VISITING THE CHAUVET CAVE BY JOHN ROBINSON
To the left of the Lions is the great panel of Rhinoceros. What a composition! It is out of this world. I counted eight great bodies, but there could be another 6 beasts hidden in the complexity of the drawing, as the top Rhinoceros is extraordinary. He is shown as having seven enormous front horns making it look as though the animal is thrashing his head up and down in anger.
Between the Lions and the Rhinoceros is a shallow recess like a side Chapel to the Sanctuary.
Horse in the Central recess
Click photograph for enlargement
On the back wall is painted a solitary Horse, with a proudly arched mane above a black face. The body was quite orange in the light of my lamp. His back legs look as though they are hidden by undergrowth, so I got the feeling that he was walking out of the wall. What a masterpiece of drawing. What a feat of imagination.
The air in the Sanctuary is dangerously high in CO2, as it collects here because of being the lowest point of the cavern, and causes the symptoms that I was beginning to feel, tightness in my head and breathlessness. I wondered if this had been so 30,000 years ago? If so the visitors would have felt the same way as I did now. Surely this would have conveyed the feeling of sacredness to the chamber, presenting a physical barrier to the Underworld, by causing giddiness, followed by collapse.
It was time to turn and leave. Before heading back Jean showed me a large cave-in of the floor behind the Sorcerer. There at the bottom of the pit was an enormous bear skull, the largest found in the Chauvet Cave. We climbed back up the entrance of the Sanctuary, passed under the Owl, and returned to the ladders.
I stepped out into the late afternoon sunshine and took a deep breath of fresh sweet air. The view was glorious. The wall of the Canyon across the valley on the other side of the river was pitch black against a pinky blue sky. I was reminded of photographs of the famous Guilin Mountains in southern China. It was as though Nature had purposely blessed this whole area, here outside in the Canyon, and inside in the Cavern, so that man could have a special place to leave his special mark that has no equal.
I returned to the Hotel to share my experiences with Margie, have a strong drink, and a hot bath. Next morning I met Jean again in the car park, and set off up the track with him to the Chauvet Cave. It was drizzling and swirling mist again filled the valley. We soon arrived at the entrance, changed into our overalls, and once inside, pulled on our rubber shoes. I set off to crawl down the tunnel, and then climbed down the ladder, feeling quite at home.
This morning Jean had a meeting with Bernard at the Horse panel. Bernard had been recording the panel in detail, and Jean was to check his work with him. The job would take at least two hours. While they were working I was free to sit and watch. Nothing could have pleased me more as it meant that I would be alone for two hours in the Chauvet Cave with my own thoughts.
We reached the Horses and I found a comfortable seat where the plastic path branched off to the entrance of the Holy of Holies. I could see the men working about 30 feet away, their helmet lights flicking back and forth across the Horses, and could just hear them talking to each other in French. I was virtually alone. I opened my sketchbook and started to draw them as they worked.
I then drew the Horses, Aurochs, Rhinoceros, and the Chagall Horses. It was a wonderful feeling to be sketching these great works of art, and gave me a sense of communicating with the artists.
I sat with my back to the entrance of the Sorcerer Sanctuary and looked out into the great Hillaire Chamber, and slowly swung my light across from side to side. The chamber is vast. Beautiful stalagmites rose from the floor, sometimes meeting, but often not, the stalactites that hung from the roof. I took out my binoculars and started to examine my surroundings.
I suddenly realised that the Owl was looking back towards me over his shoulder and straight at the Sorcerer’s Sanctuary entrance. Surely he must have been placed here for that purpose? I turned the binoculars back towards the Horse panel to watch Jean and Bernard working at the face. They had moved down the panel to the right so I now had a clear view through the natural entrance to the Altar Chamber. I focused in on the Bear skull and suddenly realised that from where I was sitting, through the glasses, the shape of the Altar itself was like a giant Bear skull!
Standing by the Altar in the light of a helmet torch, one tends to only see the skull, plus, you are looking down on the top of the rock from a standing position. Sitting down I was looking at the side of the rock, with less light, because I was further away, the real skull almost disappeared. Through the glasses it really did look like a gigantic Bear skull.
The reason the rock looks like a skull through the binoculars is because at the base of one of the faces, there is a second rock sticking out that looks like the nose bone of the skull, leaving the large rock to resemble the cranium.
The rock itself is quite unique. I hadn’t seen anything else like it in the rest of the Chauvet Cave. The walls of the caverns are smooth being water worn. The rest of the formations are smooth and covered in calcite. The Altar is different, being a straight sided and flat topped. If it was not for the fact that you can see where it came from on the ceiling, you would say it had been quarried.
The other thing about the rock is its position in the chamber. It is right in the middle of the roundish calcite covered floor, backed by the grey clay bench area that almost looks like an auditorium set behind the altar. If this is all in place by chance then one really does marvel at such a fortunate accident. To add to the whole extraordinary resemblance, the skull has been exactly orientated to the shape of the rock by whoever put it there.
As I sat looking into the dark recesses of the Chauvet Cave, I tried to imagine what it would have been like 30,000 years ago. Slowly a scene started to formulate in my mind’s eye. The Chauvet Cave Clan was coming towards me, walking to the sound of a drum, their pine torches burning brightly. They filed past me, led by an Old Woman with grey hair. There were about twenty of them. men, children, and women, one carrying a baby. They were bare headed and warmly dressed in fitted skins. Their faces were modern, and their hair black. As they passed the Horse panel the held their burning torches high so they could see the cave paintings.
These Clan members did not know that some of the cave paintings were already 5,000 years old. They did know that the first ones had been done on the orders of the Great One, who had led the Clan away from the Salt Sea, up the river that flowed from the Land of Ice.