| Gerd Roth |
Pont d’Arc, France (dpa) – It’s two kilometres from the original prehistoric site as the crow flies.
But on the twisty roads of the Ardèche region, you need nine until you reach what is maybe the most stunning facsimile you will ever see.
France’s Chauvet Cave contains about a thousand wall paintings by centuries of mysterious Stone Age artists who started work 30,000 years ago.
For awed visitors, that short drive represents an immense journey through some 30 millennia of human history.
“The symbols and the animals all tell stories,” enthuses graphic artist and prehistoric researcher Gilles Tosello, who painted some of the facsimiles of the unique cave paintings.
Discovered on December 18, 1994, by Jean-Marie Chauvet and two other cavers, the horde of 425 horses, lions and other creatures in the collection are “extremely highly developed art” and “very complex for their time”, Tosello adds.
The original paintings were done during the Upper Paleolithic era.
The cave is today a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“I was amazed at how shiny, white and fresh it all looked,” recalls Jean Clottes, an ancient history expert who did the initial survey of the cave for the French government.
“I first thought to myself, ‘That cave looks untouched’. Then it was one miracle after the next.”
No human being had been inside the 400-metre-deep cave for more than 20,000 years: Its entrance in the side of a steep cliff appears to have been closed off by some accidental event.
But the wonderment of modern humans beholding these early artworks brings a risk with it: The wet breaths, trampling feet and sticky fingers of hordes of tourists would ultimately lead to a total loss of an irreplaceable treasure.
So the decision was taken to seal the cave to all but scientists while replicating the art to the highest possible standard so the general public could get a look at it.
Constructed over the past three years, the replica paintings in resin-based paint and other natural materials are in a 3,000-square-metre building that shows all the art from the 8,500 square metres of the cave.
Costing 55 million euros, the above-ground complex of five buildings was a joint effort by a consortium of 35 companies. The other four buildings are a visitor centre, learning hub, events space and restaurant-shop.
Contrary to initial assumptions, the Chauvet Cave art is not the earlist known set of man-made paintings. In terms of age, the more primitive works in El Castillo, a cave in Spain, trump these with a 40,000-year history.
The uniqueness of the Chauvet Cave is rather due to the wider vista of its art. The paintings not only depict common food animals like horses, cows or ibex, but the humans themselves as well as their natural enemies, the European lions, bears, panthers and rhinoceros.
Tosello was allocated frescoes of lions to copy and completed his work in four months in his Toulouse studio interspersed with trips to the real Chauvet Cave.
“The original artist drew it all straight from his own head,” he says, adding that the paintings were never intended for show like an art gallery. The cave was pitch dark, unless you carried a torch.
The images seem to be simply affirmations of life drawn from everyday events.
“These are all stories about hunting, and they are complex symbols,” says Tosello.
French architect Xavier Fabre says lessons have been learned from mistakes at the caves at El Castillo.
“The Chauvet Cave can now be closed off, protected and preserved,” says Fabre, who feels it would be “far too risky to open the original to visitors”.
To make the replica, scientists mapped the exact contours of the whole cave using 3-D survey points. These were then combined with 6,000 photos to create a massive 3-D computer model of the interior, which served as a base for the reconstruction.
The attraction north-west of Avignon will captivates visitors with its aura of authenticity.
In one scene, a pride of lions watches a buffalo and a rhinoceros as if mesmerised. Some of the creatures are painted with multiple silhouettes.
“That’s how movement is suggested – like a kind of forerunner to cinema,” German filmmaker Werner Herzog said about the eight-legged bison in his 2010 3-D documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”.
The attraction is due to be opened in spring 2015 under the name Pont d’Arc Cave. The replica is expected to receive around 350,000 visitors per year, and the buzz is growing steadily.
In one simple yet but weighty tribute, the French edition of National Geographic refers to it as simply “the other Chauvet cave”.