VISITING THE CHAUVET CAVE BY JOHN ROBINSON
I awoke to a dull wet day. It had rained all through the night, so now the Canyon was full of swirling mist. I arrived at what I thought must be the right car park to find it empty, so drove on down the road to see the Arch in this totally different light. It was shrouded in vapour and very menacing. Not finding another car park I returned and saw Jean and David Lewis-Williams waiting for me, plus a film crew, who proceeded to record our happy meeting!. The car park is beside a beautiful vineyard, which in turn ends in the sheer cliff of the canyon.
The vine leaves had started to turn golden and sparkled with drops of water. Across the face of the cliff ran a river scoured cutting, and it was up this that we were going to pass to the entrance of the cave, which was situated towards the top of the canyon.
I Loaded up with equipment, the seven members of the team that were going to work in the cave that day, set off through the vineyard, to the track that led up to the cutting. The rain had stopped but the leaves of the scrub oaks were saturated with water, so that every time you pulled on a branch to heave yourself up the steep incline, down would come a shower of droplets. Slowly we climbed up the goat path and arrived at the cutting.
The path to the Chauvet Cave
The water worn cutting is some 200 yards long and runs across the face of the cliff at about 15 degrees incline. Way below lay the vineyard, then the river, and then the opposite cliff. It was a breathtaking view, with the sun just beginning to struggle through on this misty morning. I wondered about all the people who had taken this path 30,000 years ago, as surely this must have been the way up to the Chauvet Cave then, as it is now.
Once past the cutting the going got a little steeper, but we soon arrived at the store cave that is to the right of the Chauvet Cave entrance. The journey had only taken half an hour. Here the team unloaded and we pulled on our boiler suits. A new catwalk of stainless steel and wooden planking led off to the left for about 50 feet, ending in a Bank vault door. This was the Government's precaution against the treasure of art being tampered with by unauthorised visitors. The electronic door opened and I stepped inside the Chauvet Cave. What a moment, I was inside.
John Robinson begins the
climb into the Chauvet Cave
I couldn't really believe it. The room was about the size of a 10 person elevator, but also housed a giant fuse box and battery charger, so was very cramped. Rubber shoes were stacked to the right, helmets to the left, and people in the middle. Boots were removed and replaced with rubber shoes in an effort to try and keep the outside pollen from contaminating the ancient pollens inside.
Helmet on and battery strapped around my waist, I followed Jean on all fours into a three foot wide rabbit hole. This was the widened tunnel made to allow easier access for humans and the alloy catwalks. It runs steeply down hill for about 40 feet and ends in the gaping mouth of a well. Attached to the roof above the well is a dead-man winch with a safety belt that goes around your waist, so that if you slip going down the ladder, it will stop you falling the 30 feet to the bottom!
Stalactites & Stalagmites
I looked into the black hole in front of me, harnessed up tightly, shuffled myself round, and started down the ladder, which is attached to the smooth water polished sides. On reaching the bottom I found myself standing in a James Bond film set on an alloy platform. I undid the safety belt, watched it shoot up the shaft for the next person, then turned and looked out into the Chauvet Cave. My light pierced the blackness to reveal a wonderland of stalactites and stalagmites. The colours were soft golden yellows and pinks. Sparkling white crystals glinted in the beam of my helmet torch. It was an Aladdin's cave.
Following Jean, David and myself set off down the catwalk as far as it has yet reached, before stepping off onto a two foot wide black plastic strip. These strips are the paths that lead around the Chauvet Cave. No one is allowed to step off the strip without removing the rubber shoes, and proceeding only in socks. By this means it has been possible to protected 99.9 % of the cave floor against damage of any kind. The plastic will soon be replaced by the alloy walkways.Jean led us to the first large wall of red Dots in the Chauvet Cave. What is their meaning?
Panel of Red Dots
Click photograph for enlargement
No one knows, but they give you a wonderful sense of communicating with the makers of the Chauvet Cave paintings, especially as you can occasionally make out that the Dots have fingers. It seems as though the daubers first put the red paint on their palms and then looks like they slapped their hands against the wal. Some people were a bit careless and got paint all over their hand, thus leaving imprints of their fingers as well.
The paint must have been quite fluid as there are occasional paint runs, which makes it all very human. Another great panel of dots is thought to be by one Chauvet Cave artist, as the handprints all seem to be the same. This panel to the left has a vague resemblance to a great Bison, but it could be just a coincidence.
Still following, Jean led us over a jumble of stalagmites and rocks into a recess. Here on the floor was a small trolley that ran on rails. "Lie down in the trolley John and pull yourself in" Simple?. No. To begin with the trolley contained a large puddle, a definite designer fault, and secondly Jean had not released the brake! However with much pulling and grunting I managed to get the trolley to the ends of its rails. "Look to the left" was Jean’s next command.