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Discovery of a Palaeolithic painted cave at Vallon - Pont-d'Arc (Ardèche )

Pictures : Ministère de la culture - Direction du patrimoine (Ministry of Culture - Heritage Department))
Jean Clottes. All rights reserved

Version française: Découverte d'une grotte ornée paléolithique à Vallon-Pont-d'Arc (Ardèche)

An exceptionally important archaeological discovery has recently been made in the Ardèche gorges (southern France), on the edge of a national reserve, in the form of a vast underground network of caves decorated with paintings and engravings dating from the Palaeolithic age.

The discovery was made on 25 December, near the village of Vallon-Pont-d'Arc during an archaeological survey being made under the provisions of the regulations of 27 September 1941 regarding archaeological research in France. It was the work of M. Jean-Marie Chauvet, a guard with the Regional Archaeological Service (DRAC Rhône-Alpes), assisted by two volunteers, Mme Eliette Brunel-Deschamps and M. Christian Hilaire.

After clearing a narrow passageway at the back of a minor cave in the cliffs of the Cirque d'Estre, the discoverers made their way down a shaft and came out in a vast totally untouched network of caverns, full of calcite formations and containing numerous remains (cave bears - Ursus spelaeus - that died while in their lair). The large galleries (5m x 4m on average), which connect several huge halls (up to 30m x 20m), are decorated in places with paintings and engravings representing animals, either isolated or organised in scenes containing over fifty at a time, the sizes varying between 0.5m and 2m long. In total more than 200 black or red ochre paintings or engravings have been discovered to date. In several cases paintings have been superimposed and some have become encrusted with calcite or have been scratched by bears, testifying to the age of these decorations (if proof were needed) .

At each end of the cave system so far visited are signs of ancient accesses, now clogged up with debris and clay deposits.

Along the several hundred metres of galleries is depicted a particularly large and unusual variety of animals (horses, rhinoceros, lions, bison, wild ox, bears, a panther, mammoths, ibex, an owl etc.) together with symbols, panels filled with dots and both positive and stencilled hands. es.

On an artistic level this collection is clearly unique in the South of France, its importance and originality placing it on a par with the Lascaux collection, despite the fact that the paintings are not truly polychromatic or on the same scale.

The traces of paint or carving are to a large extent encrusted with calcite everywhere. The paint traces, viewed in close detail, show the erosion characteristic of ancient paintings, even the best preserved. Moreover the cave system is untouched, its floors intact and a large number of remains undisturbed. In one hall there is a collection of engravings (a horse and an owl) just below roof level, some 5 or 6m from the floor ; beneath it, signs of a huge ancient subsidence explain what happened : the crater was formed by suction and the floor were the artist stood disappeared, leaving the engravings inaccessible. So the collection is clearly authentic.

The area with red paintings includes several panels filled with dots, sometimes with signs added, often complex and original. There is a variety of panels with red animals : in one small gallery a stag is followed at the far end by three bears and a horse. Elsewhere a large panel depicts several bears ; an animal could be a hyena with a mottled forebody ; there is also a panther mottled on the upper body, an ibex and two mammoths. On one wall can be seen a huge rhinoceros with a disproportionately large horn, three more rhinos, a mammoth, two lions, four positive hands and two or three stencilled ones, a semicircle of red dots, a large bovine, a sign made up of two linked semicircles. Overall, several complete stencilled hands and some positive ones have already been identified, along with around thirty red representations of animals and two small yellow horses' heads, in addition to the dots and other signs. The main animal is the bear, followed by the mammoth, the horse, the rhinoceros, the lion ; there is only one example each of the stag, the ibex, the wild ox and other unidentifiable animals.

About a hundred black figures have so far been counted : the majority are rhinoceros, followed by lions, then horses, bears, reindeer, bison, ox, there are also mammoths, megaloceros, an ibex and two unidentifiable creatures. The engravings include 5 mammoths, 3 ibex, 2 rhinoceros, 2 horses, one wild ox and one owl.

The workmanship in these images is excellent. The body proportions are natural. The drawings are mainly outlines, although some show tints inside heads or bodies and a knowledgeable rendering of relief. Numerous details of anatomy are defined, such that the animals are very often identifiable without ambiguity as regards species and even sex (female bison, for example). The black drawings have a "family air" : the composition of the panels, the workmanship of the animals and the technique employed throughout with equal mastery would infer one and the same "hand". It can legitimately be conjectured that this could be in large part the work of one person, a Master of line drawing. Future research will decide.

In view of the number and diversity of the works, their aesthetic quality and state of preservation, their originality ( the dominance of otherwise rare species) and the context in which they have been conserved, this cave system is unique and of world importance. It is one of the greatest masterpieces of the prehistoric art.

As regards palaeontology, the cavern also harbours the remains of around a hundred bears, either in their hibernating places or in an alternative position, as a result of the bones being displaced by the passage of Man or certain skulls being moved by him to privileged locations in the cave ( for example, one onto a rock in the centre of a circular hall).

This abundance of remains in an environment preserved from all modern disturbance confers yet more importance on the discovery.

From an archaeological point of view, emphasis must be placed on the unique character of a closed environment, free of any intrusion or alteration. In addition to paintings, Man has left substantial evidence of his activities in the cavern : fireplace , carved flint, traces of torches, arrangements of stone, placing of animal remains. There are also areas possibly used for the extraction of deposits such as the production of clay pellets and digging of iron oxide and manganese for the creation of the paintings.

To date this cave appears to be one of the very rare totally intact decorated cave systems remaining from Palaeolithic times.

As regards the study of the environment, the recent opening of the cavern will permit a study of its internal climatology. Emphasis must also be placed on the significance of the sedimentary deposits which, as a result of erosion taking place after human occupation, have been revealed here and there in the plots formed by the dissolving of the rock in the cave system which continues to this day. Carbonate has also formed in the galleries since the passage of Man, sealing artefacts in the calcite in various places.

Here is a unique opportunity for naturalistic study aiming at retracing the evolution of natural environment during the last Ice Age.

Whilst each of these features is exceptional on its own, their combination makes this recently discovered cave system vitally important.

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Creation: 1995-02-22
Last update: 1996-02-12