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GROTTE CHAUVET - PONT d'ARC


About the DISCOVERY of GROTTE CHAUVET
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Now available in bookshops !
Grotte Chauvet booklet
72 pages, 84 pictures - 15€
On sale in bookshop and at ÉQUINOXE

About the discovery of Grotte Chauvet
and other nearby caves

A preview 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 Chauvet.

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 years before…

(…)

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 each other.

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 first chamber.

…………………………..

… 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 know about.



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 space…

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 night

(…)

… 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 conditions.
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 present.

(…)

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

(…)

Copyright Brunel/Chauvet /Hillaire 2014

Translation : Annie Guiraud

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