Chauvet cave paintings were discovered 20 years ago and now replica lets public see what is inside
Chauvet Cave, France – After the retreat of Neanderthals across the European continent, modern humans made their way to this cave and began to create the first known works of pictorial art: buffaloes surging across the rock background, lions searching for mates and dark-maned horses cantering.
Twenty years after these paintings were discovered near the Ardeche River in south-central France, they remain closed to the public for preservation’s sake.
But last Saturday, a replica built at a cost of nearly US$59 million (S$78 million) opened, allowing the public to approximate the experience of the cave explorers who found the paintings.
The rock art in the Chauvet cave, created 32,000 to 36,000 years ago, puts flesh and fur and character onto a world previously known largely through fossil remains.
Although archaeologists have recorded the impulse to create art in markings on rock and carved beads as far back as 75,000 years ago, the workmanship in these cave paintings is of another order.
The subject matter, the animal world, is familiar, creating a remarkable feeling of connection with the distant past. The paintings are among the world’s most celebrated prehistoric artworks, featured in Werner Herzog’s 2011 3-D movie, Cave Of Forgotten Dreams.
“The skill of these artists, the painting, is amazing,” said Mr Jean Clottes, the French archaeologist who first authenticated the cave for France’s Culture Ministry.
“The walls are covered with engravings; the bison here appears to have eight legs – it’s as if he’s running,” he said, gesturing towards a figure on the rock behind him as he walked through the replica of the cave with journalists before its official opening.
The first step in making the replica was erecting scaffolding and then covering it with a mortar that simulated the rock surface of the original cave.
Photographs of the original paintings were projected onto the surface of the newly created rock. Artists led by, among others, Gilles Tosello, an expert in this prehistoric era who is also trained in the plastic arts, painstakingly copied the paintings with the same materials the original artists also used, charcoal made from Sylvester pine trees and ochre paint made from minerals.
While the paintings have been reproduced at the same size as the originals, the replica overall is slightly less than half the size of the 91,000 sq ft Chauvet cave. Kleber Rossillon, the company that manages the replica site, is planning to have groups of up to 30 enter every few minutes with a guide.
Ms Marie Badisa, the Culture Ministry’s curator for the cave, views the Chauvet paintings as “a true conceptual artistic representation”. The sense of movement the artists captured has been described as “prehistoric cinema”, she said as she led four journalists on a rare visit to the original cave.
Like other researchers who have studied the work, she sees the art’s sophistication as a testament that civilisation and culture appeared far earlier in human history than was previously thought.
Exploring the original cave requires a 30-minute hike to the foot of the limestone cliffs above the Ardeche River and then up a winding path to a simple rock shelter where visitors, rarely admitted, leave their belongings.
At the entrance of the cave, journalists donned coveralls similar to those used in a hospital operating room. The goal is to protect the cave from contamination by anything on the visitors’ clothes or skin.
Then came the descent through a narrow opening in the rocks. As the air became cool, dark and damp, it was like entering another world. The darkness was encompassing; the light from the headlamps did little to illuminate the rock chamber’s depths and the walls receded in darkness and shadows.
Headlamps bobbed as the visitors followed metal walkways installed to protect the soft cave floor, with its prints of bear paws and the shallow depressions they dug as sleeping areas where they hibernated.
The lamps revealed the cave’s extra- ordinary beauty: Stalactites and stalagmites sparkled as if crushed diamonds had been mixed with the sandy coloured rock. The cave seemed alive, even growing, with new finger-length stalactites forming on many rock surfaces.
On the walls, lions stalked and an owl stared down from a branch. Less familiar were the mammoths – a hairy relative of today’s elephants – and the aurochs, large horned wild cows that are also extinct today.
The detailed nature of the drawings suggested how closely entwined the human and animal world must have been, allowing for close observation of the horses’ manes, an owl’s feathers and the black markings on the rhinos’ torsos. The bulk of the bodies and the play of shadow and light are reminiscent of Picasso.
Of the more than 1,000 creatures inventoried on the walls of the Chauvet cave, just one appears to be human: a woman with the head of a bison, suggesting to some archaeologists that the cave was used for shamanistic practices.
Inevitably, the replica does not reproduce the original cave’s air of mystery and grandeur or the sense of a profound encounter with the past.
But the copied paintings capture the spirit of the originals, bringing the animals to life as they pace gracefully and powerfully across the rock, a tribute to the eternal drive of artists to capture life.
The New York Times