My second case study of the summer was at the Musée de la Préhistoire in Tautavel, France. The town became famous for its proximity to Argo Cave, a landmark situated on a steep slope above the Roussillon Plain of Tautavel and the River Verdouble. Evidence of Homo erectus occupation can be seen throughout the cave in layers of rock saturated with abandoned stone tools, animal bones, rudimentary kitchens, and human burials. The famed “Tautavel Man” is not a single complete skeleton, but rather a reconstruction based on about 100 fragmented remains totaling around 20 individuals. The skull of Tautavel Man was discovered around 40 years ago in the cave and dates back 450,000 years.
Alongside one of the head curators of the museum, I spent the day visiting the exhibits, touring storage facilities, and conducting interviews. Mid-afternoon we stopped in at the town’s auditorium to catch the end of an archaeology lecture by an Italian researcher. The presentation was part of a two-week intensive Erasmus archaeology workshop for professors and students from all corners Europe and assorted surrounding regions. After conversing with various academics, we made our way to a charming restaurant owned by friends of the curator. I was treated to a delicious lunch complete with my first Crema Catalana for dessert.
Lunch The Tautavel Man A cast (replica) of Tautavel Man’s skull
Since the Musée de la Préhistoire is primarily an archaeological research institution and houses a large collection of ancient European remains, it provided a unique perspective imparted by no other museum on my itinerary. The institution has no written documents dictating treatment procedures of human specimens, as most practices have been adopted from past decades or established by the current director. No real remains are on display in the museum, just look-alike casts made on-site. This is not an issue of cultural sensitivity like I have encountered at other institutions, but rather an issue of research and preservation. The employees of the museum and visiting academics want to maintain the highest level of preservation and eliminate any chance of infliction of damage to these incredibly valuable remains. In addition, if specimens are on display then they are not readily available for scientific investigation. Rather than using separate rooms for research and storage, qualified individuals conduct their studies in the same room where the remains are kept in an effort to minimize damage as a result of transportation. Most human specimens can be found in the large main storage room in wooden drawers and plastic bags, while remains over 10,000 years old are kept in a high-security vault to which only select individuals have access.
Casts of famous remains from other countries The lab in which casts are created (Note the vault off to the right)