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HomeArchaeologyRace to save lots of undersea Stone Age cave artwork masterpieces

Race to save lots of undersea Stone Age cave artwork masterpieces

To succeed in the one place on the earth the place cave work of prehistoric marine life have been discovered, archaeologists need to dive to the underside of the Mediterranean off southern France.

Race to save undersea Stone Age cave art masterpieces
Cosquer Cave lies beneath the ocean in a panorama of limestone close to Marseilles
[Credit: © Luc Vanrell]

Then they’ve to barter a 137-meter (yard) pure tunnel into the rock, passing by way of the mouth of the cave till they emerge into an enormous cavern, a lot of it now submerged.

Three males died making an attempt to find this “underwater Lascaux” as rumors unfold of a cave to match the one in southwestern France that utterly modified the best way we see our Stone Age ancestors. Lascaux—which Picasso visited in 1940—proved the urge to make artwork is as outdated as humanity itself.

Archaeologist Luc Vanrell’s life modified the second he surfaced contained in the Cosquer cavern and noticed its staggering pictures. Even now, 30 years on, he remembers the “aesthetic shock”.

Race to save undersea Stone Age cave art masterpieces
Henri Cosquer, the diver who discovered the cave, photographed on a ship above the doorway in 1991
 [Credit: AFP]

However the cave and its treasures, some courting again greater than 30,000 years, are in grave hazard. Local weather change and water and plastic air pollution are threatening to clean away the artwork prehistoric women and men created over 15 millennia.

Since a sudden 12-centimeter (near-five-inch) rise within the sea stage there in 2011, Vanrell and his colleagues have been in a race towards time to file every little thing they will. Yearly the excessive water mark rises a couple of extra millimeters, consuming away slightly extra of the traditional work and carvings.

Prehistoric wonders

Vanrell and the diver-archaeologists he leads are having to work quicker and quicker to discover the final corners of the two,500 sq. meter (27,000 sq. ft) grotto to protect a hint of its neolithic wonders earlier than they’re misplaced.

Race to save undersea Stone Age cave art masterpieces
Part of the Cosquer Cave and its entrance tunnel. The measures signify
the excessive over the ocean stage [Credit: Wikipedia]

An virtually life-sized recreation of the Cosquer cavern will open this week a couple of kilometers (miles) away in Marseille.

AFP joined the dive crew earlier this yr as they raced to complete the digital mapping for a 3D reconstruction of the cave.

Round 600 indicators, pictures and carvings—a few of aquatic life by no means earlier than seen in cave work—have been discovered on the partitions of the immense cave 37 meters under the azure waters of the breathtaking Calanques inlets east of Marseille.

Race to save undersea Stone Age cave art masterpieces
Two archaeologists final month dive on their technique to the Cosquer cave
off Marseille [Credit: AFP]

“We fantasized about bringing the cave to the floor,” stated diver Bertrand Chazaly, who’s answerable for the operation to digitalise the cave.


“When it’s completed, our digital Cosquer cavern—which is correct to inside millimeters—might be indispensable for researchers and archaeologists who won’t be able to bodily get inside.”

Kids’s palms

The cave was some “10 kilometers from the coast” when it was in use, archaeologist Michel Olive instructed AFP. “On the time we had been in the course of an ice age and the ocean was 135 meters decrease” than it’s at the moment.

Race to save undersea Stone Age cave art masterpieces
Black hand stencil with clay stained palm
[Credit: © Jean Clottes]

From the dive boat, Olive, who’s answerable for learning the cave, attracts together with his finger an unlimited plain the place the Mediterranean now’s. “The doorway to the cave was on slightly promontory dealing with south over grassland protected by cliffs. It was an especially good place for prehistoric man,” he stated.

The partitions of the cave present the coastal plain was teeming with wildlife—horses, deer, bison, ibex, prehistoric auroch cows, saiga antelopes but additionally seals, penguins, fish and a cat and a bear.

The 229 figures depicted on the partitions cowl 13 totally different species.

Race to save undersea Stone Age cave art masterpieces
The three black auks [Credit: © Luc Vanrell]

However neolithic women and men additionally left a mark of themselves on the partitions, with 69 pink or black hand prints in addition to three left by mistake, together with by kids.

And that doesn’t rely the tons of of geometric indicators and the eight sexual depictions of female and male physique components.

What additionally stands out concerning the cave is the size of time it was occupied, stated Vanrell, “from 33,000 to 18,500 years in the past”.

Race to save undersea Stone Age cave art masterpieces
An ibex adopted by a seal [Credit: © Jean Clottes]

The sheer density of its graphics places “Cosquer among the many 4 largest cave artwork websites on the earth alongside Lascaux, Altamira in Spain and Chauvet,” which can be in southern France. “And since the cave partitions which are at the moment underwater had been in all probability additionally as soon as embellished, nothing else in Europe compares to its dimension,” he added.

Exploring Cosquer can be “addictive”, the 62-year-old insisted, with a twinkle in his eye. “Some individuals who have been engaged on the positioning get depressed in the event that they have not been down shortly. They miss their favourite bison,” he smiled. For Vanrell, diving down is sort of a “journey into oneself”. The spirit “of the place seeps into you”.

