The Cosquer Cave off the coast of Marseille, France, is the entrance to an underwater cavern containing a collection of prehistoric cave paintings which can only be reached from under the sea. The entrance, which lies at a depth of 37 metres (120ft) under the waves, was discovered by cave diver Henri Cosquer in 1985 although the find was not made public until 1991.
Not surprisingly because of its underwater location, the cave art has only been seen by a small number of intrepid divers. But from 2022 an exact copy of this remarkable discovery will open to the public in a new museum in Marseille.
Henri Cosquer found the cave entrance while diving in the sea near Cassis. He swam along a narrow, pitch-black gallery for about 360 feet before emerging in an enormous chamber partially above sea-level. When last frequented almost 20,000 years ago, the cavern was 5 km from the shore. Since then the sea level has risen by 130 metres and today only a third of the cave is above sea level.
The cave contains 500 drawings of 11 different species, including horses, bison, aurochs, ibex, chamois, saiga antelope, red and megaloceros deer and a cave lion. Unique to the cave are depictions of sea animals such as penguins, auks, seals and jellyfish-like creatures. One drawing seems to show a human with a seal’s head shot through by a spear. Also depicted are sexual organs, a large number of black and red hand stencils, geometric signs and children’s handprints.
The Palaeolithic art escaped the effects of the flooding which occurred when the sea level rose after the end of the last Ice Age. Carbon dating has shown that the images were painted in two distinct periods – around 30,000 years ago and 19,000 years ago.
The replica of the original cave is due to open to the public in summer 2022 in Marseille’s Villa Méditerranée next to the Mucem museum (The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations). The copy has been created by the same experts who previously worked on similar copies of Lascaux in the Dordogne and Chauvet in the Ardèche. Working from 3D digital scans of the cave walls, they have recreated every detail of the original chamber using concrete, resin, marble powder and crushed glass. The paintings themselves have been recreated by projecting images of the originals onto the walls.
Visitors will enter the display via “exploration pods” to give the illusion of surfacing from below the waterline.
Text: Alun Harvey