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Culture : Spelunker's Passion Pays Off : Jean-Marie Chauvet and his small team of cave-diggers 'hit the jackpot,' finding a cache of Stone Age art.

February 14, 1995|SCOTT KRAFT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VALLON-PONT-D'ARC, France — Jean-Marie Chauvet is no scientist and certainly no archeologist. In fact, he left school at the age of 14, worked as a stonemason, a hardware-store clerk and, finally, as a caretaker on the government payroll.

But the 42-year-old Frenchman has devoted nearly every weekend for the past three decades to his life's passion: digging inside the sheer rock faces of the Ardeche Gorge in southern France in the faint hope of discovering a path back through time in dark, hidden caves.

Thousands of spelunkers like Chauvet have spent years exploring the many caves of Europe, trying to become the first modern man or woman to lay eyes on, say, a particular fragment of rock art or, perhaps, a set of Stone Age footprints.

"It's always the unknown that leads us," Chauvet explained. "When you're walking along in a cave, you don't know what you're going to find. Will it end around the next corner, or will you discover something fantastic?"

So it was that Chauvet and two friends were digging inside a cave near here one Sunday evening in December, seeking the source of a steady, warm draft of air. They opened a narrow hole, wriggled through, crawled a few feet along a passage and then dropped 30 feet by ladder to a soft floor.

As their flashlights scanned the walls, they were rendered speechless.

"I kept thinking, 'We're dreaming. We're dreaming,' " Chauvet remembered.

"But," he added, shaking his head, "for a spelunker like me, this was the summit."

Or, as Jean Clottes, the leading French authority on prehistoric art, put it later: "They hit the jackpot."

What Chauvet and his colleagues discovered was one of the more important, best preserved and most unusual prehistoric finds of the century, Clottes and other experts now say. Some experts say the discovery is as significant a find as the caves of Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain, both of which hold stunning examples of Paleolithic art.

Scientists will be studying the Chauvet Cave, as it is already being called, for years. It will be some time before a full inventory of its contents is made; some parts have yet to be explored.

But already French scientists say the cave's chambers, which together measure the length of five football fields, contain more than 300 paintings and engravings, dating back 17,000 to 21,000 years.

There are shockingly beautiful renderings, in black, red and ocher earth pigments, of woolly rhinoceroses, cave bears, lions, mammoths, horses and even a panther and a hyena.

"As I studied them, I realized I was in the presence of the work of a great artist," said Clottes, a scientific adviser to the French Culture Ministry and president of the International Committee of Rock Art. "It was like finding the work of an unknown Leonardo da Vinci. In prehistoric times, as now, great artists were rare."

The cave also contains the skeletons of at least 40 cave bears, a seven-foot-tall species that disappeared 12,000 years ago. Many of their foot-long skulls are visible just above the thick layers of calcite formations that have accumulated over the millennia.

Like so many such discoveries, the Chauvet Cave raises many questions for which there are no answers--and may never be answers.

What, for example, was intended by the artists? There are no signs that anyone lived in the cave, though there are the flinty remnants of fires, suggesting that the cave was used for ceremonies or meetings.

It is clear from scratches on the walls that the cave bears lived there before the artists arrived. And a bear skull is perched on a stone in the middle of one room, suggesting a Stone Age altar.

"My hunch--and it is only a hunch--is that the artists came to this cave and found the bear skeletons," Clottes said. "Perhaps they were impressed by the skeletons and considered the cave to be full of the bears' spirit, a powerful cave.

"They may have thought that, by painting some bears and other dangerous animals, they were capturing the animals' spirits, adding power in their own lives," the art expert added.

Cave paintings are not unusual in Europe. An estimated 300 prehistoric caves have been discovered so far on the Continent, and a few have more paintings than the Chauvet Cave. Others have older engravings.

But several things make the Chauvet Cave significant, experts say.

The quality of the drawings is extremely high, suggesting the presence of one or more great artists, perhaps working thousands of years apart. And the cave's discovery indicates that this region of Provence, about an hour's drive northwest of Avignon, may be hiding even more important collections of rock art.

The most unusual aspect of the Chauvet Cave, though, is the artists' choice of subjects.

Most of the rock art discovered previously has depicted animals that Stone Age man dominated, killed for food or used as beasts of burden.

This cave contains some of those animals, but it also includes larger numbers than ever seen before of rhinos, lions, bears and other beasts feared by humans.

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