About the discovery
of Grotte Chauvet
and other nearby caves
of some extracts from the book about the discovery by the inventors
: Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel and Christian Hillaire
Copyright Brunel/Chauvet /Hillaire 2014
Discoveries around the
future Grotte Chauvet
In the years 1993 - 1994, all
three of us, Jean-Marie, Eliette and Christian frequently went to Cirque
d'Estre, a meander going round the Pont d'Arc, which is where the Grotte
Chauvet, still unknown at the time , is situated.
As we made our way along the
cliffs, going from a ledge to another with ropes, we then discovered
several unique parietal pictures in caves near the future Grotte Chauvet.
We didn't suspect it then, but we also visited the "little rock
shelter" which later turned out to be the entrance hall to Grotte
After the Grotte Chauvet was
discovered, several people stepped forward stating that they actually
knew that rock shelter: some cavers, a former resistance fighter, some
hunters and even a caver, now unfortunately deceased, maliciously admitted
that he and his wife had spent their wedding night there, some thirty
Among our discoveries at the
end of 1993, there was a Venus, found in the nearby Grotte Planchard.
We immediately reported that discovery to the Rhône-Alpes DRAC
and it was qualified an important piece in cave art symbolism by Professor
Gerhard Bosinski, a world expert in Paleolithic female image. The discovery
of this 20cm tall red ochre pictograph was the highlight of our caving
peregrinations in that area.
A few months later, in early 1994, we spotted some calcified fingerprints
in the nearby "bergerie Charmasson" They were also reported
to the DRAC but failed to create major interest.
After Grotte Chauvet was discovered in December 1994, both caves became
more significant, as the three caves were only a few dozens meters from
Three caves bunched closely together
: Chauvet, Planchard et Charmasson, seen from the Chauvet platform.
At that time, we also spotted
an engraved hopscotch layout on the highest ledges of the plateau, in
the entrance of "grotte de la Vacheresse", as well as some
much older mammoth engravings situated in the micro cracks of the cave's
… In short, back to December
18, 1984, Jean Marie threatens to go on his own if nobody wants to come
along with him .
After all the area is indeed pleasant in the dead of winter , thanks
to its sheltered and sunny situation.
We leave the Pont d'Arc car park in the early afternoon and then follow
the trail up in the woods. The view is nice, the weather mild. We climb
up the 100 metres that lead us to the foot of the cliff, visiting several
dry caves on the way. We don't waste time there, because Jean-Marie
really wants us to pay a last visit to that little rock shelter we all
We had once again visited that rock shelter with some caver friends
of ours; Sylvane Lucot, Michel Rosa called « Baba » et Didier
Lanthelme, earlier that year, in spring. We were in that area because
we wanted to show them the pictographs in Charamasson and Planchard
caves. As usual, we had explored it thoroughly, on the lookout for the
faintest draught, until we felt one and tried to open a passage, hoping
for a miracle, as usual…
Unfortunately, once again, after one or two fruitless hours, downhearted,
we had decided to close the case, considering it was a mere duct, probably
opening out a few meters further in the cliff.
… An air stream being only an air stream, another word for wind,
that particular air stream failed to convince everybody. "Such
air streams, they are all over the gorges.... We are not going to waste
our day on that one" added Baba (Michel Rosa).
… It was actually one out of many streams of air and at 3 p.m
we had decided to give up and go elsewhere.
While Didier and Baba resumed their walk towards the plateau, the rest
of the team walked back down to another entrance porch (we got out of
there covered with fleas... the dangers of caving are of various types).
On that 18th December, the three
of us, Jean-Marie, Eliette et Christian, are on the spot. Obviously,
nothing has changed since our last spring visit and it looks as off-putting.
We burn a mosquito coil at the entrance of the duct... and the smoke
flows down towards us. That confirms that a light air stream does filter
through the gravel, which makes us start excavating straight away. And
too bad for us if it turns out to be a mere duct. We are used to it.
Wasting no time, we take turns
to make our way through the tight passage centimeter after centimeter.
