Wednesday, May 29, 2013

La Cave Aux Coquillages, Fleury-la-Rivière

I know I've been talking about the Roman ruins scattered about, and how walking down narrow alleys between age-darkened buildings gives me the shivers from ghosts of times past, but to get a real sense of history, you need to look at things in terms of geologic eras. Underneath the clay and chalky soil of the Champagne vineyards is a relic of the shallow ocean that used to cover the area 45 million years ago, and under the village of Fleury-la-Rivière is a series of caves and galleries that have been carved out by amateur-turned-professional fossil hunter (and champagne maker, of course) Patrice Legrand, in La Cave Aux Coquillages.

A layer of shell-rich sandstone contains microfossils, and macrofossils as well, in particular the Campanile giganteum, a giant sea snail. M. Legrand was spending his free Sundays wandering around the region with a rock hammer looking for fossils and noticed that the cliffs and caves in this town had some of the richest concentrations of fossils, so he bought an old complex of farm buildings and began tunneling beneath and behind them into the hillside. He and his son have done all the work of carving out the tunnels, using only jackhammers and picks.

Once they identify the locations of the fossils, they choose which ones to leave in situ and which ones to bring out for further cleaning. M. Legrand said that he hopes to expand the caves and the fossil excavation project and invite people from schools and universities to come to study and work. They've just recently gotten permission to open the caves to the public - the permits were granted in 2011 - and he's still working on getting all the exhibits in order. The visit starts with a walk through time and a discussion of evolution, with displays of fossils from the region and from around the world representing a span of geologic eras, with trilobites and leaf-print fossils and even the impression of a dinosaur's foot. M. Legrand and his friends collected all the fossils themselves. Then going further into the cave system, you see the giant sea snail fossils coming out of the ceiling and walls, with niches full of shells to run your fingers through. He's got a very educational setup, well suited for elementary school visits, but it's not oversimplified, so it's interesting for adults as well. Especially when your mother requests that you ask questions about sedimentary stratification and thanatocoenosis, requiring vocabulary that did not make up part of my medieval French poetry classes and which took a good bit of rephrasing and pantomime.

A friend and fellow fossil-hunter created some dioramas in niches in the second cave gallery, showing the undersea environment and the animals that lived there, using fossils colored and provided with latex bodies to replace their long-gone meat ones. And there's a workshop space underground as well, where amateur fossil hunters, university students, and scientists can come to help out with the research and to pursue their own studies, but that wasn't open to the public.

In a large laboratory room above ground, the work of cleaning and sorting and identifying the fossils goes on. The work is done with dental tools, including old toothbrushes. Paintbrushes and shaving brushes are also used to dust off the surface before more chipping away of the crumbly stone is done. When the fossils are exposed, they have a choice to leave them partially embedded in pleasing configurations, or to extract them entirely. Either way, they protect the cleaned fossils with resin to preserve both shape and color, and add resin and acrylic to the stone so that it doesn't fall to pieces.

Mom bought a small fossil shell in a graceful fluted spiral that had just been finished the day before (most of the samples for sale were fairly boring smooth-shelled snails or clams, or unaffordable and untransportable giant snails). The sample cases are in the salon of the main building that M. Legrand and his wife use as part of their chambres d'hôtes business, with three rooms for rent, breakfast included. They've been renovating and restoring the old buildings, which takes much time and money. We couldn't figure out where the time came from, but some of the money must be from the champagne side of the business. His grandfather started working the vines, his father developed the champagne business, and he has continued to make champagne, though now he's only spending 50% of his time at that, with the other 50% devoted to expanding the fossil site into a study and research center.

We enjoyed the afternoon and the tour, and talking to yet another person totally passionate about what they're doing. And the champagne was good, too.

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