Decorated cave of Pont d'Arc
The Decorated cave of Pont d'Arc is an underground cave covered with the oldest known pictorial drawings in the world.
They date back to as early as the Aurignacian period (30,000 to 32,000 BP). A second phase of human occupation dates from 25,000 - 27,000 BP.
Over 1,000 drawings have been found, which often are of high artistic and aesthetic quality. They display anthropomorphic and zoomorphic motifs. In contrast to other Paleolithic cave art, the walls of cave feature many predatory animals such as cave lions, panthers, bears, and cave hyenas. In addition to the paintings and other human evidence, fossilized remains, prints, and markings from a variety of animals, some of which are now extinct, were discovered.
The cave was closed off by a rock fall approximately 23,000 years BP and remained sealed until its rediscovery on December 18, 1994 by a group of speleologists. Jean-Marie Chauvet was one of them, and the grotto was subsequently named "Chauvet Cave" after him. The site has been closed to the public since then.
Map of Decorated cave of Pont d'Arc
Visit November 2018
After the extensive review of the Cave of Pont D’Arc by Solivagant 2 months ago, I was afraid that there would be nothing left for me to write about! But I was happy to finally tick it off, as I had a painful 'near miss' last year. This time I first drove to the Cirque d’Estre where the real cave is located. At least I made it into the buffer zone (looking at the map, I suspect that the core zone starts behind the vineyards at the ridge?). Signs were all over the place to warn about wild boar hunters so I did not proceed beyond having a quick look at the Cirque and the Pont d’Arc opposite. I’ll continue this review with my experience of visiting the replica cave in late November.
I bought the ticket online about a month before, but there were still tickets left on the day. I was on the first tour of Sunday morning, at 11 am. They warn you to be there at least half an hour before – that’s because the tours do not start at the visitor entrance but at the ‘Caverne’ across the park. Not until 10.15 other cars started to appear at the parking lot and the entrance remained closed until 10.30. There were 15 other people on my tour, all French. The tour was conducted in French only and the guide skipped handing out the audio guides because of the small group size (a nice gentleman who had overheard at the ticket counter that I am Dutch enquired whether that would be OK for me, but it was).
It was a foggy morning and pretty chilly outside. Fortunately they do heat the ‘cave’ a bit – it is kept at 16 degrees Celsius (the original is colder at 13 degrees if I understood well). When you have seen the Werner Herzog movie about the original cave, you’ll notice right away that the replica has been made much more accessible. You do not have to crawl through narrow passages: a wide, flat path circles the cave rock formations with rock art.
In the beginning I only noticed its 'fake' aspects - the walls are made of concrete & the rocks of plastic - but gradually the appreciation for the rock drawings started to dominate. Those drawings have been precisely recreated, using the same materials. That is apparently also the reason that you cannot even take photos in this replica cave.
We stopped at about 10 clusters of drawings, with the guide explaining them extensively. She often asked us what animal we thought we recognized. At a large scene she even let us sit on the floor for 20 minutes to tell in detail about the way in which the artists depicted movement. The designers of the replica cave have also done a lot with light effects, such as mimicking the light of flares (the only lighting that prehistoric people had). The total tour lasted 75 minutes, a quarter of an hour longer than in the high season when the groups quickly succeed each other.
After the tour I had some coffee at the cafeteria (there’s a restaurant also). Then I made my way to the ‘Aurignacian Gallery’, which effectively is the site museum. It should not be missed: it is actually advisable to view this museum before you visit the cave itself. It starts with a short video in a cinema room where you are temporarily 'locked up'. After the video, the doors open and you can go and see the exhibition.
The museum shows lifelike interpretations of the animals depicted on the drawings. The cave bear and the cave lion for example, but also mammoths and giant deer. It also shows the many different techniques with which the drawings were made. Apparently there are so many Dutch tourists in this region that all information in the museum besides French, English and German is also written in Dutch!
In all, I spent some 3.5 hours at the replica cave and at the view point near Pont d’Arc. They are located in a very nice area of the Ardeche and the drive up there I found already worthwhile. I found the replica well done (much better than I remember from Altamira for example), but it still remains unsatisfactory that you cannot see the real thing.
Simply amazing to see how long humans have beenbeen practicing art. The guided tours are blissful (if you speak french) and you instantly forget that you are in a replica, because everything is so fascinating.
