a bone with two reindeer, one sniffing the other. Another engraved bone shows ibex in profile and face on. Even human silhouettes and some symbols were found. Most are exhibited at the Musée d'Archeologie Nationale et Domaine at St-Germain-en-Laye, a suburb of Paris.

René Gailli fought decades to keep La Vache and Bédeilhac independent from Sesta. But after he died in 2017 at the age of 90, the caves were closed for several months and both caves were now finally managed by Sesta. Reopened in JUN-2017, it seems the cave was finally closed. The new website mentions the existence only with a very short comment, there are no explanations given why it is closed, but as no open hours and ticket prices are given we guess it is now closed for good. It seems this cave was not spectacular and profitable enough, in 2016 it was visited by only 1,000 people.