Penguins and Seal-Headed Men: A Window on Glacial Provence | Archeology

It was in 1985 that the diver Henri Cosquer discovered, along the Marseille coast, what has been called an “underwater Lascaux” from the name of the famous network of caves in the Dordogne. After several failed attempts, he managed to follow a narrow tunnel, 120 feet below the surface of the sea, for nearly 400 feet and emerged into a beautifully decorated chamber. Subsequent visits have revealed numerous images of horses, ibexes and deer in prehistoric rock art, but also unprecedented images of seals and what look very much like penguins, including one that appears to show two males in competition for a watching female. This initially raised questions about authenticity, although charcoal carbon dating confirmed that the drawings were prehistoric. The birds were later identified not as penguins but as great penguins (known in French as great penguins), an extinct species that appears similar but is actually not closely related.

The cave came to the attention of the general public when three divers drowned there in 1991. It was classified as a historical monument the following year and the French State has carried out ever more precise and detailed surveys using laser scanners and high definition photographs. Portable devices can now also perform chemical analyses, for example pigments, on site. But Cosquer Cave is the only known decorated cave with an entrance under the sea, and until now it was only accessible to very experienced divers. Global warming means it will likely end up submerged and its incredible rock art only virtually preserved. It is therefore particularly to be welcomed that a convincingly accurate replica is now open to the public at a prime site in Marseille, where it is hoped to attract around 500,000 visitors a year.

Geologist and prehistorian Jacques Collina-Girard, who teaches at the University of Aix-Marseille, said a number of things make the cave unique. It was the first cave decorated with prehistoric paintings found in Provence, and “a sanctuary of this type demonstrated that a significant population lived in the region”. Even though rising sea levels mean the cave once stood about four miles inland, it was still “closer to the sea than other major sites” and the animals depicted in it interior stated that “people of this period maintained contact with the sea and coastal areas”. ”. It therefore helped to dispel the common image of prehistoric peoples as being primarily inland hunters.

Cosquer Cave takes us back to a time when France was as cold as today’s Iceland. It appears to have been visited, but not inhabited, over an unprecedented 14,000 years – 33,000 to 19,000 years ago. And it contains more than 500 separate images – some carved with flint tools, some painted with fingers or made with charcoal now identified as coming from Scots pine. Experts speculate about similarities and differences in how certain animals are depicted in rock art across wide geographic areas, and what they tell us about cultural groupings. They try to interpret enigmatic images like the one that seems to represent a seal-headed man pierced with a spear or a harpoon. And what about the handprints, found at Cosquer and a few other places, where fingertips are missing? Had these been deliberately cut or lost due to frostbite? Or were the footprints simply made by people who had curled some of their fingers, to represent a silent form of signalling, perhaps used in hunting, or to convey spiritual meaning, much like the sign of the cross ?

Penguins of Provence: a panel depicting three great penguins, Pinguinus impennis. The species was hunted to extinction in the 19th century. Photography: Nicolas Tucat/AFP/Getty Images

The port of Marseille, where the new replica is located, has always had a somewhat colorful reputation, with its crooks, chancellors and fishmongers (fishwives) famous for welcoming customers with fruity selling points. A neglected district was transformed when the city was European Capital of Culture in 2013, with the creation of the MuCEM (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations), the Regards de Provence Museum, dedicated to art terroir, and a striking building called La Villa Méditerranée. The last of these sits in a man-made sea basin and is distinguished by a huge overhanging cantilever, giving it an inverted L shape – locals have dubbed it the Stapler and Cap. Property of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, it had no obvious function and thus constitutes a perfect home for the Cosquer Méditerranée replica.

The contract was awarded to Kléber Rossillon, a company already in charge of a similar project at the Chauvet cave in Ardèche, about 100 miles to the northwest. So how were the architects, designers and technicians able to recreate every detail of an environment that they lacked the diving knowledge to visit on their own?

“The national institutions created the digital data of the cave and provided us with all the documents, all the 3D data”, explains the director of Cosquer Méditerranée, Frédéric Prades. “We are committed to setting up a scientific committee composed of eminent historians, geologists, etc. [led by Collina-Girard]. They followed the whole working process. This is a guarantee that the result is scientifically faithful to the original. Even when we created the connecting tunnels, we consulted the geologists and they said: if we had to dig a tunnel in the rock [on the original site]it would have looked like this, with that kind of rock.

A company called Perspective(s) processed the digital data, 344 laser scans and high-definition 360-degree images to create a 3D model of the cave. This meant that engineers and designers could put on virtual reality headsets and feel like they were walking around in them.

A digital milling machine used 3D modeling to carve polystyrene blocks as molds for the resin panels onto which photographs were projected. Expert painters then painstakingly recreated the original images by hand. Other specialists were employed to make reproductions of the stalactites and stalagmites, and to replicate exactly the matte, transparent, and shimmering surfaces found in the cave.

A model of aurochs at the reception center of the Villa Méditerranée;  horses, ibex and bison are also depicted on the cave walls.
A model of aurochs at the reception center of the Villa Méditerranée; horses, ibex and bison are also depicted on the cave walls. Photography: Nicolas Tucat/AFP/Getty Images

“The physical replica itself is not a tool for scientists,” Prades points out. “But the virtual reality work that allowed us to create our cave replica will also be used by scientists – who will be able to move around the cave without having to go there.”

The other key challenge was to fit the original cave into the slightly smaller underground space available at Villa Méditerranée and “wrap” it around the essential metal support beams. In some cases, sea level rise means that there is now very little space in the real cave between ground level and a ceiling on which sits a striking image or design. And you enter it in the middle of a sequence of spaces that branch out in both directions but end in dead ends.

So it was decided to include stylized access tunnels and twist the real space to accommodate a discovery vehicle that takes visitors through a series of six rooms on a crushed figure-eight circuit, without having to Turn back. Nonetheless, the replica looks quite authentic as you are taken on a 35 minute journey through every part of the cave a visiting diver could see without having to crawl. This includes all black paintings and drawings and 95% of prints. The visit also includes several films about the creation of the replica, although Prades reports that they had “a long discussion about whether we should have such films, because it is important to keep the magic and forget that you you are not in a cave”.

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