9 December 2015
The cave art of Cosquer
The Cosquer Cave (near Marseille, France) was discovered in 1985 by scuba diver Henri Cosquer, but its paintings were not mentioned until 1991.
Formerly several kilometres from the shore in an area of limestone hills, the cave's original entrance is now about 35 metres below sea level. From there, a gallery slopes upwards for about 110 metres, reaching a huge chamber that partly remained above the sea and where many prehistoric paintings and engravings are preserved, as well as charcoal from fires and torches, and a few flint tools. This is the only painted cave in the world with an entrance below present-day sea level where cave art has been preserved from rising sea levels following the last ice age.
Located in an area where no Palaeolithic art had ever been discovered, Cosquer's remaining riches highlight the disappearance of uncounted prehistoric caves all along the Mediterranean and other shores.
Cosquer is among the few caves where more than 150 animal figures have been found. There are representations of many sea animals, and unusually numerous ibex and chamois. Known hand stencils now total 65, the third highest concentration in Europe.
Superimpositions of figures reveal two main phases in the art, the earlier one including the hand stencils and finger tracings, with most of the animal paintings and engravings belonging to the later phase. This was confirmed by radiocarbon dating, with dates mostly clustering around 19,000 BP and 27,000 BP.
In the summers of 2002 and 2003, all the drawings were measured, sketched, precisely located, and the characteristics of their surroundings recorded, correcting many earlier errors and discovering a number of additional images.
The total of animal figures is now 177, of 11 different species - 2 more species than Lascaux, and only 3 fewer than Chauvet. The 11 are horse, bison, aurochs, ibex, chamois, saiga antelope, red deer, megaloceros deer, feline, auk, and seal. There is one human with a seal's head, 65 hand stencils, 216 geometric signs, 20 unidentified animal figures, 3 composite animals, and other figures. In addition to a phallus, other male and female sexual symbols were found, including natural hollows on the walls marked with black, representing female sexual organs. Handprints of children have been observed 2+1/2 metres or more from the ground in even the deepest parts of the cave.
Among the rare objects found in the cave are a large scallop shell in which a big live coal had been put, a piece of clay which bears traces of fingers and fingernails, and a calcite plaque used as a makeshift lamp.
All accessible parts of the cave which where the sea did not reach are covered with engravings, finger flutings and drawings. No artwork survives in the 75 to 80% which is now under water, but Cosquer was once one of the most important cave art sites in Europe, comparable to Lascaux, Trois-Freres, Altamira, or Chauvet. There could originally have been 400 to 800 animal figures in the cave.
Edited from Bradshaw Foundation