News from Cosquer Cave: Climatic Studies, Recording, Sampling, Dates

By Clottes, Jean; Courtin, Jean et al. | Antiquity, June 1997 | Go to article overview

News from Cosquer Cave: Climatic Studies, Recording, Sampling, Dates


Clottes, Jean, Courtin, Jean, Collina-Girard, Jacques, Arnold, Maurice, Valladas, Helene, Antiquity


Further work inside the Grotte Cosquer, the Palaeolithic painted cave near Marseilles only accessible by a deep-water dive, improves our knowledge and makes it clear there can be no artificial entrance made to create a dry-land access.

The new studies

A series of dives was organized in late 1994 by the French Ministry of Culture, with the logistical team of the Departement des Recherches Archeologiques Sous-Marines. There were four main aims:

* to install a climatological measuring device to make a continuous record of the cave's atmosphere and to establish whether or not it might be possible to create an artificial entrance (J. Brunet, Laboratoire de Recherches des Monuments Historiques);

* to complete preliminary investigation of the walls and ceilings in order to compile a fuller catalogue of parietal drawings, and take further samples for additional dating procedures (J. Courtin & J. Collina-Girard);

* to make a photogrammetric and laser record of the surfaces and spaces, towards a future facsimile reconstruction (Ministry of Culture, L. Long, of the Departement des Recherches Archeologiques Sous-Marines; city of Marseilles; Mecenat EDF);

* to make sections of video footage and a report on the scientific work (Fanny Broadcast, Thalassa programme).

All the work was satisfactorily carried out.

The climatological study revealed that the cave's atmosphere is under pressure; if conditions were altered the water-level could rise by nearly a metre into the non-submerged area, covering numerous paintings and engravings. At a meeting of Section 7 (Decorated caves) of the Commission Superieure des Monuments Historiques, it was therefore decided, in view of this severe risk, definitively to abandon any idea of creating access by land.

Volumetric measurement of Cosquer cave was carried out between 25 November and 21 December. This operation was extremely hazardous, as it involved transporting sophisticated equipment to a depth of 37 m into a most-parts submerged cave. But 4,700,000 reference points were plotted (a grid of about 3 cm) and the greater portion of the spaces could be reproduced using the SOISIC recorder, set up for EDF by the Mensi Society. Additionally, photogrammetric views of several decorated panels were plotted.

The results of the operation are spectacular. Three-dimensional compositions enable a virtual visit to the cave through pictures. It now becomes possible to reconstruct the greater part as a replica, and in that way to make it available to the public.

As regards study of the cave itself, these processes re-create the spaces, a major element often taken advantage of by Palaeolithic artists, and which often affected the placing of their work. The spaces provide a permanent and essential framework for the researcher. However, at the present stage, nothing can yet replace hands-on recording by the archaeologist at the wall surface. Perhaps very soon, though, with rapid advances in techniques?

New finds of figures

New research in the parts of the cave where this is possible has revealed 9 additional hands in stencil technique, 8 red and one black, bringing the total of stencilled hands in Cosquer cave to 55, along with I brown hand-print). There are similarities here with Chauvet cave, where hand-stencils and prints were found next to one another on the same surface (Chauvet et al. 1996: [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 25 OMITTED]).

All of the new hands except one were found in the eastern part of the cave, opposite the engraving known as L'homme tue (The Killed Man). The single exception was well to the south, just above the water, which might indicate that a good number more have been submerged and destroyed by the sea. No hands were found in the western part of the cave. It appears as though they were placed along a pathway leading from the entrance to the large shaft, 25 m deep, and placed also at the very edge of the shaft, in a position of extreme danger for those who put them there. …

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