Turning Back Time in the Ardeche; Rob Grant Takes an Underground Trip Back in Time in France

Article excerpt

Byline: Rob Grant

TWENTY-SIX thousand years ago a boy, aged about ten, enters the cave he calls home. The animals on the wall seem to move eerily by the flickering light of his flaming torch.

What the boy doesn't know is that those paintings are already up to 6,000 years old.

Welcome to the subterranean marvels of the Ardeche.

Mankind has called this region, now a departement nestled between the Massif Central mountain range in south central France and the Alps to the east, home for at least 36,000 years.

Our trip started with a visit to some relative newcomers to the area - the Romans at Alba-la-Romaine.

The newly opened museum, MuseAl, has a collection of artefacts from Alba Helvorum, a thriving settlement from the 1st century BC to the 3rd century AD The museum has two fabulous coloured mosaics which indicated wealth and status in Roman times but what really caught my eye were some of the hundreds of everyday items on display.

For instance, the inhabitants of Alba Helvorum - known as the Helvii in Latin - gambled with Time loses six-sided dice that wouldn't have looked out of place at Monte Carlo. They guarded their property with locks and keys and brushed their hair with combs.

its meaning down here When they wanted a higher form of entertainment than gambling, the Helvii went to a nearby amphitheatre to watch plays in the ancient Greek tradition.

Earlier inhabitants of the Ardeche, however, did not have such entertainment.

At the Grotte Chauvet exhibition in Vallon Pont D'Arc, we discovered how mankind eked out a living in the last Ice Age from about 36,000 to 10,000 years ago. Huddling in caves brought shelter from the cold - and the lions and bears that stalked the frozen landscape.

These people lacked written language but they expressed themselves through art, painting beautiful scenes of the animals they lived alongside and hunted.

Luckily for humanity, an avalanche blocked the natural entrance to the cave, sealing its priceless paintings from nature after the ice retreated.

There it lay, undisturbed, until 1994, when Jean-Marie Chauvet and two other explorers discovered a cavity with a faint draught in a cliff after crawling through a tiny passage, they laid eyes on the paintings the boy had seen 26,000 years earlier. As they walked further inside, they would have seen paintings of animals such as bears and lions. In previously discovered prehistoric caves, the artists only depicted animals they hunted rather than their own predators.

Realising the significance of their discovery, the Chauvet cave was sealed off. But, from next year, visitors will have the chance to relive the discovery at a full-scale replica cave complex under construction nearby, complete with a restaurant and museum.

The dimensions, paintings and even the smells and extreme humidity of the cave will all be replicated to recreate as closely as possible the experience of Chauvet and his companions. …