So - we had visited the “replica” Chauvet Cave but had we really “visited” the WHS? Now, each of us will have their own “rules” for deciding when to “count” a site as visited and I wouldn’t criticise anyone who “ticks” for the replica visit alone. But it did seem a bit unsatisfactory just to leave it at that since the replica is situated outside both the core and buffer zones of the inscribed site. Indeed it could have been situated anywhere – imagine a “Chauvet franchise” which could create additional replicas a la Disneyworld. The cost of the original was c $59 million – no doubt a further “Chauvet Asia” in China could be done far more cheaply. Would one have seen any less of the “WHS” if one had seen a replica in a location beyond France? (Some would argue - “Yes”, because the nearby “Pont d’Arc” could be considered significant for the site in terms of contributing to whatever “spiritual value” caused the Aurignacians to use the cave for paintings. But this wasn’t argued in the Nomination). And where would counting such distant replicas lead to in terms of what constitutes a WHS “visit”? We could have “World Heritage Parks” with replicas of numerous WHS and “holodecks” running virtual reality visits to others!
The creation of this replica as a “visitor attraction” hasn’t passed without criticism. . The article provides “food for thought” but I don’t “buy” the arguments used and would recommend visiting the replica. It might be worth mentioning however, that it isn’t an exact representation – the real cave’s, largely linear, 1000m has been compressed and folded into a sinuous path inside a circular building with the stretches lacking paintings left out. Many of the painted panels have been reproduced faithfully whilst the “transitions” between them are “fictional”. Floor features such as bear scrapes and skulls/bones are also shown and the “atmosphere” in terms of temperature and humidity is said to replicate that of the real cave. The lighting isn’t “authentic” of course, even if subdued, though attempts are made on occasions to simulate flickering torches. Despite the multiple groups passing through at the same time a surprising quietness was achieved. It was all as “well done” as one could hope for.
The Replica tour and documentation doesn’t specify where the “real” cave is (merely stating that it is a “few kms away”) but you pass close to it along the road on the Western side of the Pont d’Arc (actually 9.2 kms from the replica by road and somewhat less as the crow flies). There you can see the cliff face which is a part of the core zone, but not the entrance to the cave itself as this is hidden in a copse high up on the cliff side. That view might satisfy the desire of some “WH Travellers” to have at least “seen” the core zone from a distance! However, whilst it may not be entirely “logical”, I prefer not to “count” a WHS as “visited” if I haven’t reached at least the core zone boundary - where feasible. Beyond that of course one has to accept the limits of practicality and legal restrictions. But, if it can be achieved, then actually reaching it seems essential for a “visit” rather than merely having been to a replica 9 (or 9000!!) kms away. However, whilst achieving the closest possible/practical proximity to the core zone could be regarded as “necessary”, it is of course not “sufficient” for a full “visit”. Undoubtedly, in this case, that requires seeing the replica as being the nearest one is going to achieve in terms of “entering” the cave.
And even that is just the “start” of properly “visiting” the site. There remain plenty of other opportunities for adding “understanding” via further research into its OUV which will benefit from having been both “on site” and into the replica. These definitely include viewing the 2010 Herzog documentary recommended by Joel Baldwin and The Guardian. Unfortunately none of the versions I could find on YouTube were wonderful, possibly as it was actually produced for 3D viewing (It was also rather too “mystical” for my tastes, but it is the only movie of the interior which you are going to see!). WH travellers might also find the movie’s visits to the Swabian Ice Age Art caves of interest – we certainly did as, coincidentally, we had taken that WHS in on the same trip! Note that Herzog refers to the “Theme Park” then under plan for building away from the cave. Despite having commissioned the movie, I am not sure that the French government would have been very happy to have had that phrase used. Indeed, there are such aspects e.g the shop full of woolly mammoth and bear toys, but the overall offering aspires to and achieves much more.
Thus, after the seeing the replica, we added a visit to the actual cave entrance. The path to it goes north in front of the Auberge du Pont d’Arc at 44.383605, 4.412515 (next to a large free parking area). You will recognise the locations if you have seen the Herzog movie. Follow the edge of the vineyard for c 150m and then find a track on the left up into the forest. This climbs around 100m, emerging first onto an open path cut into the face of the cliff, with fine views of the Combe d’Arc, before going back into the trees. I should perhaps mention that, along the path up to the cave, you will pass a number of notice boards onto which have been pinned a copy of an “Extrait du Registre des Arretes du Maire”. A full page of legalese French describes the “Interdiction provisoire d’access au chemin de randonee du Cirque d’Estre”. Dated March 2016, they appeared to have been widely ignored and scattered! At this point my French “conveniently failed” me. If they really want to stop people you might think they would install a gate and an internationally understood “No entry” sign!
