Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Accessing Cosquer Cave Volume 51 Number 2, March/April 1998
by Spencer P.M. Harrington

French researchers have rejected the idea of digging an entrance to the Grotte Cosquer, a Palaeolithic painted cave near Marseilles, after climatological study revealed that doing so might jeopardize its paintings and engravings, some of the world's oldest cave art (see "World's Oldest Cave Art," May/June 1993). Studies by the Labortoire de Récherches des Monuments Historiques in Champs-sur-Marne, France, revealed that the cave's atmosphere is under pressure, and that if conditions are changed its water level might rise, flooding some of the rock art.

"We're taking no chances," says Jean Clottes of the French Ministry of Culture who, along with Jean Courtin, an archaeologist with the Centre National de la Récherche Scientifique, was among the first to study the cave when it was discovered in 1992. Though the climatological studies have ensured that few will ever see the paintings up close (underwater access to the cave is extremely treacherous), dives organized by the French Ministry of Culture in past years have identified 41 more engraved animals and one painted one, bringing the total number of such images to 142.

Other unusual finds included rectangular shapes with an external protrusion like the handle of a suitcase, and a lifelike representation of a phallus. "Female genitals were more often represented in cave art," says Clottes. Researchers also completed a photogrammetric and laser record of the cave's surfaces that will provide enough information to build a three-dimensional reconstruction for tourists. Scientists have also obtained 12 additional radiocarbon dates, bringing the total to 22 and making Cosquer the most thoroughly dated painted cave in the world, according to Clottes.

This spring Clottes will conduct extensive studies of Chauvet Cave, a cavern with superbly preserved Palaeolithic rock art discovered in 1994 near Vallon-Pont-d'Arc in southern France (see "Stone Age Masterpieces Found," March/April 1995).

© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America