In 1994 in the Ardèche region of France, Jean-Marie Chauvet and two friends explored an almost inaccessible cave close to the immense natural stone bridge of the Pont d’Arc. Here they made dramatic discoveries of paintings, engravings, and prints that had been forgotten for thousands of years.
Lit by the beam from a head-torch, lines of animals loomed out of shadows across the limestone walls of the cave – lions and bears, mammoths, bison and horses, all woven together across the fissures of the rock along with mysterious geometric symbols. And, immortalised in the clay, prints of human hands and feet provided a spiritual link to those ancient artists.
The discovery of the Chauvet Pont-d’Arc cave astonished the worlds of both archaeology and art history, not just because of its amazing animal paintings (425 individual animals from 14 species) but also for their quality, the techniques used and their immense age. The style is almost reminiscent of Picasso - spare, simple, but loaded with feeling and meaning. Inevitably it makes us wonder about the skill and sophistication of our European ancestors, who were capable of imagination and activity way beyond what was necessary for mere survival.
Most of the paintings date to around 32,000 years ago, to the Ice Age and Paleolithic Aurignacian man - homo sapiens sapiens – who had essentially the same brains and DNA as ourselves.
But some of the images which adorn the cave walls were painted 36,000 years ago – a figure that’s hard to get your head around till you realise that as much time has passed between us and the prehistoric paintings in Lascaux as evolved between Chauvet and Lascaux – a staggering 18,000 years each.
Carbon dating has revealed that the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave was itself in use for around ten thousand years, until an earthquake caused falling rock to seal off its entrance almost completely. It is still hard to access, located close to the top of a limestone cliff in the timeless area of the Pont d’Arc bridge over the Ardeche river.
But this cave is important – it speaks to us of what it means to be human and may oblige us to reconsider our perceptions. Recognising that, the French government and Ardèche authorities are in the process of building a replica of the cave, where visitors can experience the temperature, atmosphere and the art itself. Archaeologists describe the cave as like a cathedral and everyone who enters it reports a feeling of being in a powerfully spiritual place. The cave was never lived in, it was clearly a centre for ritual and creative expression, so the plan is to allow visitors to experience that sense of awe and mystery.
The replica is part of a major visitor centre that will open in June 2015. In March this year I had the privilege of a preview of the site and I was really impressed – especially by the location, artistry and environmental sustainability of the scheme. Here I share an image of work in progress meticulously recreating the cave structure using metal frames, wire, plastic mesh and cement.
The French government has applied for UNESCO World Heritage status for the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave replica and a decision will be made very soon.
Meanwhile, if you’re visiting the region this summer, take a trip to the village of Vallon Pont d’Arc, where you can visit a small museum close to the square, devoted to the cave. This was created soon after the cave’s discovery and, although quite small, it gives you good information, images and a fascinating video.
Next month I’ll post an update on the UNESCO decision, all the latest information and more about the cave and its art.