In 1991, a professional diver named Henri Cosquer discovered a wealth of prehistoric art in a cave near Marseilles, France. The opening to the cave, once several miles inland from the Mediterranean, became submerged when the sea began to rise at the end of the last ice age, about 12,000 years ago. Since that time, no human had entered this deep cavern or seen the paintings and engravings of animals, human hands, and signs that cover the walls and ceilings until Cosquer swam cautiously up the flooded entrnace passage.
News of Cosquer's extraordinary find flashed around the world. The French Ministry of Culture immediately sent two eminent archaeologists, Jean Clottes and Jean Courtin, to study the cave. Assisted by teams of specialists, they carried out two diving missions to the site, in 1991 and 1992. This book describes what they found and provides the first complete photographic documentation of this incredible site, one of the most decorated caves of Europe.
The explorers discovered not only the engravings and paintings in amazingly fresh earth colors, but also traces of the ancient humans who made the images. These included logs burned to illuminate the cave while the artists worked, flint blades--perhaps the very tools used to draw on the soft limestone walls--and, on nearly every surface, thousands of the grooves archaeologists call "finger tracings." Among the earliest work done in the Cosquer cave, these doodle-like marks were probably intended to announce the presence of humans in the cave and establish their possession of it.
Because charcoal and charcoal pigment were found in such abundance at the site, and because the archaeological context was undisturbed, Cosquer is now one of the most thoroughly and firmly dated Paleolithic caves in the world. Thanks to a series of twelve radiocarbon dates, we know that the images at Cosquer were made during two different eras. The stenciled hands are extremely ancient, created about 27,000 years ago. The land animals -- cold-loving plains horses, ibex, chamois, aurochs, and the huge ice-age deer called megaloceros -- are some 18,500 years old. There are also marine animals, very unusual subjects in Paleolithic art: they include seals, great auks (penguin-like birds that are now extinct), and mysterious images that may represent fish and jellyfish.
Throughout this fascinating book, which includes notes, a full bibliography, and a glossary of 125 key terms, the Cosquer cave is discussed in relation to other prehistoric decorated caves in Europe. The authors judiciously speculate on the meaning of the ancient images and what they can tell us not only about the lost world of our remote ancestors but about the origins of mythmaking, symboling, and artmaking -- in other words, of being truly human.
About the authors: Formerly in charge of prehistoric antiquities in the Midi-Pyrenees region of France, Jean Clottes is General Conservator of the National Heritage and Scientific Advisor on Prehistoric Art to the French Ministry of Culture and the French Community. He is the president of the International Committee on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). Currently the Director of Research ofr the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), Jean Courtin was previously in charge of antiquities in the Provence region of France and co-director of the Department of Underwater Archaeological Research (DRASM).