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Particle Physics and Pony Fiction Experimentalist

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Ogres and Oubliettes; Spelunkers and Skeletons · 11:59pm Aug 28th, 2016

Interesting to note that Google Trends showed a spike for searches for “oubliettes” yesterday. I guess it’s not a word which the young audience encounter every day.

[There is an etymological footnote here (courtesy of Wikipedia): dungeon comes from the French donjon, referring to the tower of a castle. Somehow the English meaning of this changed to mean an underground cell, or the French oubliette.]

Which reminds me of a talk I attended some years ago when in France, by a palaeontologist from Avignon. It was in French and I only understood about half of it, but I picked up that she was repeatedly using the word oubliette, which frustrated me greatly, as I knew I had heard that word before but I couldn’t remember what it meant…

This gives me an opportunity to go off on a random tangent and tell a sinister science story about dark holes in the ground and lots of bones.

The Vaucluse département in south-east France is a beautiful region of stunning landscapes and hill-top villages. Like most of France it has endured a violent history. It was the home of notorious characters like the Maquis de Sade, with many fortified chateaux.

But the oubliette of this story is of natural origin. The limestone hills of the region have been eroded by acidic rain over millions of years, leading to a karst system with a complex underground network of sinkholes and caves. Five million years ago, when geological movements closed the Straight of Gibraltar, the Mediterranean Sea evaporated and the water table inland fell sharply, leading to the formation of vertical shafts and underground galleries. The result was a mountain landscape dotted with deep holes, which would act as natural traps for the local fauna.

Imagine, some ten thousand years ago, a young Pleistocene pony was happily prancing through the hills, shaking her mane in the breeze, chasing butterflies… then she misses her step and oops, it’s plungee plungee plungee… death death death. If she were to survive the fall, then before dying of starvation, she would see the thousands of skeletons of other animals which have accumulated in the cave, included many species such as reindeer dating to the late glacial period.

Sadly she would probably be too stressed to undertake a serious study, so this had to wait until 2007 when Evelyne Cregut and her team started an investigation, removing and sorting the bones, counting the different species, and piecing together a chronology using radiocarbon dating. The results provide a detailed record of the fauna in the region over a period of thousands of years, showing how the climate has changed—at one point critters like the arctic lemming ranged this far south. Examining the shapes of skulls, let them show how species had adapted to the changing environment. Among the over ten thousand bones identified, were the remains of seven horses—members of the Equus Caballus Gallicus family, who were hunted by early humans, as detailed in cave painting of this era.

The science was fascinating, but I was also struck by how unimaginably tedious much of her work must be—sorting the bones of thousands of mice, voles, weasels, stoats… Her paper lists 78 species including red deer, wild boar, and the occasional human. But she told how their prize specimen in their collection was the skeleton of a pregnant mare, complete with that of her foetus.

Reference: The karst of the Vaucluse, an exceptional record for the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) and the Late-glacial period palaeoenvironment of southeastern France

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Comments ( 8 )

Fascinating. A little disturbing, but I tend to feel that way whenever "prize specimen" and "fetus" are in the same sentence. Still, gotta love circumstantial data treasure troves.

Yeah, once you mentioned sorting bones, the very first thing I thought of was "Christ that must have taken forever."

I wonder how English got the word "Keep" to refer to the main tower of a castle, and donjon went to refer to the lower cells. Especially considering how much of English started off as French.

That is creepy, and sounds like a great basis for a ghost story.


If Wikipedia is to be believed, it relates to the shape of the tower: "The word originates from around 1375 to 1376, coming from the Middle English term kype, meaning basket or cask"

So when are you going to write a tragedy about a pregnant mare who falls into a hole and dies?

EDIT: Holy shit what if this were an alternate timeline and the pregnant mare was Twilight Velvet!

I knew I had heard that word before but I couldn’t remember what it meant…


Not much to say in response, but that's a fascinating story, and thank you as always for giving us something to think about.


Old Gray Mane already wrote a tragedy about a pregnant mare dying:

Old Grey Mane

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