Neptune's Ice Age Gallery

Natural History, April 1993 | Go to article overview

Neptune's Ice Age Gallery

In 1985, Henri Cosquer, a professional deep-sea diver, discovered a narrow, underwater opening, barely nine feet by three, beneath the base of a cliff rising from the Mediterranean Sea. Located in the Calanque area between Marseille and Cassis, the cave was 110 feet below sea level. Cosquer dived down several times and cautiously explored his way along a 450-foot-long sloping gallery. Eventually he emerged in a huge, air-filled chamber with many stalactites and stalagmites. However, it was not until a return dive, in July 1991, that he happened to notice the silhouette of a handprint on the cave wall--a common feature of Paleolithic art, made by blowing or spraying pigment around the artist's hand. After photographing it, he noticed two more handprints. Sometime later he returned to the cave with friends to search for additional artworks. This time the explorers began to discern many paintings and engravings of animals on the rock walls.

News of Cosquer's discovery of apparently prehistoric cave paintings circulated among the diving community, and on September 1, three divers from another region went into the cave on their own, could not find their way out, and died there. Hoping to prevent further accidents, Cosquer belatedly reported his discovery to French government officials and submitted photographs that reached us through the Ministry of Culture.

Judging from the pictures he had taken, the paintings and engravings seemed genuine. Many were partly obscured by bright, white calcite deposits, and most of the engravings seemed to be covered by a patina, formed by a natural process that requires long periods of time. However, we could not authenticate the art unless we could examine it directly.

An expedition would require investigators who were both specialists in prehistoric rock art and experienced divers, an uncommon combination. Our exploration of the painted chamber was organized in late September 1991 by R. Lequement, director of the Department of Submarine Archaeological Research (DRASM) and included Cosquer, archeologists from DRASM, several divers from the French navy, and coauthor Courtin.

Even after only a preliminary inspection, Courtin became convinced that the art was genuine. All the figures were weathered, so that when they were examined under a magnifying glass, numerous minute bare spots were visible where the ancient pigment no longer adhered to the cave walls. Many drawings were coated not only with calcite but also with small stalactites that had grown on top of the coating. A patina, often the same as that of the surrounding walls, partly filled in engraved lines of the petroglyphs. Microcrystals had formed on them as well. On the walls were dozens of animal figures, a number of stenciled hands, and thousands of tracings made by human fingers in the once-soft surface coating. A hoax was out of the question. This was a major find.

A close examination of its contents showed that the cave had not been lived in. Two fires had been made but they were quite small, about a foot in diameter, and no bones or flint flakes could be seen around them. Unlike hearths found in Paleolithic cave dwellings, usually surrounded by a large amount of refuse from human activities, these fires were used for light, not cooking. Hundreds of pieces of charcoal littered the hard calcite floor, probably the remnants of torches used by the Paleolithic artists.

Stephanie Thiebault, of the National Center for Scientific Research, examined a number of charcoal samples from the site and determined that they belonged to two varieties of pine (Pinus silvestris and P. nigra) that no longer grow in the Calanque area; nowadays the Alep pine grows there, but this species was not found among the charcoal we analyzed. A preliminary pollen analysis by Thiebault's colleague Michel Girard also revealed that the ancient cave painters had inhabited a bleak landscape with only a few species of trees, among them P. …

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