I visited the Vallée des Merveilles, or “Valley of the Marvels”, to see its rich heritage of petroglyphs before the winter snows will cover them until late spring. Being an archaeologist myself, I was fascinated by the idea of having both open country scenery (my favorite along with cloud forests) and history.
About two hours form the French town of Nice and 3-4 hours from the Italian town of Torino, it is one of the richest sites in the Alps for rock art: it hosts between 40000 and 100000 rock engravings, dating to the III millennium B.C. Besides, the area features stunning scenery, with barren rocky peaks, several lakes and abundant wildlife: chamois, ibex or marmots are easily encountered in the high elevations. A wonderful place indeed!
The petroglyph called the “Christ”
In the early Bronze Age, during summer time groups of men used to come around Mt. Bego, the valleys of Merveilles and Fontanalba. Above 2000m, on the rocks smoothed by the action of the long gone glaciers, they engraved several petroglyphs, representing in a stylized shape horned animals, pastoral scenes, weapons and figures. This iconography originates from the agro pastoral communities but features also many symbolic representations of the rich Mediterranean cultural cluster (horned bull, daggers).
View on the Vallée des Merveilles
Petroglyphs depicting weapons and and symbols on a rock in Alpine landscape of the Vallée des Merveilles, Mercantour
Not much is known about the ancient people who lived around 5,000 years ago in this part of the Alps, but they left vivid expressions of themselves and their world as rock engravings scattered throughout the lush meadows of this part of the Maritime Alps. The populations that centuries later would be known as Celts did not exist yet.
Trekking and discovering these figures on the trail is a rewarding experience, and by hiking it’s really possible to see through the different ages: it turned into a journey back in time, also because you are following the steps of many others before. This place is quite remote, but the area has been used for centuries and still is (each summer herds of sheep, cows and goats are brought here to feed on the lush meadows) and the petroglyphs have been known for a long time. They were mentioned in several chronicles from the late Middle Age, who tell about “some devils on the rocks”. Later, in the XIX century, they were connected with the famous crossing of the Alps of Hannibal. Sir Clarence Bicknell at the end of the same century spent 15 years cataloguing the petroglyphs, recording evidence of at least 15000 rock engravings. Now the petroglyphs are part of a National Park and are still under study.
Rock engravings reproducing daggers and horned animals below Mount Bego in the Vallée des Merveilles, the Mercantour National Park (France)
Petroglyphs representing horned animals