Probing the Depths of a Cave-Art Discovery Archaeologists Are Jubilant over Discovery in France of Prehistoric Paintings

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Two traces of red ocher on a rock face were the first signs that this cave was more than a hole in a wall. Then, a red bear, a reindeer, a slouching hyena, a woolly rhinoceros, mammoths, buffaloes, horses, mountain goats, lions, owls, and a spotted panther. In all, explorers found about 300 animals and birds and as many engravings, painted or etched in ocher and charcoal at least 17,000 years ago. The hyena is only the second found in a prehistoric cave painting; the panther and owl had never been seen before.

The three explorers who discovered these painted caverns Dec. 24 sensed the importance of what they had found. Leader Jean-Marie Chauvet was a guard of prehistoric sites for the French Ministry of Culture. His companions, Christian Hillaire and Eliette Brunel-Deschamps, were amateur explorers. When they saw the painted figures, they shouted for joy.

The world's archaeological community is now joining them. Last week's announcement of the discovery of a rich collection of cave paintings near the town of Vallon-Pont d'Arc in the Ardeche region in southern France is being described as one of the archaeological finds of the century. "This is one of the most beautiful paleolithic sites in the world ... a very great work of art," says Jean Clottes, France's leading expert on cave paintings and one of the first to see the site after its discovery. "The only cave that compares with this one is Lascaux {in the Dordogne region of France}."

The underground site includes several vast caverns measuring up to 70 meters by 40 meters (230 feet by 131 feet) linked by wide corridors. Some 50 groupings of animals, varying from 1/2 meter to 4 meters long (20 inches to 13 feet), along with symbolic signs and hand prints, are painted or etched on the walls. In one group, two woolly rhinos face off; in another, two lionesses in profile lead a hunt with an intensity of expression that would drop a reindeer at 10 paces. In one of the most noted clusters, four parallel paintings suggest the motion of a horse lifting its head.

Scientists who visited the site also remark on the sophisticated use of the surface of rock faces in the design of individual animals and groupings - a dimension that can't be picked up from studying flat reproductions.

"The quality of this site is altogether remarkable, both in terms of the animals that are rarely seen and the quality of the soils," says Jean-Philippe Rigaud, director of the National Center of Prehistory of Perigueux. "Most prehistoric sites are badly preserved."

The Ardeche caves were effectively sealed off by a rock slide soon after the paintings were completed, leaving the soils and the placement of objects in caverns and passageways intact. Analysis of soils could yield new information about climate, plants, and wildlife; the age of the paintings; tools and materials used to make them; and even the purpose of the site. A bear skull found on a pile of rocks in the center of one chamber, for example, could be part of a religious ritual.

The caves at Lascaux were also well-preserved when first discovered in 1940. But the impact of 1 million visitors - between 1945 when the site was opened to the public and 1964 when it closed - seriously eroded the quality of the paintings.

Daniel DeBaye, now director of tourism in Dordogne, was in charge of building a scale replica of the Lascaux caves to meet public demand to see the paintings. …