Discovery and demise

Henri Cosquer, an expert deep sea diver operating a diving college, stated he discovered the cave by probability in 1985, simply 15 meters off the naked limestone cliffs.

Race to save undersea Stone Age cave art masterpieces
A black kneeling ibex [Credit: © Jean Clottes]

Little by little he dared to enterprise additional and additional into 137-meter-long breach within the cliff till someday he got here out by way of a cavity reduce out by the ocean.

“I got here up in a pitch-dark cave. You’re soaking, you come out of the mud and also you slide round… It took me a couple of journeys to go proper round it,” he instructed AFP. “Firstly, I noticed nothing with my lamp after which I got here throughout a hand print,” the diver stated.

Whereas the regulation dictates that such discoveries should be declared instantly to the authorities to allow them to be preserved, Cosquer saved the information to himself and some shut pals. “No person owned the cave. Once you discover a great place for mushrooms, you do not inform everybody about it, do you?” he stated.

Race to save undersea Stone Age cave art masterpieces
Black horse drawn on prime of finger tracings [Credit: © Jean Clottes]

However rumors of this aquatic Lascaux drew different divers and three died within the tunnel resulting in the cave. Marked by the tragedies, Cosquer owned as much as his discovery in 1991. The cave which bears his title is now sealed off by a railing. Solely scientific groups are allowed inside.

Dozens of archaeological analysis missions have been carried out since to review and protect the positioning and make a list of the work and carvings. However sources started to empty away when Chauvet, which is way simpler to entry, was found within the Ardeche area in 1994.

Local weather change harm

Solely in 2011 did issues start to vary when Olive and Vanrell raised the alarm after the fast rise within the sea stage led to irreparable harm to some pictures.

Race to save undersea Stone Age cave art masterpieces
A black stag on a low ceiling [Credit: © Luc Vanrell]

“It was a disaster, and it actually shook us psychologically,” Vanrell recalled, notably the big harm to the horse drawings. “All the info reveals that the ocean stage is rising quicker and quicker,” stated geologist Stephanie Touron, a specialist in prehistoric painted caves at France’s historic monuments analysis laboratory. 

“The ocean rises and falls within the cavity with variations in local weather, washing the partitions and leeching out soil and supplies which are wealthy in data,” she stated.

Microplastic air pollution is making the harm to the work even worse. Within the face of such an existential menace, the French authorities has launched a serious push to file every little thing concerning the cavern, with archaeologist Cyril Montoya tasked with making an attempt to higher perceive the prehistoric communities who used it.


One of many mysteries he and his crew will attempt to resolve would be the hint of fabric on the cave wall, which could verify a concept that hunter gatherers had been making garments on the time when the cave was occupied.

Race to save undersea Stone Age cave art masterpieces
Sea near the Panel of Black Horses [Credit: © Luc Vanrell]

Photos of the horses with lengthy manes additionally raises one other main query. Vanrell suspects this may point out that they might have been already domesticated, at the least partly, since wild horses have shorter manes, shorn down by galloping by way of bushes and vegetation. A drawing of what is likely to be a harness might again up his concept.

Areas preserved beneath a layer of translucent calcite additionally present the “stays of coal”, Montoya believes, which may have been used for portray or for heating or lighting. They might even have burned the coal on prime of stalagmites, turning them into “lamps to gentle the cavern”. However the central query of what the cave was used for stays an enigma, Olive admitted.

Whereas archaeologists agree that individuals didn’t reside there, Olive stated some imagine it was a “sanctuary, or a gathering place, or someplace they mined moonmilk, the white substance on (limestone) cave partitions that was used for physique paint and for the background for work and carving.”


The concept of creating a reproduction of the positioning was first mooted quickly after the cave was found. Nevertheless it wasn’t till 2016 that the regional authorities determined that it will be in a renovated trendy constructing in Marseille subsequent to Mucem, the museum of European and Mediterranean civilisations on the mouth of town’s Previous Port.

Race to save undersea Stone Age cave art masterpieces
Staff in Marseille, France construct an virtually life-sized recreation of undersea Stone Age
cave work discovered off the coast close by [Credit: AFP]

Utilizing the 3D knowledge gathered by the archaeological groups, the 23-million-euro ($24-million) duplicate is barely smaller than the unique cave however consists of copies of all of the work and 90 % of the carvings, stated Laurent Delbos from Klebert Rossillon, the corporate which copied the Chauvet collapse 2015.

Artist Gilles Tosello is among the craftspeople who has been copying the work utilizing the identical charcoal and instruments that his Stone Age forerunners used.

“The prehistoric artists wrote the rating way back and now I’m taking part in it,” he stated sitting in the dead of night in his studio, a element of a horse lit up earlier than him on the recreated cave wall.

Race to save undersea Stone Age cave art masterpieces
A employee is seen on the positioning of the Cosquer cave duplicate in November final yr
on the Villa Mediterranee in Marseille, southern France [Credit: AFP]

Clearly moved, he hailed the good mastery and “spontaneity” of his prehistoric predecessors, whose assured brush strokes clearly got here from “nice information and expertise. That liberty of gesture and sureness by no means ceases to amaze me,” he stated.

Creator: Pierre Rochiccioli | Supply: AFP [May 30, 2022]

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