Deep in the wide, rolling countryside in North West Burgundy, where small luminous-stoned villages punctuate vast grain fields and pockets of oak forest, there are limestone quarries that link one back in time in serene beauty.
One of these vast quarries lies just outside the tiny village of Aubigny, in the Puisaye area of Burgundy. On the spur-of-the-moment, we detoured to see whether the quarry was still open to visitors late one Sunday afternoon. It was, and as we entered though wide iron gates, the temperature dropped noticeably but the greeting was warm and smiling. Soon, a jolly, delightful geologist was introducing us to what proved to be a very unusual underground world that had a visible, wonderful history of man’s endeavour and at the same time, a sense of spacious beauty that one usually finds in great cathedrals and other such places.
In an area south of Auxerre, the main city in the Yonne Department of Burgundy, at least fifteen important quarries were exploited until roughly the middle of the 20th century. They were the result of geological upheavals and changes, from the granite protuberances of 500 million years ago, to their sinking beneath tropical seas 195 million years ago and eventual re-emergence as layers of marine-sedimented limestone during the Jurassic Age 157-159 million years ago.
The Aubigny quarry we visited was one of these quarries, now open to visitors after local initiatives to resuscitate what had become an underground junk yard, to the distress of the erstwhile quarry workers and their families. It has become a centre of transmission of stone-carving skills for the elite stone carvers of France, and there are also day-long classes for all ages to learn about working this magical glowing creamy gold limestone that has such a wonderful history.
Archaeological digs told of Roman exploitation of the quarry, and its use continued down the centuries, with a huge acceleration in demand for its building stone when Baron Haussmann went on a re-organising and building spree in Paris in the mid-19th century. All the villages, castles, churches and monasteries in the area use this local Forterre stone. In Paris, the Louvre, the Hôtel de Ville, the National Library, Hôtel-Dieu, the Opera Garnier, the Jardin des Plantes and even the massive bases for the Eiffel Tower – they are all built in this marvellous stone.
It has a special characteristic: the quarries are of course cool, but also very damp, so after the huge blocks of stone were chiselled and cut out of the rock face and then dragged to the surface on carts pulled by mighty horses, the blocks were covered and kept damp on their long journey, mainly by cart, to Paris. Once the stone was cut into smaller blocks, dressed and placed in position in the building, it began slowly to dry out. As it did so, the calcite in the stone “sweated” out, thus hardening the stone and giving it a very thin, hugely protective outer skin. As long as that skin remains intact, the stone is impervious to rain, frost and other weather assaults. However, alas, it was not immune to the famous “ravalement” of the 1960s onwards, when the stone was blasted clean with grit and water to restore Paris to its former golden glory. A lot of damage was done which then had to be remedied, and new, less damaging ways of cleaning off pollution had to be found.
Even the ways these giant stone blocks were cut out of the rock face were impressive. Long iron lances were pounded in the rock by hand, in vertical and horizontal lines, slowly defining the block. Three sides were thus chiselled out, but originally, to dislodge the block from the rock face at the back, wooden wedges were hammered in, the wood swelled in the damp and the rock was split away. Later long, wicked-looking saws were used to cut out the blocks, but always, the final moment of the block crashing away from the rock face called for a cushioning of the block to prevent breakage. The men worked in the damp and penumbra, originally only with small, smoky oil lamps, which left their own patterns on the quarry ceilings. Later, acetylene lamps were invented and that improved the situation for the workers.
Now, the vast Aubigny quarry is beautifully, discreetly lit, (although still difficult to photograph), and with its huge proportions, different levels and sense of golden space, it is truly impressive. The patterns from the lances chiselling into the rock, the saw marks and even the water drips on the stone floor are all minimalist art, pure! Piles of small rocks and sculptures glowing creamy gold are punctuation points in the spacious chambers.
Like Gothic cathedrals and other such edifices, this quarry left both a memory of awe at man’s endeavours and wonderment at the beauty of those minute remains of ancient marine life laid down and compressed into golden, living stone.