Contribute something productive you reprobate!!

The leading English language magazine. Now covering Poitou-Charentes, Dordogne, Vendée and Haute-Vienne too!

Living magazine distribution map

Dinosaur Valley - Looking back in Angeac

Dinosaur Valley - Looking back in Angeac

You never know what might lie beneath your feet, as a rural community in Charente discovered when it suddenly found itself the proud possessor of Europe’s most important site of dinosaur remains.

Dinosaurs_Angeac_Village-charente-franceIn the face of it, the small village of Angeac-Charente looks much like many other rural communities slumbering peacefully around the Poitou-Charentes region. Apart from the arrival in 1867 of the Angoulême-Cognac railway line, and a still continuing expansion of viticulture in the surrounding landscape, not a great deal seems to have happened around here since the sturdy Gothic Eglise Saint-Pierre rose from the heart of the village during the mid-14th century.

That was pretty much the view of local people too, until one day in 2008 when everything suddenly changed. Workers at a local quarry had for some years been putting aside the bones – mostly large vertebrates like elephants or even mammoths – which would appear from time to time during routine extractions of gravel. On the day in question, however, they were surprised to uncover what looked like a vertebra, but which was around four times the size of anything they’d previously come across.

This time they decided to seek the expert opinion of Jean-François Tournepiche, Archaeological Conservationist at the Musée d’Angoulême, who was well aware that the only creatures possessing vertebrae of such a size (around 30cm in diameter) were whales and dinosaurs. He therefore called in Didier Néraudeau, from the Laboratoire Géosciences de Rennes, whose subsequent detailed examinations revealed that the bone had come from a group known as sauropods – the largest dinosaurs which ever walked the earth. This meant that the quarry workers’ chance discovery had been lying there undisturbed since the Lower Cretaceous period, around 150 million years ago.

The find seemed destined to remain an isolated event until February 2010, when several more sauropod bones were unearthed, whereupon the site took on a whole new significance for the world of paleontology. With the support of the Audouin family, who own and operate the quarry, two geological surveys were carried out to determine the extent of the areas likely to contain further fossil deposits or ‘gisements’ – in geological terms, lignitic beds from the Hauterivian-Barremian period. The following summer a team headed by Jean-François Tournepiche, Didier Néraudeau and his colleague from Rennes Romain Vullo unearthed many more remains, including the largest complete sauropod femur ever found in Europe. At over 2.2m long, it must have come from a creature 30-40m in length and weighing around 40 tonnes. What’s more, surveys suggest that the total area of dinosaur bone deposits is probably in excess of 10,000m2, and that what has come to light so far is as nothing compared to what will be revealed in the years to come.

Angeac’s once unexceptional quarry thus found itself elevated to international celebrity as Europe’s most important site for paleontologists. So, in June 2012, the Conseil Général de la Charente purchased 7,500m2 of the quarry to ensure that scientific excavations can continue side by side with the quarry’s normal commercial operations.

dinosaur-valley-charente-france

Not that either activity has any great impact on the surrounding landscape – were it not for occasional ‘Fouilles Paléontologiques’ road signs around the village most visitors would probably be totally unaware of the nearby excavations. Each summer, though, the work continues to a rhythm determined by the relatively brief periods when the normally waterlogged site can be pumped dry and the quarry is on its annual holiday closure. At that point, with only modest weather protection, courtesy of a simple tent-style marquee, teams of twenty or so dedicated volunteers (most of them students) begin carefully removing soil to expose what might lie beneath their feet.

The work is demanding, since the evidence they’re looking for can be on a minute scale (spores and pollen, for example, offer a valuable means of dating the strata in which they occur) and can involve using the kind of tools you might normally expect to find in the hands of a dentist. “The work requires tenacity and perseverance... in all probability the entire Charente valley, currently covered by alluvial deposits, contains dinosaur remains,” says M Tournepiche – ‘Bill’ to his colleagues. He of all people should know, since the bones, fossilized vegetation and other objects found in the fifty or so square metres examined in a typical campaign of work at the Angeac site alone requires subsequent painstaking washing, cleaning, identification and documentation back in Angoulême. This continues until the following July, when it’s time for the next campaign of excavations to begin.

