Art, Sirenes and Sireniens in a French Geological Reserve

The French Natural Geological Reserves Network includes the Réserve Géologique de Haute-Provence.

This reserve is dedicated to presenting and preserving the geological record of the area via wonderful museums and a fabulous outdoor museum. Spectacular folds created by the formation of the Alps, a geological history of some three hundred million years with extraordinary fossil exposures and preserved specimens should be wonderful enough, but I was also pleasantly surprised by, some monumental works by Andy Goldsworthy at the Digne-les-Bains geology museum and the surrounding area (a film "Rivers and Tides" about Goldsworthy's art received the Golden Gate Award Grand Prize for best documentary at the SF International Film Festival in 2002).  Some views of Digne and the Bléone river from the museum.

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The path to the museum features a number of Goldsworthy's wonderful rock cairns conceived during his residencies and field work in the area since 1995.

As well there is one of Goldworthy's characteristic "seeds" and a fractured rock spiral in the entry to the museum.


They nicely prepare the visitor for the fantastic fossil specimens and extraordinary cephalopods on display in the museum. 

Museum display with sketches and specimens.

Out in the field, the "reserve" has well marked "information" signs at significant locations. This one where a series of tilted layers expose bedding surfaces.

This one with a spectacular display of large cephalopod fossil casts.

A close-up

Other geologic phenomena are presented to the traveler, in these contorted layers produced in the Alps formation.

 Here bird tracks on a ripple marked sedimentary rock 

 In these nearly vertical layers are exhibited and exhibit completely

over-turned sole markings (like those described previously in the Piera Cava region).

 Well exposed bottom surface exposures

 -- a close up....

 -- and flute marks defining the submarine flow from left to right

-- the basal layers contain pebbles and beleminite fragments

Going further down in the Mesozoic sequence the traveler is exposed to the Triassic "Keuper" of Europe, here with red beds and gypsum.

Below the Mesozoic layers are folded shales of the Carboniferous.

In the winter and early spring one can even catch a glimpse of an angular unconformity betweeen the Upper Carboniferous (Stephanian) and the overlying Mesozoic Permian here.

 -- examples of the Carboniferous plants are placed on pedestals for visitors

And in Castellane there is a wonderful exhibition that tells of the history of sirenes ("a woman with a fishtail who lures men with her long hair and enchanting song") and the paleontology of sireniens (sea mammals like the manatee shown below that have been found and preserved in place near here).

But not is said that the fishgod, Oannes, emerged from the sea and brought science and culture to humanity. According to Berossus, a Babylonian priest of the 13th century B.C.,he taught the people who led a somewhat wretched existence and lived without rule after the manner of beasts the use of letters, sciences and arts of all kinds. He taught them to construct cities, to found temples, to compile laws, and explained to them the principles of geometrical knowledge. He made them distinguish the seeds of the earth, and showed them how to collect the fruits; in short he instructed them in everything which could tend to soften human manners and humanize their laws. It is suggested that from that time nothing material has been added by way of improvement to his instructions.
The story progresses on to Hans Christen Andersen who transformed the siren from an adult woman, perverse and luring, into an innocent young girl, virtous, fragile and in love. And the late eighteenth century exhibits of stuffed sirens trumped by Barnum's exhibition of "the siren from the Fiji Islands".

There is a lot of scientific information on living and recently extinct Sirenians (the Dugong of the Indian Ocean and Southwestern Pacific, the manatee of Florida and two other species distributed in the Caribbean, the Amazon Basin and West Africa, and the Bering Sea's extinct Steller's sea cow). Including the work of Dr Darrel Domning of Howard University who studied the fossil sirenians of California for his doctorate and cleaned up the geology of the Pt. Reyes Peninsula for us through the analysis of a fossil in our collection.

And you can get up close and personal.

Back in the field, the reserve has a permanent installation to protect and display the in situ fossils that have been excavated.

An Eosiren skull under glass. This is said to be one of the oldest sites with Sirenian fossils and they are reportedly very abundant.

Jim Locke (who is responsible for any misrepresentations of the information on this page)