36000 years ago, the Chauvet-Pont D’arc cave in Ardèche

The Discovery

On Sunday 18 December 1994, on the Cirque d’Estre, Jean-Marie Chauvet, led his two friends Éliette Brunel and Christian Hillaire towards the cliffs: a slight breeze coming out of a small hole, at the end of a little cave drew his attention, and he wanted to investigate. All three of them are passionate speleologists, and have had countless discoveries and firsts. It was late afternoon, and the little cave into which they entered was already known, located very close to a major hiking trail. But there, behind the fallen rocks, they were sure there was something, so they dug and unblocked a passage, then slipped inside. They found themselves looking out over a dark, empty space. They didn’t have the equipment to continue. It was already dark, and they went back to their vehicles, took the essentials, and after hesitating a little, eventually returned to their discovery. They used their speleological ladder to descend, and discovered a vast chamber with a very high roof, filled with splendid, glimmering concretions. They pushed on in single file towards another, equally vast chamber and admired the unexpected geological beauty around them. They also noticed animal bones. They explored almost the whole network, and on their way back, Éliette noticed a small, red, ochre mammoth on a rocky pendant in the beam of her headlamp: “They were here!” she cried out, and from then on, they carefully looked at all the walls, discovering hundreds of paintings and engravings.

CHAUVET CAVE from Peter Tammer on Vimeo.

The grandmasters of the Chauvet cave from andanafilms on vimeo.

This moment changed their lives. Upon their return, in Éliette’s home, they told her daughter about their adventure. She didn’t believe them and made them return to the cave: it was past 9 PM, and despite their fatigue and emotion, they agreed. They made further discoveries, when they came out, despite their amazement, they also felt somewhat anxious faced with such responsibilities. The following Saturday, on Christmas Eve, they decided to protect the ground by covering the trace of their footprints with a plastic strip, thus setting out the path which all entering the cave from then on would take (the stainless steel gateways installed a few years later also follow this course).

After their discovery was announced, Jean-Pierre Daugas, Heritage curator at the Rhône-Alpes regional cultural affairs Department alerted Jean Clottes, then scientific adviser to the Ministry of Culture and specialist in decorated caves, to get it authenticated. On 29 December 1994, led by the discoverers, the expedition was launched.

Original preservation

Since it was discovered on 18 December 1994, Chauvet Cave has been subject to exemplary protection. This was brought about by two circumstances: firstly, the expertise of Jean Clottes, scientific advisor to the Ministry of Culture, who showed admirable perspective and maturity, and secondly, the approach of the Authorities was to adopt the recommendations of this eminent prehistorian and convert them into efficient legal documents. The rapid awareness raising of the cave’s exceptional nature, and the formulation of the right administrative measures to protect it, took place in record time. This coordination, which thereafter incorporated a scientific research programme based on respect for the integrity of Chauvet Cave, is proof of the originality of its preservation.

Preservation

The State put in motion the French legislative arsenal, which is among the most efficient in the world in the area of cultural assets. The law of 1930 on sites and that of 1913 on historical monuments were the first weapon for preservation. The cave was listed on 13 October 1995. Control of the property was also a significant element. It was jointly decided not to open the cave to the public but rather to guarantee safety.

At the same time, scientific and technical means were deployed to keep the site as authentic as possible and in the conditions it was in before discovery. Studying a site of this kind also forms part of maintaining it; it had to be organised with a concern towards preservation.

Putting into place corridors (following the route of the discoverers) to regulate movement and enable ongoing checks of the fragile internal balance, was believed to provide the conditions for this ambitious preservation project. Outside access was also built.

To ensure site surveillance and preservation, the State set up a Chauvet – Pont d’Arc Cave Preservation Office, managed by a heritage curator (which only existed previously at Lascaux).

Research and Preservation

Aware of its universal duty, since 1998 the State has financed a multidisciplinary team to study the cave, with concern for its preservation: compulsory routes on walkways, short visits for few people, no digging, just a few probes and carefully chosen sampling.