Jan Bartek – Icestech.info – Scientists admit it’s a race against time if we want to save the precious and submerged Stone Age cave art few have ever seen. Climate change and water and plastic pollution are threatening to wash away the art prehistoric men and women created over 15 millennia.
To reach the only place in the world where cave paintings of prehistoric marine life have been found, archaeologists have to dive to the bottom of the Mediterranean off southern France.
Credit: Archeologie Culture France.
Once they reach the bottom, they have to negotiate a 137-meter (yard) natural tunnel into the rock, passing through the mouth of the cave until they emerge into a huge cavern, much of it now submerged.
“Three men died trying to discover this “underwater Lascaux” as rumors spread of a cave to match the one in southwestern France that completely changed the way we see our Stone Age ancestors. Lascaux—which Picasso visited in 1940—proved the urge to make art is as old as humanity itself.
The Only Underwater Stone Age Cave
“Cosquer Cave is the world’s only underwater Stone Age cave and a marvelous place where archaeologists have discovered mysterious paintings created by our long-gone ancestors.
Located in the Calanque de Morgiou in Marseille, France, the underwater Cosquer Cave is home to 500 extraordinary paintings and engravings. The cave drawings were made during two epochs of occupation in this part of the world. The first paintings were created 27,000 years ago, and later, 19,000 years ago, cave artists produced more beautiful drawings on the walls.
Exploring the cave is not easy because there is only one entrance through a narrow underwater tunnel located 40 meters below sea level.
The Cosquer Cave “art was preserved because the chamber happened to be high up enough not to have been flooded, but large numbers of paintings and engravings were most probably destroyed in the passage and in the lower part of the chamber.”
Unfortunately, scientists now report this ancient underwater cave art is in danger due to climate change and water and plastic pollution. It’s race against time to document a large number of paintings because “every year the high water mark rises a few more millimeters, eating away a little more of the ancient paintings and carvings,” the AFP reports.
“AFP joined the dive team earlier this year as they raced to finish the 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 immense cave 37 meters below the azure waters of the breathtaking Calanques inlets east of Marseille.
“We fantasized about bringing the cave to the surface,” said diver Bertrand Chazaly, who is in charge of the operation to digitalize the cave.
“When it is finished, our virtual Cosquer cavern—which is accurate to within millimeters—will be indispensable for researchers and archaeologists who will not be able to physically get inside.”
“The rock art in Cosquer Cave provided scientists with knowledge about how European Stone Age people perceived their surroundings.
Some newspapers questioned the authenticity of the paintings and engravings found in the Cosquer Cave. Still, scientists were later able to confirm these were original drawings made by Stone Age people.
Workers in Marseille, France build an almost life-sized recreation of undersea Stone Age cave paintings found off the coast nearby. Credit: AFP
Being the only underwater Stone Age cave known to date, Cosquer Cave offers a unique glimpse into the past.” 1
“The walls of the cave show the coastal plain was teeming with wildlife—horses, deer, bison, ibex, prehistoric auroch cows, saiga antelopes but also seals, penguins, fish and a cat and a bear.
The 229 figures depicted on the walls cover 13 different species.
But neolithic men and women also left a mark of themselves on the walls, with 69 red or black hand prints as well as three left by mistake, including by children.
And that does not count the hundreds of geometric signs and the eight sexual depictions of male and female body parts.” 2
The prehistoric Cosquer Cave is today a protected area open only to researchers. Nevertheless, it is naturally possible to learn what kind of paintings and engravings scientists have discovered in this submerged Stone Age realm. Still, climate changes may force researchers to give up their studies. The rapid rise in the sea level led to irreparable damage to some images, especially the horse drawings.
“All the data shows that the sea level is rising faster and faster,” said geologist Stephanie Touron, a specialist in prehistoric painted caves at France’s historic monuments research laboratory.
“The sea rises and falls in the cavity with variations in climate, washing the walls and leeching out soil and materials that are rich in information,” she said.
Microplastic pollution is making the damage to the paintings even worse.
In the face of such an existential threat, the French government has launched a major push to record everything about the cavern, with archaeologist Cyril Montoya tasked with trying to better understand the prehistoric communities who used it.
One of the mysteries archaeologists will try to solve will be the trace of cloth on the cave wall, which might confirm a theory that hunter-gatherers were making clothes at the time when the cave was occupied.
Images of the horses with long manes also raise another major question. Archaeologist Luc Vanrell suspects this might indicate that they may have been already domesticated, at least partly, since wild horses have shorter manes, shorn down by galloping through bushes and vegetation. A drawing of what might be a harness may back up his theory.
According to the AFP, ” areas preserved under a layer of translucent calcite also show the “remains of coal”, archaeologist Cyril Montoya believes, which could have been used for painting or for heating or lighting. They may even have burned the coal on top of stalagmites, turning them into “lamps to light the cavern”.
But the central question of what the cave was used for remains an enigma, Olive admitted.
While archaeologists agree that people did not live there, Olive said some believe it was a “sanctuary, or a meeting place, or somewhere they mined moonmilk, the white substance on (limestone) cave walls that was used for body paint and for the background for paintings and carving.”
Creating A Replica
The idea of making a replica of the site was first mooted soon after the cave was discovered. But it wasn’t until 2016 that the regional government decided that it would be in a renovated modern building in Marseille next to Mucem, the museum of European and Mediterranean civilizations at the mouth of the city’s Old Port.
The Cosquer Cave’s rock art. Credit: Image compilation by Icestech.info – original images by Archeologie Culture France.
Using the 3D data gathered by the 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 percent of the carvings, said Laurent Delbos from Klebert Rossillon, the company which copied the Chauvet cave in 2015.
Artist Gilles Tosello is one of the craftspeople who has been copying the paintings using the same charcoal and tools that his Stone Age forerunners used.
“The prehistoric artists wrote the score long ago and now I am playing it,” he said sitting in the dark in his studio, a detail of a horse lit up before him on the recreated cave wall.
Clearly moved, he hailed the great mastery and “spontaneity” of his prehistoric predecessors, whose confident brush strokes clearly came from “great knowledge and experience. That liberty of gesture and sureness never ceases to amaze me,” he said.
Written by Jan Bartek – Icestech.info Staff Writer
Expand for references
- Ellen Lloyd – Cosquer Cave And Its Magnificent Underwater Stone Age Paintings Created 27,000 Years Ago – Icestech.info
- Pierre Rochiccioli – Race to save undersea Stone Age cave art masterpieces – The AFP