After around 30mins you will arrive at a cave entrance fronted by a metal grill and a table with some seats. Behind the grill is a professionally produced notice board stating “Vous entrez sur la site de la Grotte Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc” together with a warning that you are under video surveillance! It also contains descriptive sections, plans of the cave etc and was obviously produced to inform “legally welcome” visitors! But, none of these boards at the site itself possess a UNESCO logo - whereas the waiting area at the replica has an enormous plaque!
However, this first grotto is simply an area for monitoring etc equipment and R+R for the scientists rather than the original entrance - “Le trou de Baba”. This was where, some months before the official “discovery” by Chauvet et al, another local caver, Michel Rosa (a.k.a “Baba”), had noticed air seeping from a small chamber which he was unable to get fully into. The information was exchanged among cavers and Chauvet and companions had returned to investigate further…. the “rest is history”! The only way to reach it is along a walkway suspended out from the cliff face and protected from rock falls by wire net “roofing”. At the end is a solid steel (and airtight!) door and another notice stating “La decouverte d’une grotte dans la Combe d’Arc denomee Grotte Chauvet a ete effectuee le 18 decembre 1994 par trois speleologues Mme BRUNEL, M CHAUVET et M HILLAIRE a l’occasion d’une exploration enterprise par eux dans la cadre de leurs activites speleologiques privees” (Photo).
The wording of this notice highlights one aspect of the many legal controversies which arose after the site’s discovery - who was entitled to a share of the vast amounts of money which have been, and are still to be, made from its discovery? In the first 2 years of opening, the replica received over 1 million visitors, resulted in 700k hotel nights and generated 24 million euros of revenue in Ardeche p.a! This matter has been a source of legal dispute and dubious actions since the very moment of discovery. Some have questioned the exclusion of “Baba Rosa” by the 3 main discoverers, they in turn have questioned the role of the state in muscling in without offering recompense, whilst a number of the local landowners who had to sell at basic land values have felt cheated. The court case dragged on from 1995. The local department of Cultural Affairs even forged a document by backdating it to “show” that Chauvet had been doing his “professional” job when discovering the cave – and was thus entitled to nothing!! Chauvet successfully proved the forgery however and this explains the very precise indication on the notice board that they were involved in “activites speleologiques privees”! This article gives one version of the case up to 2014 . It rolled on until April 2018 when the 3 “discoverers” gained some share of ongoing revenues to add to their earlier payments for the original find and use of photos.
Along the way, Chauvet had gained the right to have the cave named after him, which explains the rather strange history of the official title of this WHS. It was placed on the French T List in 2007 under the title of “La Grotte ornee Chauvet-Pont d’Arc” and was eventually inscribed in 2015 as “Grotte ornée du Pont-d’Arc, dite Grotte Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, Ardèche” (i.e “known as”). The AB evaluation indicates that ICOMOS wasn’t happy with the original title and asked France to “consider” a change. The result accepted by ICOMOS seems rather unsatisfactory – much longer and the name of “Chauvet” remains, even if slightly “downgraded”, because legally it has to - “Les trois inventeurs déposent deux marques (« grotte Chauvet » et « grotte Chauvet-Pont d’Arc ») le 8 juin 1998 mais oublient de les renouveler, ce qui entraîne une nouvelle bataille judiciaire lorsque le syndicat mixte chargé de construire la réplique de la grotte dépose ces deux noms le 9 février 2009 et le 22 juillet 2012.” Thus the Replica Cave always uses an “official” name mentioning Chauvet when describing the “real” cave but has itself adopted the simple title of “Caverne du Pont d’Arc”. It was originally to be called “Caverne Chauvet-Pont d’Arc” but the litigation was continuing at the time of opening in 2015 and Chauvet and companions weren’t even invited to the ceremony
Following the “final” settlement he is no longer “persona non grata” however and, in the waiting area for the separate “Aurignacian Gallery” at the replica, you will see a movie of him describing the discovery. He didn’t appear in the Herzog movie of 2010 either, but, perhaps surprisingly, Herzog did “dedicate” the movie to the 3 discoverers.
