About The Cave At Chauvet

Copyright Daily Telegraph Dec 28, 2003

It’s a gentle climb, from a vineyard, up an escarpment covered in limestone scree and pine trees, towards the summit of the Ardeche Gorge. The view takes the breath away the higher we go; the great limestone cliffs spread out around us. We traverse a long gully, an overhang eroded by water and man. I imagine nothing has changed for millennia: we are walking where cavemen walked. Their climate would have been Siberian; we arrive in sunshine. As the trees thicken we suddenly reach a modern timber walkway snaking around the rock face. A steel door with its access code is cut neatly into a recess in the cliff. It’s the same colour as the limestone, but is still incongruous.


I have been negotiating to visit the Chauvet cave for the last three years. Now here I am at the door, just a few hundred feet from the oldest paintings on Earth – but denied entry because I’m not a scientist. My companions, three French archaeologists, disappear into the recess in blue and red fleece jumpsuits, their head lamps flaring into life. Philippe Fosse, an expert on cave bears, glances back and smiles sympathetically as the door clanks shut.

Only a chosen few have ever been inside “la Grotte Chauvet”. But once visited, it’s clearly never forgotten. Five years after the French Ministry of Culture awarded the tender for the scientific study, the archaeologists are lyrical, still flush with the pleasure of working there.


The cave-art specialist Carol Fritz remembers her first visit as if it was yesterday: “The glistening red floors, the pretty stalagmites; rock in curtain formations. And then you see the first paintings – lion, rhino, mammoth – extraordinary and beautiful. It was very powerful, very intense. I felt the same when I saw the painted ceiling at the Altamira cave in Spain. These have really been the two great emotional moments in my life.”


Twice a year in March and October, for two weeks, a French archaeological team visits the cave. And although, frustratingly, I won’t be allowed to see the paintings for myself, they’ve agreed to talk to me about their research.

Jean-Michel Geneste, the project leader, has for the last decade also been in charge of that other great French decorated cave, Lascaux in the Dordogne. But Chauvet seems to entrance him: “What is astonishing is how naturalistic the drawings are. The animals seem present, real. Every day in the cave is amazing. I look at the horse panel [a dense charcoal composition of 20 animals] a hundred times a day. I feel like I’m in a sanctuary.” His excitement is infectious.

The Ardeche Gorge in south-central France is peppered with caves. Jean-Marie Chauvet and two other French pot-holers discovered theirs one Sunday afternoon in December 1994. Crawling through a narrow passage, they entered through the roof of a small chamber, the first of many. The cave system now named after its discoverer is about a third of a mile long and 10 times the size of Lascaux.


There are 15 seperate galleries and chambers, each evocatively named. There’s the Chamber of Bear Hollows, where prehistoric cave- bears burrowed into the floor; the Skull Chamber, where the surface is littered with their skulls. Some spaces are so huge, 150 ft across and 50 ft high, that a herd of mammoths could have hibernated here.

The original cave entrance was 30 ft wide and 20 ft high, but it collapsed. Chauvet and his companions weren’t aware of it, but they were the first visitors for 20,000 years. In their account of the discovery, the only female potholer let out a shriek when her head- lamp chanced on the first painting – a small red mammoth jumping out in front of her. The deeper you go into the Chauvet cave, the denser the decoration and the better its condition: frescoes of lions, horses and mammoths in ochre, charcoal or engraved with flint tools.


The cave is unique for many reasons. Charcoal carbon-dating suggests this is the only place on Earth where we have paintings from two different pre-historic periods. Hunter-gatherers painted here an unimaginable 32,000 years ago. And about 5,000 years later, give or take a millennium, they did so again. Imagine George Stubbs painting on the same wall as an Ancient Egyptian.

The Lascaux paintings, discovered in 1940, may have the same intensity, but none is as well preserved. Carol Fritz says that at Chauvet “you can still see the finger marks where they spread their pigments, where they dried their hands on the wall. You really have the feeling that they’ve just left the cave.”


There are 10 to 15 people in the archaeological team at any one time. They make their base each season at a holiday camp a short drive from the cave. The accommodation is spartan but there’s an obvious camaraderie and sense of privilege at being there. A Portacabin in the car park serves as the computer room. Two archaeologists are examining drawings of mammoths on a screen; in another, a graphic artist is sifting through his sketches of lion and stag paintings.

Five graphic artists are laboriously recording every painting, and are taking longer over it than the pre-historic artists took to paint them. So far they’ve found about 420 images: a menagerie of lions (71), rhinos (65), mammoths (66), horses (40), bison (31), deer (25), ibex (20), bears (15) and long-eared owls (one).


The hand stencils, created by blowing ochre from the mouth, are common in cave art. The ochre palm prints have been found only here. And of course there’s a hint of sex or fertility: engraved and charcoal vulvas. The graphic artist Valerie Feruglio believes that the charcoal drawings were done very quickly, in a day or two. Her colleague Gilles Tosello has copied about 60 of them; he thinks that no more than three or four artists were involved.

He brings out his copy of a stag, traced from a digital photograph, and shows me where the artist cleared the wall with his hand, used a stump of charcoal to blurr the edge of the animal, etched with his flint to bring out an eye, used the contour of the wall to enliven the image. Tosello is impressed by “the sureness of hand. There are no changes at all, no redrawing, no perceptible mistakes. This was a great draughtsman.” I agree: it’s a vivid animal drawing, as accomplished as a Hockney drawing of a dachshund.

Fritz and Tosello have been making a joint study of the elaborate horse panel. It’s a work of bravado, a composition of 20 animals – horses, wild oxen and, unique to Chauvet, a pair of duelling rhino. Carol Fritz shows me on her computer how they think the image was built up in sequences, rhinos first, followed by the oxen and horses.


She sees the panel as “a genuine construction. Like Leonardo in front of his canvas, the artist imagined his figures before putting them on the wall. We don’t know how long it took him, one hour, two hours, two or three days. But the panel was designed, conceived in one go.” The art of prehistoric man is much more sophisticated than anyone had realised.


Chauvet is unique for yet another reason – for studying links between man and a species abundant in prehistoric Europe, but long extinct: the cave bear. Palaeontologist Philippe Fosse shows me a massive skull, the length of his elbow, with two great incisors. The cave bear remains an overwhelming fossil presence in Chauvet; they were there before man and after.

Fosse is astounded by the sheer number of bones: 3,700, including 190 skulls. Some are in piles; others have torch marks; and one solitary skull has been deliberately placed on a large stone on the cave floor. Was prehistoric man involved in some form of bear cult or workship? Theories discounted a mere 20 years ago are being revived.


The cave has also yielded up one other tantalising human story. Among the thousands of animals tracks, they’ve found a perfect track of some 80 prints from a boy, aged between 10 and 12. Michel-Alain Garcia, a track expert, is as thrilled about them as Robinson Crusoe was about Man Friday’s. The prints are so clear that it’s evident the boy was moving slowly and bending.

What excites Garcia most of all is the suggestion that the boy wasn’t alone; there’s an accompanying dog track. Garcia is now trying to establish whether boy and dog were walking together. It would make for an electrifying footnote to his research – the first pet in history.


Nicholas Glass is arts correspondent of Channel 4 News. His report on Chauvet will be shown on January 5