The first evidence of human occupation
Numerous digs over the course of the last century led to the exploration of several caves, or grottos, in the Roman aqueduct’s surroundings.
The Balauzière grotto
The Balauzière grotto (classified as a historical monument in 1958) is situated above the Gardon, and was explored in the 1930s and then again in the 1950s. It demonstrates evidence of human occupation dating from the Middle Palaeolithic era (approximately 80,000 to 50,000 BC) and includes remains of fossilised animals and flint tools.
The Sartanette grotto
The Sartanette grotto is a vast cavern with two entrances. Two corridors meet in the « salle des Morts » (‘the room of the dead’).
The grotto was also used during the Middle Ages. Among other things, it has given us a plant fossil from the Palaeolithic era (approximately 700,000 to 600,000 BC) that is highly important in studies of ancient fauna in the south of France.
Traces of human settlement in Neolithic times have also been discovered here, corresponding to the first farming settlements in these areas around 7,000 years ago.
The Salpêtrière grotto
Closer to the heart of the site, the Salpêtrière grotto ((classified as a historical monument in 1931), is not as well known as its prestigious neighbour the Pont du Gard, but gave its name to a cultural period of the Upper Palaeolithic era: the Salpetrian (from 19,000 to 13,000 BC). It is a major site of prehistoric France.
Known as a prehistoric site as early as the 19th century, it has revealed over six metres of evidence of habitation, in layers one on top of the other. This represents 20,000 years of human existence (between 30,000 and 10,000 BC).
One of the first engravings of animal depictions on bone to be found in France was discovered here. This piece now resides in the Natural History Museum in Nîmes.
Our « Salpetrian » hunter-gatherer ancestors established their huts and camps here, under the safety of the grotto’s ledge. They would hunt using weapons (such as harpoons or spears) made of bone or sharpened flint (for arrowheads) and decorate their bodies with necklaces made of shells gathered from the beaches.
On the right bank, you can spot the large opening on the esplanade not far from the Pont du Gard.
The Taï grotto
Situated in the small valley of Sartanette, this grotto has been referred to in books from the 19th century onwards.
It was explored in digs during the 1960s and 1970s. A CNRS team started researching it again in 2001 and discovered that the grotto had been used at various times during the Neolithic period.
A study of the grotto’s stratigraphy reveals two great periods of the Neolithic era :
- Ancient Neolithic (roughly 5,000 years before the present era), when early farming communities began to appear in the south of France,
- and Final Neolithic (roughly 3,000 years before the present era), a time when these farming communities began to organise themselves into villages and develop megalithic constructions (dolmens).