300 Stone Age paintings grace newly discovered cave in French mountains

January 19, 1995|By New York Times News Service

PARIS -- In the mountains of southern France, explorers have discovered an underground cave full of Stone Age paintings so beautifully made and well preserved that experts are calling it one of the archaeological finds of the century.

The enormous underground cavern, which was found last month in a gorge near the town of Vallon-Pont-d'Arc in the Ardeche region, is studded with more than 300 vivid images of animals and human hands that experts believe were made some 20,000 years ago.

In this great parade of beasts appear woolly-haired rhinos, bears, mammoths, oxen and other images from the end of the Paleolithic era, creatures large and small and variously drawn in yellow ochre, charcoal and hematite.

The murals have surprised specialists because they also include a rare image of a red, slouching hyena and the era's first-ever recorded paintings of a panther and several owls.

Specialists say this ancient art gallery surpasses in size that of the famous caves of Lascaux, also in southern France, and Altamira, Spain, which are widely held to be Western Europe's finest collection of Stone Age art.

Archaeologists said they were thrilled not only by the number and the quality of the images but also by the discovery that the great underground site, sealed by fallen debris, appears to have been left undisturbed for thousands of years. They see this as tantamount to finding a time capsule full of hidden treasures.

"Here we have a virgin site, completely intact. It may well change our perception, our thinking about the purpose and the use of cave art." said Jean Clottes, France's leading rock art specialist. At all other Stone Age sites found in Europe, he said, many objects were disturbed by explorers.

The first inkling of a great unknown cave came on Dec. 18, when two men and a woman were exploring in the gorges of Ardeche, an area known for its decorated ancient caves and shelters.

"At one point we felt a draft coming out of the ground," said Jean-Marie Chauvet, a government guard of prehistoric sites, one of the three explorers. "For us that's a sign there is something else."

He said they took much of that day clearing fallen debris until they could enter a narrow hole that led to a greater space. They returned again on Dec. 24. Christian Hillaire, an amateur explorer, said the team first crawled through the narrow tunnel they had cleared, which was seven yards long. "Then we saw the first red markings on the walls with our helmet lights. So we kept going."

As the three lowered themselves on a rope, it turned out, they were entering through the ceiling of a great cavern. "There we began to see human markings and drawings everywhere," said Mr. Hillaire. "It was a great moment. We all shouted."

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