The team’s current view is that the midsummer campaigns are likely to continue for the next 10-15 years, with M Néraudeau coordinating paleontology specialists and other research collaborators from institutes throughout France, including the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle de Paris, the Universities of Rennes and Lyon, the Union National des Industries de Carrières et Matériaux (UNICEM) plus the communes of Angeac-Charente and the Châteauneuf region.

dinosaur-valley-charente-france

The work also clearly inspires real passion, and not just for those who are directly involved. Already the unprecedented scale of the finds has generated considerable public interest, and in the years to come the Département has plans to establish an interpretation centre on the site. In the meantime, the series of accompanied site visits offered by the Office de Tourisme in Cognac and Châteauneuf-sur-Charente in 2012 and 2013 were fully subscribed by both locals and visitors, with 2014 looking likely to follow suit (see our factfile for details of this summer’s visits).

If you can’t make these dates you can see some of the finds from this and other sites in the region displayed in a fittingly atmospheric setting on the ground floor of the excellent Musée d’Angoulême.

Charting the Lie of the Land

Located close to the Charente river’s southern banks or rive gauche, the quarry and its remarkable deposits lie roughly 20km southwest of Angoulême and 12km or so southeast of Jarnac, in the northern section of the Aquitaine Basin, a region bounded to the east by the Massif Central and to the north by the ancient realm of Poitou. With vast plains and slight depressions around the river as it flows westwards to the Atlantic ocean, the relatively flat landscape is home to farms, vineyards and to small quarries. The latter extract mainly alluvial sand and gravel, but deposits around Angeac also include marl (lime-rich mud containing clays and silt) plus fossil-rich lignitic or lignitifère layers formed during the Cretaceous period.

dinosaur-valley-angeac-charente

Scientific excavations have provided clear evidence that the area was largely freshwater swamps or marshland inhabited by molluscs, fish (including a species of shark), turtles, crocodiles and even plesiosaurs. Ferns and conifers were also sufficiently abundant to sustain giant herbivores like the sauropods.

The first serious studies of the region’s fossil deposits were carried out in 1817 by La Rochelle naturalist Benjamin Fleuriau Bellevue, who identified Cretaceous lignitic beds and what he believed to be a sunken forest between the Fouras peninsula and the Ile d’Aix. In 1829 eminent geologist and mineralogist Alexandre Brongniart suggested a connection with the Weald of southern England, and in 1858 geologist Henri Coquand discovered fossils at Champblanc, northeast of Cognac, at what is now known to paleontologists worldwide as the Carrière de Cherves-Richemont. The site has since yielded a huge number of bone specimens including those from mammoths and dinosaurs from sedimentary deposits classified as Kimmeridgian or Jurassic-Cretaceous.

Angouleme-museum-dinosaur-collection

Find Out More

Several visits to Angeac-Charente’s Fouilles Paléontologique are available daily from 10-31 July. Visits are free, but are strictly by prior reservation only at the Office de Tourisme  in Cognac (05 45 82 10 71; www.tourism-cognac.com ) and in Châteauneuf-sur-Charente (05 45 97 13 32; www.tourisme-chateauneufsurcharente.com ).
See also: www.cc-region-chateauneuf16.fr/site-paleontologique-Angeac.html 

The Musée d’Angoulême adjoins the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre in rue Corneille. Open Tue-Sun (closed 1 Jan, 1 May, 1 Nov and 25 Dec) 10am-6pm. Admission free; audio guides (French and English) available 1.50€; www.musee-angouleme.fr 

Paleontology in Charente & Charente Maritime: www.ouest-paleo.net 

Award-winning French site dedicated to dinosaurs and paleontology: www.dinonews.net 

Several interesting Angeac entries feature on this blog: http://petitcarnetpaleo.blogspot.fr

dinosaur-valley-angeac-charente

 

© Living Magazine - all rights reserved. First published in June 2014