An archaeologist reveals the secrets of the Valley of Wonders

At an altitude of over 2,000 metres, in the Mercantour National Park in the heart of Provence, thousands of rock engravings adorn ochre rocks polished by glaciers. Join an archaeologist on an enlightened walk through the Vallée des Merveilles.

In the hinterland of Nice, thunderstorms have always crowned the 2,872 metre high Mont Bégo with lightning. Did it attract the authors of the rock engravings scattered in the surrounding high valleys? "In Neolithic times, the pastures and the abundance of water attracted shepherds and possibly farmers," explains Nicoletta Bianchi, a doctor of prehistory and author of a thesis on the archaeological and chronological context of protohistoric engravings in the Mont Bégo region. "The shepherds come here for transhumance. It's probably their beliefs and way of life that led them to carve on the schist and sandstone rocks around the pastures, in parallel with their pastoral activities", adds the specialist who accompanies us to the Vallée des Merveilles archaeological site.

An open-air museum

Here, corniforms, anthropomorphic figures, daggers and geometric figures adorn large canvases of ochre stone. A veritable open-air museum, with almost 35,000 prehistoric rock engravings made by staking. To reach this lunar valley, suspended at an altitude of over 2,000 metres, surrounded by lakes and watched over by Mont Bégo, you have to climb a pleasant path along a stream shaded by larches and stone pines. The route starts near Casterino, around a hundred kilometres north-east of Nice. The less athletic will take a 4x4 for an hour's climb on a very chaotic track.

"The first engravings may date back to 4,500 BC. For a long time, these were propitiatory ornaments, to ask for good harvests or healthy herds. This explains the abundance of corniform motifs, an allusion to horned animals, in the period up to the end of the Bronze Age*," explains our expert in front of La roche de l'Eclat. This is the first large-scale engraving on the path that crosses the valley, a chaos of mottled rocks and erratic boulders in shades of green and purple, where there are no trees.

"Then there was a change, perhaps linked to a change in culture or climate. Engravings were made on rocks far from the pastures, at higher altitudes. A system of chiefdoms emerged. It's a question of prestige and power, symbolised by the motif of the weapon*", continues Nicoletta.

Towards Lac des Merveilles

We continue our climb. There are fewer and fewer patches of alpine meadows with carpets of fuchsia rhododendrons. We stop in front of Christ, one of the site's emblematic anthropomorphic motifs. Incisions in the stone form a head, eyes and beard. A line of dots evokes a crown of thorns. "A warrior figure, very common in the Alps*", comments the archaeologist.

Higher up, set between steep cliffs, Lac des Merveilles is an emerald green mirror in which lichen-covered rocks are reflected. A chamois leads us to the highlight of the archaeological site: the Roche de l'Autel. A huge, slightly sloping slab of ochre with a profusion of motifs. "This slab is like an offering. The figures date from all periods, from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age. The daggers, axes and halberds that cover the other motifs show just how much metallurgy revolutionised society*," analyses Nicoletta.

The sun exhales the scent of plants. Scents of thyme flatter our nostrils. Like the researchers, shepherds and walkers who have traversed these great spaces of solitude before us, our minds wander. We look up to the summit of the Grand Capelet mountain. The highest engraving discovered is perched up there at 2,900 metres. A large anthropomorphic figure that has yet to reveal all its secrets...

Our tip for your visit:

The best way to explore the Vallée des Merveilles archaeological site is to take one of the guided tours led by mountain guides approved by the Mercantour National Park. There are two to four 3-hour tours a day between June and September.

Recommendations and advice:
What if discovery started at the very beginning of your journey? If so, come aboard the Train des Merveilles (External link) ! Magnificent scenery, lush greenery, it's all there for a gentle, contemplative journey that will take you all the way to the Musée des Merveilles before enjoying a guided walk, as we did.

Find out more:

Visiting the Vallée des Merveilles on the Côte d'Azur