Media @ McGill

“Portals to Prehistoric Time: Caves, Holes, and the Excavation of the Distant Past”

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Sylvie Boisjoli


I traveled to Providence, Rhode Island to present a paper at the 42nd Annual Nineteenth-Century French Studies Conference hosted by Brown University. The conference’s theme, La Terre, explored how new modes of communication and social factors of modernization recast and adapted to changing nineteenth-century French conceptualizations of “the natural, material world.” I presented my paper entitled “Portals to Prehistoric Time: Caves, Holes, and the Excavation of the Distant Past” as part of the panel, “Hitting Rock Bottom: Earth, Time and Death in Nineteenth-Century France.” Along with my supervisor Dr. Mary Hunter and Dr. Lise Shreier (Fordham University), the panel investigated the political significance, patriotic implications, and affective intimations related to the impulse to dig into the ground to either bury or revive the dead. The three case studies from our papers explored instances of direct contact with digging holes as well as representations of national monuments, funerary rituals, and archaeological excavations.

My paper stemmed from a chapter of my dissertation that examines the fascination and anxieties surrounding representations of France’s distant prehistoric past in Salon paintings and popular scientific illustrations. For this paper, I focused on Léon Maxime Faivre’s large-scale painting Deux mères, which he exhibited at the 1888 Salon des Artistes Français. The work shows a mother and her two small children fleeing from a bear –a threatening beast scarcely visible in the painting’s far-right corner. The tension between human and animal, set between looming cavernous walls, was a way for the artist to imagine a dramatic conflict from prehistory.  My paper examined the particular cultural resonance produced by the knowledge of la préhistoire and how depictions of cavernous settings became a strategy to thrust viewers back into the most primitive time in French history. To do so I argued that Faivre’s (re)construction of prehistory should be understood within the context of new methods in archaeology and changing historical methods used to interpret objects and bodily remains uncovered from digs, especially those conducted in caves, across France.

In keeping with the theme of our panel, I also investigated how representations of caves and holes in the ground evoked the so-called primitive nature of France’s earliest human inhabitants. As I argue, this image anchored French identity to the formation of family bonds and put into prominence the idea that white mothers had played an integral role in ensuring that human heritage was sustained into modern society. Faivre, for example, linked France’s ancestral lineage to the representation of a fit, white mother who saves her children from animal violence. I thus analyzed how caves and holes were understood as signifiers of prehistoric time, particularly at this historical moment when archaeology was increasingly being used as a scientific method to (re)construct more complete visions of distant histories.