Caverne du Pont d’Arc

An archaeologist’s holiday

Exterior of the architect designed building containing the replica cave

Exterior of the architect designed building containing the replica cave

When you go on holiday as an archaeologist, you end up finding and visiting the archaeology around your holiday destination or, as I did, you build your entire holiday around going to see archaeological sites. I have watched Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, I have read Mordicai Gerstein’s The First Drawing and I have trawled through the images on the Bradshaw Foundation. When the Caverne du Pont d’Arc was opened earlier this year, a replica of the famous ‘Chauvet’ Cave in the Ardèche region of France, I knew that I’d be dragging my family there this year and that’s where I found myself on the Day of Archaeology 2015.

The original cavern was only found in 1994 by cavers, among them Jean-Marie Chauvet who the cave is often named after. Due to the damaging affects of tourists visiting caves found in earlier decades, such as Lascaux in the Dordogne region of France, the decision was made very early on to create a replica of the cave for visitors. It was a huge project that cost over 55 million euros and I was excited and nervous, hoping that it would be well spent and worried that it would be a damp squib.

I needn’t have worried. The replica is incredibly impressive, from the outside as well as in. The architecture of the exterior of the replica is monumental and reflects the angular formations of the cavern walls. It has been built on a hilltop a couple of miles from the original down in the valley of the Ardèche, and commands a breathtaking view of the mountains of the Cévennes. As far as I could tell, the entire cave system is recreated, instead of just a section of it, as at other cave replicas.

Panorama of the view from the top of the hill where the replica has been built

Panorama of the view from the top of the hill where the replica has been built

The cave was worked on some 36,000 years ago and has the earliest known cave art in Europe. (In contrast, Lascaux was painted about 17,000 years ago. As much time passed between Chauvet and Lascaux as between Lascaux and today!) It has cave paintings in both red ochre and charcoal, as well as cave engravings. It has paintings of bears, lions, horses, giant deer, woolly mammoths and woolly rhinos. The artists have observed these animals closely and for many years. It has an engraving of an owl with its head turned all the way round. The images are, for the most part, executed with great skill. They appear to move as some animals are given more than one set of legs that would have flickered back and forth in the torchlight. The earlier part of the cave is generally done in red ochre, while the later paintings are all mostly black.

Bear skull placed deliberately on a stone, image from Bradshaw Foundation’s website

The cave was also occupied by bears around the same time, who have left their marks all over, in the hollowed out hibernation nests they made for the winter, the rubbing along the walls where they passed and the claw marks on the walls to mark their territory. They died in there, too, and the people who came to paint the walls also moved the bones. Some long bones seem to have been shoved into the earth on end to act as markers, and several skulls were arranged on a bed of ochre around a natural pillar of rock on which another skull was sat.

Cave lions and a woman’s legs and vulva, image from the Bradshaw Foundation’s website

By the final gallery I was nearly in tears with the beauty and power of the place. All throughout I had been translating the guide to my five year old daughter and getting her to find certain animals and look at the expression of the sad lion. I had abandoned my English language audioguide, which didn’t have the detail I wanted, which the live action tour guide did, which I managed to mostly follow in French. I was particularly pleased to point out the child’s negative handprint (created by spitting paint on the back of the hand pressed on the cave wall) and footprint on the soft earth floor, and the cruder paintings that have been speculatively suggested to be the work of children. I even explained to her the image of the woman’s legs and vulva in the final gallery, as some teenage boys giggled to themselves, but this is the deepest part of the cave, the most magical. Women, then, are apparent in the cave both here and at the start where women’s handprints probably accompany men’s.

In the museum accompanying the cave, however, women are almost completely absent. I felt completely let down by this, which is totally in contrast to the evidence in the cave. In an introductory video four male hunters, who don’t seem to do very well as they compete against cave lions, stumble upon a cave and an elderly man envisions the animals upon the walls and starts to draw with charred wood from the fire. In the gallery of mannequins afterwards, it is the men again who are engaged in placing their palm prints on the walls, while one woman and one child are engaged doing something else with their heads down. It needs a bit more work to coax the whole story out, I think.

The replica Caverne du Pont d’Arc is spectacular. The real thing is off limits to everyone but those who are studying and conserving it so that it can survive another 36,000 years. The paintings at Lascaux are now damaged beyond repair by the damp and the tramping of hundreds of feet through the cave, disturbing molds which started growing on the cave walls and destroying the beautiful art. We don’t want the same to happen at Chauvet, so the replica is as good as it gets for this archaeologist as for us all.