RETURN TO THE CHAUVET CAVE BY JOHN ROBINSON
The Bear Clan couldn’t have survived without possessing a sophisticated language, let alone have created art. I suspect that the invention of language marked the birth of Cro Magnon 150,000 years ago in Africa. Storytelling, music, singing, and dancing are all offshoots of language.
Extra thick woollen socks
It was with these thoughts in my head that I arrived at the door of the Cave. I pulled on some extra thick woollen socks in case we needed to leave the plastic pathway and walk across the needle sharp calcite. I selected a pair of oversize rubber slippers that are kept at the entrance so that no new pollen is carried down into the cave.
I was back!
Switching on my helmet light I followed Jean down the slopping floor of the rabbit hole tunnel on all fours to the wellhead, clipped on the anti-fall rope and climbed down the thirty foot ladder into the depth of the cave. I was back!
The cave had grown
On reaching the bottom of the ladder my immediate reaction was that the cave had grown in size, everything seemed more spacious than I had remembered. Perhaps this was because I was more relaxed and not quite so much adrenaline was pumping through my veins as had been on my first visit. I looked around at the beautiful stalactites and stalagmites and was amazed by how big the chamber actually was.
Feeling you get in an aquarium
Over the last two years the engineers have been very busy. I could see the new steel walkways zigzagging away into the dark. They are doing a superb job and the modern shiny steel gave me the same kind of feeling I get in an aquarium when looking through the glass at the water world of fish. Somehow the walkways separated me from the world of the Bear Clan.
Oldest man made step
Crouching low we scrambled through the pinch that separated us from the next chamber. There is a two-foot drop down from thispassageway into the chamber and Chauvet man has carefully placed a large stone step there to make it easier. The stone hasn’t fallen by chance from the ceiling, as is the case of the Bear Skull Altar, it had been deliberately placed there.
Allow just enough light
The oldest example
in the world of a
brush being used?
We passed through the large second chamber where there is not a single image on the empty walls although there are many surfaces suitable for drawings. Why are there no drawings? It has been suggested that one possible answer might be that the original entrance that was used by the bears had been wide enough to allow just enough light into this chamber so it was not completely dark. If that is so, does it mean that only the pitch-black chambers were thought to be the sacred abode of the animal spirits.
This could be the oldest example in the world of a brush being used. Whether it was a bird’s feather or a bunch of hairs bound to a stick as a brush, is impossible to tell, but I believe the painting must have been done with a loaded brush. It was certainly wonderful to think about.
Horse pane animation
At last we arrived at the Horse panel. So much work has been done on this vast panel that it has been possible to map a precise sequential order for the whole composition. Was this wall chosen because it is at the entrance of the Altar chamber or is there another reason? There is a possibility that this might be the case as the research team have noticed that after very heavy rain a weird gurgling noise comes from a hole at floor level at the base of the panel.
The noise continues for a day or so, then water starts to seep from it and trickles out and runs past the panel and out into the Altar chamber. Did the Chauvet people believe the sound was coming from the Animal Spirit World?
Bear Skull Altar
Click photograph for enlargement
We took off our rubber shoes and walked across to gaze down at the Bear skull on the Altar. Michel Phillipe, the bear expert, told me that it is a four-year-old female. The carbon from the fire that once burnt on the stone beneath the bone has been dated as over 30,000 years old! No one can tell if the skull was put there the day after the fire or five thousand years later? Looking down at the altar is the most surreal thing I have ever done.
Still blessing my thick woollen socks, I followed Jean across the Altar chamber over the needle sharp calcite to see the prints left by the Bear Clan, a left footprint of an eight-year-old child and a right footprint of an adult. Looking down at the impressions left all those thousands of years ago sends goose bumps down ones spine.
How often does one think about the artist when you look at a painting? Not until you see some personal object like a pair of spectacles or discarded painting gear do you think of the artist behind the painting. In the same way it was the signs of human occupation, like the loaded paintbrush, the stone step and the footprints, that makes the cave come alive for me.
Holy of Holies
We returned to the Horse Panel and started down the throat like tunnel entrance of the Holy of Holies. Immediately inside the entrance are three female pubic triangles, one is painted and two are engraved. Surely they must have acted as some kind of fertility gateway to the Sorcerer Chamber?
The tunnel is steep
Again I was to be surprised by the difference of what I remembered and what I was seeing this time around. The tunnel is steep, dropping down through seven levels before you reach the Sorcerer. By the time you reach the bottom you are some 20 feet below the chamber entrance. While we were standing beside the Sorcerer a scientist started working up at the top of the tunnel. His light lit up the entrance and showed us just how much lower we actually were.
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