It has been almost two decades since the Chauvet Cave was discovered, revealing some of the most beautiful and important Palaeolithic art in the world; across its walls danced paintings of mammoths, lions, panthers and woolly rhinoceroses dating as far back as 35,000BCE. Written by : Amy Quinn
Located in the South of France, the cave was fortuitously uncovered in 1994 by three speleologists investigating a current of air originating from a hillside in the Gorges de l’Ardèche. Sealed off by a landslide 25,000 years earlier, Christian Hillaire, Eliette Brunel Deschamps and Jean-Marie Chauvet, the park ranger for whom the cave was named, became the first modern people to view the work of the some of the world’s first artists. (1)
Hillaire recalled his first sight of the decorated walls, describing it as “a very powerful experience”, and knew immediately that what they had found was of great significance. (1) This was to prove correct as Chauvet Cave, described as a prehistoric Sistine Chapel, has helped to dispel the notion that ‘early art was naïve art’ with its rich, skilful and varied depictions of animals, many now extinct and others which have rarely or never before been seen in other Ice Age paintings. (2)
Other evidence found within included hand prints, animal bones and prehistoric footprints. Already marvelously preserved by nature, the cave has been officially sealed off to visitors to prevent the kind of bacterial spread that endangered paintings in the famous LascauxCave in the Dordogne. (3)
For Hillaire and his friends however, the joy of being at the forefront of such a momentous discovery has been tainted by a long legal battle with the French authorities, who they accuse of trying to usurp their discovery.
Without the exploits of the speleologists it is likely the cave would have remained undetected to this day, but Hillaire states that “for a few moments of happiness we’ve had 20 years of struggling with the state”.(1)
The explorers failed to be invited to some of the ceremonies held to celebrate the discovery and they still go without mention in books about the cave authored by state-employed archaeologists. Despite a law dating back to 1941 and a 2000 court ruling guaranteeing them part of the revenue from their discovery, they claim that the authorities have been less than forthcoming about sharing the film and publishing rights.
Some may accuse the trio of being interested purely in money- which they staunchly deny- and it is a fact that considerably large sums of money are at stake in this legal battle. (1) The cave itself will never be opened to the public in order to protect the artwork but a reproduction of the cave is due to be completed at the end of 2014 and is expected to become a profitable tourist attraction in the region. (4)
The three friends were offered a deal in which they would receive 1.7 cents each for every visitor to the replica cave resulting in a €5,200 profit per year on an estimated 300,000 visitors, with the stipulation that they would renounce all other claims. They consider such offers insulting since the 2000 court ruling saw the state ordered to pay them €153,000 compensation for what should have already been paid and a share in future revenue generated from books, films and other ChauvetCave merchandise.
Hillaire and friends clocked another victory last week when regional authorities were found to have fraudulently registered the ‘Chauvet’ name. (1) The French cultural minister refused to comment on the case but Jean Clottes, the head archaeologist who studied the cave, stated that the three had already been rewarded with plenty of money and the privilege of inviting guests into the cave to view the paintings. (1) A select few have been allowed such a rarity, one being German documentary maker Werner Herzog, whose acclaimed 2010 film Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the closest the rest of us will come to seeing the Chauvet Cave, at least until the facsimile is built. Clottes acknowledges that Hillaire, Deschamps and Chauvet made a fantastic discovery, “but now they should get on with their lives”. (1)
1. Campbell, Matthew “Musketeers Dig In For Cave Treasure” The Sunday Times 14th July 2013 p. 21
Header Image : Paintings from the Chauvet cave (museum replica)