Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Grotto Paintings Revealed Volume 53 Number 3, May/June 2000
by Spencer P.M. Harrington

When a French TV crew lighted the Arcy-sur-Cure grotto to shoot a program on its geology in 1990, a spelunker noticed a painting of an ibex. Ten years later, researchers have discovered 70 such animals and as many symbols on the walls and ceiling of the cave, 60 miles east of Paris. Long a tourist destination for its stalagmites and stalactites, Arcy-sur-Cure now features some of the world's oldest and most unusual cave paintings.

These images owe their existence to a layer of calcite, several millimeters thick in places, that preserved them from a cleaning with chlorhydric acid ordered in 1976 by a judicial administrator of the privately held cave. The cleaning was designed to remove years of soot from visitors' torches, but inadvertently destroyed some 80 percent of the cave's paintings, according to Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique researcher Dominique Baffier. Since 1991, Baffier's team of a dozen scientists has used infrared film to find the remaining paintings, then exposed them with small, diamond-tipped picks. The images are remarkably well preserved, as if they were painted just days ago, says Baffier.

Arcy's images have been radiocarbon dated to 27,000-29,000 years ago, making them the second oldest cave paintings after those in the Chauvet Cave. As at Chauvet, the majority of Arcy's animals are fearsome--rhinoceroses, bears, lions, mammoths. Starting 25,000 years ago, prehistoric artists in France and Spain began decorating caves primarily with the animals they hunted. The reasons for the shift in emphasis are mysterious. Baffier describes a "change in the prehistoric artists' ideology," while Jean Clottes, head of the team researching the Chauvet Cave, suggests a change in the environment that might have caused some of the region's fauna to disperse. Arcy is the northernmost painted cave in Europe.

Baffier anticipates Arcy's bestiary will grow over the next three years as her team continues to pick away at the calcite.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America