Scientist as Historian: Falling in Love With France and Its Troves of Ancient History

Historians in the News

A few miles upstream from this red-roofed village in the Périgord region of southern France, the meandering Vézère River flows past the entrance to the Gorge of Hell. A trail runs along the base of a limestone cliff to a locked steel door. Behind the door, which can be opened to a visitor only by appointment, is the oldest depiction of a fish ever discovered.

About 25,000 years ago, a prehistoric artist carved the yardlong, bas-relief sculpture into the yellowish ceiling of a shallow rock shelter known today as the Abri du Poisson. The image is so vivid and detailed that experts have been able to make out its species, Salmo salar, the Atlantic salmon.

The fish is framed by a rectangular pattern of deep, closely spaced holes, which, according to Périgord lore and guidebooks on sale at the National Museum of Prehistory in Les Eyzies, are the remnants of an abortive attempt by a Swiss archaeologist to remove this precious artwork and sell it to Berlin’s prehistory museum.

Conventional accounts of the episode, which dates to 1912, maintain that this treachery was stopped just in time by the valiant efforts of French prehistorians led by Denis Peyrony, a local schoolteacher who founded the Les Eyzies museum and conducted some of the Périgord’s most important archaeological digs.

On a crisp evening in March, however, the archaeologist Randall White of New York University stood at the lectern of the museum’s 126-seat auditorium and told the capacity crowd a very different story. The Swiss archaeologist, Otto Hauser, was innocent, Dr. White argued, the victim of an ugly press campaign that included vicious anti-Semitic and anti-German slurs, even though Hauser was neither Jewish nor German.

As Dr. White maintains in his new book in French on the scandal, “L’Affaire de L’Abri du Poisson,” the attempted abduction of the fish was carried out entirely by local French citizens, including the owner of the surrounding land....
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