Tamar Yoseloff’s poems, and Petroglyphs in the Valley of the Marvels

The new Featured Writer is Tamar Yoseloff who has four collections to her name and who often, as you will see, writes remarkable poems responding to art and various media. She and you might be interested in these petroglyphs … or are they ideograms? Cuneiform or rock art? In the heart of the Mercantour National Park in the Southern Alps lies The Valley of Marvels – the Vallée des Merveilles.  Clustered around are names you would think were meant to be warnings: Il Lac du Diable, La Cime du Diable, le Vallon d’Enfer. Indeed, the place attracts thunder and lightning, bringing down boulders, splitting open rocks. Something to do with the minerals, I read somewhere. And lightning plays on the summit of Mt.Bego (whose name means ‘divine lord’) at 2,872 metres.

As you enter the Valley of Marvels from the lower end you pass beside the Splintered Rock incised with horned figures, a spiral, images in a grid pattern, daggers – mysterious or secret signs.


These images were made in about 1500BC. How have they survived?   A Frenchman we met suggested they might have been coloured once. Soon after, you walk under a high and forbidding black-ish cliff as if entering through a portal into a vast open-air temple.  It was early in the morning and the sun was gilding everything it touched. Windless in the valley the temperature was climbing out of the chill night.  Ice had formed in shallow puddles caught in dips in the rocks and frost lay in slices beneath stones.  A riverlet stormed down the valley between the fallen boulders.


Because of vandalism and the delicate nature of the petroglyphs you are prohibited from leaving the path but, all the same, to see the few engravings that are on the main route through, is to marvel at the connection between man and landscape. And what a landscape: etched by glaciers the summits so jagged they look as if they could make the blue sky bleed, boulders balanced on the edge of ridges and escarpments as if they are warriors or maybe priests observing your progress. In mountian worship all these stones must have been held sacred. Such an inhospitable place for life of any kind is hard to imagine. Yet 2000 species of plants flower and seed through  the summer, and no less than 40 of those are unique to this area. A place for retreat, a sanctuary perhaps. Both a paradise and a hell.

At about mid-way the path dips under a gigantic rock balanced between two boulders. ( Like a dolmen though natural.) Mt Bego was a sacred site dedicated to the cults of the Bull God and the Earth Goddess. But the engravings in the Valley of Marvels are apparently not typical of classic rock art. Researchers have identified at least twenty recurrent themes engraved on the rocks – daggers, human forms, wedge shapes, horns, rectangular grid patterns. Before writing existed it is not difficult to imagine shamans, astronomers shaping their thoughts on the mineral rich surfaces –  copper, green, blue – as inviting as sheets of paper in their untapped possibility. In the Museum of Tende archaeologists are still puzzling over the images and the language of the symbols, which was first penetrated by a British botanist, Clarence Bicknell in the 1890’s. We must return to visit the museum one day to learn more.


Leaving the Valley we climbed a steep, corkscrew path at the head, leaving behind three lakes glittering in the hot sunshine and where the water reflected the surrounding mountain peaks. Some chamois clattered away across the scree.


At the top a ferocious wind howled in our faces, biting through every seam and stitch in our clothing. And there are wolves and even ermine hereabouts.

Some snow lay in streaks under the summits ahead of us. Scrambling round the far side of Mt Bego we later met a pair of ibex, slow-moving and unperturbed by our presence, their huge horns looking enormously heavy on their heads. To me they seemed like the horns on the petroglyphs.


Although we encountered only a few people in the Valley, clearly the place attracts many modern-day walking pilgrims for the Refuge des Merveilles, located on a cross-roads of paths, was packed, even in September. We shared a fuggy dormitory bunked up with no less than 42 people laid side by side, mainly French but several other nationalities. Even though well-fed after a shared four course meal, I was understandably sleepless most of the night. This gave me time to reflect that, at least, sleep has only one language!

(Fyi, if you want to go there, there are other options than the night in the dormitory )

About Rebecca Gethin

Rebecca Gethin is a poet and a novelist. Cinnamon Press published her third collection, All the Time in the World in 2017. Another pamphlet is forthcoming with Three Drops Press. Her second novel, What the horses heard, was published by Cinnamon Press in May 2014. Her second poetry collection - A Handful of Water - was published by Cinnamon in 2013. Her first - River is the Plural of Rain - was published by Oversteps Books in 2009. Her novel Liar Dice won the Cinnamon Press Novel Writing Award in 2010 and was published in 2011. She lives on Dartmoor and writes occasional pieces about wildlife and nature. Her poems appear in a variety of poetry magazines and in several anthologies.
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7 Responses to Tamar Yoseloff’s poems, and Petroglyphs in the Valley of the Marvels

  1. jan fortune says:

    Interesting point about sleep and language – images in sleep are beyond language, but we dream in a tongue in many ways – the words we conjure in sleep or how we interpret the images. Am amazing place, Becky.

    • Oh, thanks for interesting response: and you have given me a further idea ….. mountain dreams (dreaming when asleep in a mountainous place) are v strange and wierd, or mine are …and I have often wondered why!

      And I also have a sort-of plan forming about doing a much longer trek from refuge to refuge and maybe on my own …picking up stories, old and new etc (it would be really q scarey from different points of view so maybe my family wont let me because it could be difficult and a bit dangerous (that walk that day in the Mercantour was 8+ hours) …. and I’m 60 next year so need to do it soon while still able! )

      Love Becky


  2. Daphne Gloag says:

    Becky, I love your descriptions of the Valley of the Marvels and the Petroglyphs – they wonderfully bring out the majesty and the mystery – and the photos are brilliant too. Thank you! Love, Daphne

    • Thank you, Daphne. Nice of you to comment. Yes, the place is certainly awesome and yet while all mountain regions are awesome but this seemed especially so. despite dormitory snoring! Strane to think that the Victorians thought looking at mountians was bad for you! Love B

  3. E.E. Nobbs says:

    Dear Mountain Woman – I’ve been looking at this wonderful post – on and off – for the last couple of days. I’d never heard of the place before – and I’m fairly certain that through you is the closest I’ll get to it. I wouldn’t be popular in the dorm – I snore. I’m betting you’re right about the ibex horns! I enjoyed the discussion between you and Jan on dreams and language. I’m thinking about you and your mountain treks. And your sort-of plan. And you got me googling petroglyphs vs ideograms vs Cuneiform vs rock art 🙂 You are the most mountainous person I know dear Becky.

    Elly x

  4. E.E. Nobbs says:

    And I’m pleased to see Tamar as your featured writer. That “Final Clearance” sonnet is very cool – makes me imagine dark jazz bars and horns. I’ve taken Tammy’s visual on-line course through the Poetry School and I follow her blog.

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