Set on the old horse market, near the Jardin des Plantes in the 13th arrondissement in Paris is the Institut de Paléontologie Humaine (L’IPH).
I came across it by chance last year and was amazed by the beautiful sculpted friezes along the façades of the building. Unfortunately, all the photos disappeared when my computer broke...
Nevertheless, I was able to time another visit with the Les Journées du Patrimoine in September and therefore managed to enter the establishment – a stroke of luck as it is not open to the general public.
To ensure entrance, I had to reserve my visit in advance, and on the big day, I duly queued up before entering to listen to the talk given in the amphitheatre.
I did feel quite a fake, as my main interest was admittedly the architecture and decoration of the institute itself rather than the traces of the our ancestors from prehistorical times.
Although the assorted parts of the anatomy on display of Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons were interesting to look at, I did not feel any particular connection with these as such.
This reminded me of my favourite old museums before they were overtaken by digital, interactive gimmickry that always seems to distract you from the main object of your visit…
However my mind could not get any real grasp of the time perspective since this was a question of tens of thousands of years.
I could not imagine any common link between these ancient beings and their distant descendants – us.
Nevertheless, in one of the main rooms was a collection of artifacts that cut across that vast stretch of time like a lightning bolt.
Carved onto large pebbles and smooth stones were the unmistakable images of animals, whilst other display cabinets contained effigies of the female body.
The skill that had been employed to create these is breathtaking, and the ability to reproduce the bestial essence of the creatures with such accuracy - bear, bison, horse – seems to accentuate the human in their creators.
I found this incredibly moving, just as I did the Chauvet cave paintings from Werner Herzog's documentary, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010). Alongside that, of course, I was very pleased to be exploring what is indeed a ‘temple dedicated to the prehistoric’ as this also happens to be a magnificent example of art nouveau!
It was created in in 1910, on the demand of Prince Albert I of Monaco (1848-1922), who had a keen interest in natural science, especially oceanography and human paleontology.
The prince was advised on this project by l’abbé Henri Breuil and de Marcellin Boule, professor of paleontology in the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, following a visit to the grottos of the Pyrénées Cantabriques in 1909.
Three main missions are carried out by the IPH ; field (archaeological excations) and laboratory research ; the conservation of all artifacts found ; the issue of research findings via meetings, conferences, exhibitions and publications. It works in collaboration with Asia, Turkey, India, China and South Korea to trace the first prehistoric settlements.
The architect Emmanuel Pontremoli, awarded the prix de Rome in 1890 and director of the l’École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-arts, was commissioned to carry out the work for the creation of the institute.
It used the array of materials that had started to be brought together for the construction of buildings in the art nouveau period and for their rich eclectic decoration – with frescos, iron-and wood work, mosaics and glass. The institute has a particular imposing elegance– set on a slope – and the wealth of detail on the double façade draws you in closer.
It is built of Euville limestone, with brick insets and above the main entrance are set the coat of arms of the Prince of Monacco. It is set out over four levels, each of which respect the initial scientific requirements of the IPH for research, collection and display.
On passing through the beautiful glass-and-metal entrance, you encounter the beautiful, rounded structural forms of the hall, with its intricate mosaics underfoot, which leads onto various rooms – such as the conference hall where the present director Mr Henry de Lumley gave his talk. His total devotion to archeology, geology and the prehistoric, expertise, yet warmth and total lack of pretention created a unique atmosphere, whilst the room itself, with its art nouveau detail, was incredible.
As you go up the impressive staircase, you feel a strange mixture of sobriety and calm, alongside the odd impression that such ancient relics of the past can give – the traces of the dawn of civilisation in Man. On the first floor is the library which is the central feature from which the other rooms radiate.
You just want to get locked in overnight to expore – hence my disappointment on my second trip to the institute when I was told that visits were only for professionals, and my excitement when I realised that a third trip would gain me access thanks to the Journées du Patrimoine.
What caught my attention when I first sighted the IPH last summer was the stunning sculpted bas-relief frieze that runs around the three façades of the building. These too create a strange impression of proximity, yet imposing distance – featuring civilisations far removed from our own, yet still clearly human. Part of this is due to the decision of the sculptor, Constant Roux, to draw on scenes of the daily existence of primitive peoples which serve as a distant echo to that of prehistoric man.
In this way, it relies on comparative ethnography to convey the image of the familar, yet ‘wild’. We see depictions of acitivities of the traditional hunter-gatherer peoples, killing beasts, fishing, gathering around each other through portraits of aborigenes of Australia and the Fuegians of South America.
Actual images of prehistoric man are not presented directly, other than those of Cro-Magnons, shown painting cave walls, at the entrance of the IPH.
I found this approach to be very effective, firstly for the incredible evocation of emotion and vitality shown on the whole body of these sculpted individuals, but also from my recollections of the study of the ancient Fuegian people and the Inuit.
What is also strange is that passers-by just amble along, without even noticing the incredible decoration of this building, but I suppose that’s the lot of modern-day man. We’re all too caught up in our daily occupations and fleeting preoccupations, eyes rivetted onto some screen or another to lift our gaze up and beyond.
What did catch the general public’s attention a few years ago was the arrival in the IPH of a certain illustrious beast, of some 15,000 years old. Priscillia the fossilized woolly rhinoceros was installed in the heart of the institute library in December 2011, to commemorate the centenary of the establishment, and apparently named after the daughter of her donator.
She is one the last representatives of the species Coelondonta antiquitatis. Unfortunately, she had to be relieved of her amazing horn, for fear of it being stolen, so what we see now it a golden replica.
Although it might not be that easy to go inside the IPH, the exterior of the building itself is well worth a visit - just remember to look up!