There is only one way to move forward : it's to lie down with a mallet
in one hand and a punch in the other, the arms up in the middle of the
passage (if not, it's impassable), and worst of all, head lower than
the body, in a very uncomfortable position, and after a few minutes
our head lamp in a crooked position.
When the one who is at the front, trying to break the conglomerate,
begs to be taken out, the other two join their forces to hold his feet
and pull him out. He carries along an armful of broken rocks, because
it is out of question to get out without them !
Excavating is a harsh reality made of smashed fingers followed with
swearing, doubts about the outcome, and one certainty : we would not
do it if we had to.
But it also involves looking expectantly for any widening of the passage
far ahead of us. Hoping that a tiny stone removed with our hand will
give way to a huge space and miles of echoing network, opening just
there round the corner of the gallery... In short, for any caver, it
involves muscle, head, hope, passion and a bit of madness.
The passage is beginning to take shape as a narrow winding tunnel. After
several hours, seven meters are excavated, requiring many movements
back and forth, and Eliette, who is the thinnest, manages to squeeze
her way through and to reach a bigger passage where she can stand up.
She walks for a few meters along the horizontal gallery, and, at last,
what we had hoped for is ahead of her : a balcony over a big opening
Jean-Marie and Christian are eager to go on exploring. But they know
they won't go through because they are bigger than Eliette. So she crawls
back into the squeeze and with her punch, removes all the sharp edges
so they can clear that last obstacle. After several attempts, they manage
to reach Eliette, leaving behind them bits of skin and blood on the
walls of the tight passage.
After a seven-meter long narrow
tunnel, the passage is getting wider
Back into the cave with Carole
(Eliette's daughter) who is telling the tale :
When they arrive, their faces
are tired looking and they announce in a weak voice that they have found
a cave "worse than Lascaux".
"We haven't finished exploring, we had no more light".
So we leave again, all of us piling in a C15 car, with new batteries
in our lamps. We park our car in front of the Auberge du Pont d'Arc,
and with our bags on our backs, in single file, we climb up the steep
and slippery trail into the woods, in the middle of the cold December
… We feel as if we have
been travelling back in time into some place unknown, without any time
or space reference marks…
… It's past midnight when we get out of the cave, with a sense
of urgency. Too much emotion…
We get the impression that we
disturbed something inside.
A sort of presence, confined for thousands of years, has watched us
and made us feel so oppressed. That feeling finally fades away.
Back in the open air, as we mechanically
fill the entrance with rocks in order to hide it, it is strikingly obvious
that we have entered a space left unspoiled for thousands of years,
an intact sanctuary.
That site has miraculously lived through millennia under optimal preservation
All we have seen has given us food for thought about the infinite studies
opportunities and about our responsibility as inventors.
We are now the last link of a long chain that stretches from our ancestors
- our past- and the next generations, the future.
Our priority is now to set up a very strict safety procedure.
Back to the cave with our guests
on the next weekend.
We go back to the cave on the
next Saturday, 24th December, in order to put a ground marking in place
before we officially report our discovery.
In the following week, still overwhelmed by emotions, we tell a few
people our secret : Jean-Louis Payan, Jean-Marie's childhood friend,
and two caver friends, Michel Chabaud et Daniel André. Of course,
they want to see the cave, so we offer them the exceptional privilege
of a visit.
Our guests are shocked and thank
us profusely for giving them such a beautiful and unexpected Christmas
We roll out almost 500 meters
of plastic material on the ground in order to protect the cave when
the authorities and the scientists come up there. We take many precautions
in order not to look suspicious to the hunters who are busy boar hunting
in that period of the year. And then we report our discovery to the
authorities. We have also filled the entrance passage with rocks and
camouflaged it with dust taken from the hall.
That is how, on 29th December 1994 in the morning, after we have told
them all about the circumstances of our discovery, we lead Jean Clottes
who is the scientific counsellor for prehistoric art at the ministry
of Culture, Jean Pierre Daugas, general heritage curator in Rhônes-Alpes
DRAC and Bernard Gely, in charge with archeology in Ardèche department,
to the cave.
December 29, 1994 : Jean Marie Chauvet with the
experts – Photo Eliette Brunel/Christian Hillaire