Divers race to save prehistoric art from an underwater cave others have died trying to reach
To reach the only place in the world where cave paintings of prehistoric marine life have been found, archaeologists must dive to the bottom of the Mediterranean off southern France.
Then they must negotiate a 137 meter natural tunnel in the rock, passing through the mouth of the cave until they emerge into a huge cavern, much of which is now submerged.
Three men have died trying to discover this ‘underwater Lascaux’ as rumors spread of a cave matching one in southwest France that has completely changed the way we view our age ancestors Stone.
Lascaux – which Picasso visited in 1940 – proved that the urge to make art is as old as humanity itself.
Archaeologist Luc Vanrell’s life changed the second he surfaced inside Cosquer Cavern and saw its stunning images. Even today, 30 years later, he remembers the “aesthetic shock”.
But the cave and its treasures, some of which date back more than 30,000 years, are in grave danger.and water and plastic pollution threaten to wash away the art that prehistoric men and women created over 15 millennia.
Since a sudden nearly five-inch rise in sea level in 2011, Vanrell and his colleagues have been in a race against time to record whatever they can.
Each year, the high water mark rises a few millimeters more, eating away at the old paintings and sculptures a little more.
“Indispensable for researchers”
Vanrell and the diver-archaeologists he leads must work ever faster to explore the last corners of the 27,000 square foot cave in order to keep track of its Neolithic wonders before they are lost.
A near life-size recreation of the Cosquer cavern will open this week a few miles away in Marseille.
AFP joined the dive team earlier this year as they raced to complete digital mapping for a 3D reconstruction of the cave.
Around 600 signs, images and carvings – some of aquatic life never before seen in cave paintings – have been found on the walls of the huge cave 37 meters below the azure waters of the beautiful creeks of the Calanques east of Marseille .
“We fantasized about bringing the cave to the surface,” says diver Bertrand Chazaly, who is in charge of the cave digitization operation.
“When it is finished, our virtual Cosquer cave, whose precision is millimeter, will be essential for researchers and archaeologists who will not be able to physically enter inside.”
The cave was “ten kilometers from the coast” when it was in use, archaeologist Michel Olive told AFP. “At the time, we were in the middle of the ice age and the sea was 135 meters lower” than today.
From the dive boat, Olive, in charge of studying the cave, draws a finger on a vast plain where the Mediterranean is now. “The cave entrance was on a small promontory facing south above a meadow protected by cliffs. It was an extremely good place for prehistoric man,” he said.
The cave walls show that the coastal plain teemed with wildlife – horses, deer, bison, ibexes, prehistoric auroch cows, saiga antelopes but also seals, penguins, fish and a cat and a bear.
The 229 characters represented on the walls cover 13 different species.
But Neolithic men and women also left their mark on the walls, with 69 red or black handprints as well as three left by mistake, including by children.
And that’s not counting the hundreds of geometric signs and the eight sexual representations of male and female body parts.
What also stands out about the cave is how long it was occupied, Vanrell said, “33,000 to 18,500 years ago.”
The density of its graphics places “Cosquer among the four largest rock art sites in the world with Lascaux, Altamira in Spain and Chauvet”, also in the south of France.
“And because the walls of the caves that are now under water were probably also once decorated, nothing else in Europe compares to its size,” he added.
Exploring Cosquer is also “addictive”, insisted the 62-year-old man, with sparkling eyes. “Some people who have worked on the site are depressed if they haven’t been down for a while. They miss their favorite bison,” he smiles.
For Vanrell, diving is like a “journey in itself”. The spirit “of the place seeps into you”.
“I came across a handprint”
Henri Cosquer, a professional deep-sea diver who runs a diving school, said he found the cave by chance in 1985, just 15 meters from the bare limestone cliffs.
Little by little, he dares to venture further and further into a 137 meter long breach in the cliff until the day he emerges through a cavity dug by the sea.
“I arrived in a black cave. You are soaked, you come out of the mud and you slip… It took me several trips to go around it,” he told AFP.
“At first, I saw nothing with my lamp and then I came across a handprint”, says the diver.
While the law says such findings must be reported immediately to authorities so they can be preserved, Cosquer kept the news to himself and a few close friends.
“Nobody owned the cave. When you find a good place for mushrooms, you don’t tell everyone about it, do you?” he said.
But rumors of this aquatic Lascaux attracted other divers and three died in the tunnel leading to the cave. Marked by the dramas, Cosquer confessed his discovery in 1991. The cave that bears his name is now closed by a gate. Only science teams are allowed inside.
Dozens of archaeological research missions have since been carried out to study and preserve the site and draw up an inventory of the paintings and engravings. But the resources began to run out when the much easier-to-access Chauvet was discovered in the Ardèche in 1994.
“It was a disaster”
It wasn’t until 2011 that things started to change when Olive and Vanrell sounded the alarm after rapid sea level rise caused irreparable damage to some footage.
“It was a disaster, and it really shook us psychologically,” Vanrell recalls, particularly the massive damage to the horse drawings.
“All the data shows that the sea level is rising faster and faster,” said geologist Stephanie Touron, a specialist in prehistoric decorated caves at the Laboratoire de recherche des monuments historique de France.
“The sea rises and falls in the cavity with the climatic variations, washing away the walls and washing away the floor and information-rich materials,” she said.
Microplastic pollution further aggravates damage to paintings.
Faced with such an existential threat, the French government launched a major campaign to record everything about the cavern, with archaeologist Cyril Montoya tasked with trying to better understand the prehistoric communities that used it.
One of the mysteries he and his team will attempt to solve will be the trace of cloth on the cave wall, which could confirm a theory that hunter-gatherers made clothing during the time the cave was occupied.
The images of long-maned horses also raise another major question. Vanrell suspects this could indicate that they may have once been domesticated, at least in part, since wild horses have shorter, shorn manes while galloping through bushes and vegetation. A drawing of what could be a harness may support his theory.
Areas preserved under a layer of translucent calcite also show “charcoal remnants”, Montoya believes, which could have been used for painting or for heating or lighting. They may have even burned the coal above the stalagmites, turning them into “lamps to light up the cave.”
But the central question of what the cave was used for remains an enigma, Olive admitted.
While archaeologists agree people didn’t live there, Olive said some believe it was “a shrine, or a meeting place, or a place where they extracted milk of moon, the white substance on the walls of caves (limestone) which was used for body painting and for the background for paintings and sculptures.”
The idea of making a replica of the site was mooted shortly after the discovery of the cave. But it wasn’t until 2016 that the regional government decided it would be in a renovated modern building in Marseille next to the Mucem, the museum of European and Mediterranean civilizations at the mouth of the city’s Old Port.
Using 3D data collected by archaeological teams, the 23 million euro ($24 million) replica is slightly smaller than the original cave but includes copies of all the paintings and 90% of the carvings, said Laurent Delbos of Klebert Rossillon, the company that copied the Chauvet cave in 2015.
Artist Gilles Tosello is one of the artisans who copied the paintings using the same charcoal and tools as his Stone Age predecessors.
“Prehistoric artists wrote the score a long time ago and now I’m playing it,” he said sitting in the dark in his studio, a detail of a lighted horse in front of him on the recreated cave wall.
Visibly moved, he praised the great mastery and “spontaneity” of his prehistoric predecessors, whose confident brushstrokes clearly came “from great knowledge and experience. This freedom of gesture and this sureness never cease to amaze me”. , did he declare.