Of course Chauvet himself isn’t an archaeologist and really has nothing much to say beyond the discovery – it was Jean Clottes, appearing alongside Herzog, who became the “guru” and publisher of several (expensive) books on the cave. He has made a career out the cave but even getting that job involved a dispute! In so doing he has largely set the agenda on the interpretation of the Cave and its art – particularly its shamanistic and fertility aspects etc. (The “Venus” and vulva were NOT pointed out to us during the replica tour by the way!!!). But as always with this cave, views vary and there are academic disputes as well as legal ones!!
Finally. (!) Visiting the actual cave entrance and seeing in the movie the extent to which the Cave was already being protected, makes the French attempt to “railroad” the site’s inscription through on an “emergency basis” in 2012 seem even more specious. “Chapeau” to ICOMOS for resisting the attempt!! (“the excellent and pristine condition of the cave did not face any serious or specific danger”). One wonders whether perhaps France gets too aggressive in pursuing its WHS objectives! Recently there was also the behaviour of its delegation at the 2018 WHS in trying to intervene on the floor to influence the WHC secret ballot on Nimes and the repeated refusal to accept IUCN’s principled objection to the Puys nomination - “power playing” it through the WHC instead.
This was a fantastic site visit for us. It's home to the famous Chauvet Cave, only discovered in 1994 and home to paintings dating back almost 30,000 years. It's amazing to see what proper conservation from the modern era can do (as opposed to conservation efforts on earlier-discovered caves like Lascaux or Altamira in Spain). You can't visit the original cave, naturally, but the replica cave is actually really well done. The guided tour is in French, but non-French speakers can use an audioguide instead which we were fairly happy with. The art in the cave is pretty mind-blowing, with a variety of techniques used to paint mostly predatory animals. I was reminded as well that there's a Werner Herzog documentary featuring the cave, known as "Cave of Forgotten Dreams", so I'd highly recommend checking that out if you'd like more info.
Read more from Joel Baldwin here.
The Chauvet Pont d'Arc cave is one of the most important sites when considering its age, the story it tells and the quality of the remains it presents. Those 30.000 year-old drawings are purely striking and provide a lot of emotion. The images and evidences of the cave are as powerful and astonishing than 30 millenniums ago. The replica that has been built in order to protect the original cave has been realized using real techniques and present the real atmosphere and set up. On top of this, the interpretation centre and the fact that visits are guided allow to deeply understand that site, its importance and offer the possibility to perceive a bit the way our ancestors were living. Convenience-wise, it is better to book the visit in advance on the official website.
I visited this WHS in May 2015. The only way to be able to actually "see" something within the buffer zone of this site is to hike a 30 minute trail, next to the Pont d'Arc, to the closed entrance of the real cave of Chauvet which unlike the one in Lascaux still lacks the UNESCO WHS plaque. However, I decided to visit the replica cave after the very positive experience I had had at Lascaux. I booked months in advance and paid 13 euros for an English guided visit starting at 11:12am ... the punctuality should have already been an indication of the number of visitors (mainly French) who want to visit this WHS. Unfortunately, I thought it was just a misprint so I didn't bother. The ticket clearly indicates to be there at least 45 minutes before so I went there early enough to secure a free parking space in the enormous parking lot and be on time. The number of parked coaches/buses/vans full of Frenchmen was incredible. Many majors and politicians are promoting the replica cave as a symbol of national pride and as a great feat, so I would advise anyone wanting to visit the cave to avoid the French guided tour for this reason at least for the coming year or two. Every 7 minutes a new group is invited to visit the replica cave and a guide describes the main sights and their importance one stop after the next (one group of around 20 people after the next!). The English guided tour was not as packed so I considered myself to be quite lucky on the day. The drawings are incredible and what I liked most were the finger drawings of animals in clay (especially the owl drawing). The bookshop is stocked very well and I bought several books/magazines/first day covers, etc. to further understand the importance of what is marketed as "the first masterpiece of mankind". The museum is very modern with touch screen displays and high tech stuff yet I won't be coming here again anytime soon. I enjoyed my visit but I would prefer the Lascaux experience for a re-visit. Like in Lascaux, photography is not allowed yet I managed to take a quick photo before leaving the replica cave :)
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