France, Owner at Odds over Cave Full of Prehistoric Art

Article excerpt

The haggling is over a small, damp cavern hidden for 20,000 years under the rugged cliffs behind Pierre Coulange's farmhouse.

Coulange, whose family has owned the land for 600 years, doesn't want to sell. But the French government won't take no for an answer, for the cavern has 300 prehistoric wall paintings offering a spectacular glimpse into humanity's distant past.

Discovered in December by three vacationing archaeologists, the cave is a scientific trove that could help fill the gaps in Stone Age history. The walls are adorned with animals of the glacial era, the floors littered with hearths, flints and the bones of bears still in their hibernation nests.

The cave is situated in the Ardeche, a south-central region known for harsh terrain and stubborn soil, grottos and subterranean rivers. The cave's art is thought by some experts to outclass the famed Lascaux caves in the Dordogne region of France.

Coulange, 47, a bank manager and amateur speleologist, is well aware of the find's significance. "It's very exciting, and I'm very, very touched that it's on our land," he said. "But we still don't want to sell. It would be a sacrilege."

The Coulanges may have no choice. French law empowers the state to appropriate property for the good of the country.

Bernard Notari, a technical adviser at the Culture Ministry, said, "The goal of the state is to ensure the long-term preservation of the cave, not to plunder the Coulanges. …