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Chauvet Cave Paintings and Layout

Hillaire Chamber, End Chamber
Panels of Horses, Rhinos, Lions

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Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave layout showing main chambers and galleries
Fig 1. Chauvet Cave Layout.

Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc

You probably know that Chauvet Cave is a unique site of paleolithic art, with hundreds of animal pictures in charcoal and ochre pigment, as well as abstract symbols, all dating to the Aurignacian culture around 35,000 BC, or earlier.

But do you know about the layout of Chauvet?

Do you know, for instance, which chamber represents the inner sanctum of Chauvet Cave? Do you know which animals appear on the walls at Chauvet? Do you know which chamber contains the preserved footprints of a 9-year old boy?

If not, don't worry, we'll take you through the cave and explain the location of all the chambers, galleries and major paintings. First, a few facts.

Red ochre painting of a hyena at Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave
Red spotted painting of a cave hyena (Crocuta crocuta spelaea), at Chauvet, now known to date to at least 30,000 BC. Image by Carla Hufstedler. (Public Domain).

Facts About Chauvet

Charcoal drawing of Irish Elk, Megaloceros giganteus, Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave
Megaloceros from the Panel of Megaloceros, Chauvet Cave. The charcoal drawing is accentuated by engraving. A charcoal sample taken from the spot marked by the green dot, dated to 34,000 BC. Image by Dominique Genty. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Cave Layout

Entry into the cave is via a 10-metre shaft into the Brunel Chamber. There are two smaller chambers near the original (now defunct) entrance - known as the Morell Chamber and the Galerie des Référés. The former is very difficult to access and the later has no significant art.

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Brunel Chamber

The vast Brunel Chamber contains five panels of parietal art.

To the south-east is the "Recess of the Bears", which contains a panel of three red drawings of cave bears.

The central bear has been drawn boldly making use of the natural contour of the wall.

It is the first example in Chauvet of how cave wall topography suggests a subject.

To its left is a bear head, while to the right a third bear is left half-finished.

The artist used a painting technique known as "stump-drawing", involving the use of fingers or a piece of material to paint the muzzle and shade the inside of the bodies, in order to add volume.

In another recess, is the "Dotted Animal Panel" featuring a cluster of almost one hundred red dots applied with the palm of a hand. The dots may depict a mammoth or some other large herbivore, and represents the earliest example of pointillism.

The Brunel Chamber also features the "Panel of the Sacred Heart" - a space 6 metres by 3 metres, decorated with red spots - to the right of which is a wreath of red lines surmounted by a mysterious sign of the cross, the only known example in paleoart, ever.

Two additional panels in the Brunel Chamber include: the "Wall of Dominos", home to a charcoal profile of a lion, several red dots, and the "Alcove of Yellow Horses", fronted by a projecting rock also decorated with dots of red ochre.

Brunel Chamber leads into the Chamber of the Bear Hollows.

Chamber of the Bear Hollows

This 50 metre long chamber leads into the heart of the cave complex. No attempt appears to have been made by Chauvet artists to decorate the chamber, which has no drawings or paintings, with the single exception of a rhinoceros head at the very end.

The Bear Hollows leads directly into the Red Panels gallery.

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Red Panels Gallery

This cavern (also known as the Gallery of Hands) is beautifully decorated with red drawings.

On the east wall. on the "Frieze of Red Rhinoceroses", there are a number of red animal paintings, notably woolly rhinoceroses, one of which is over a metre in length with a deliberately extended horn.

Lions are also depicted, as are a number of pictographs and other abstract signs. On the wall nearby, a quantity of negative handprints can be seen on the "Panel of Hand Stencils".

The Red Panels Gallery also contains the celebrated "Panther Panel", a thick piece of rock studded with concavities which the artists have used to enhance their figure drawing.

It depicts ten animals in red ochre: three bears, two ibex, 3 unidentifiable animals, one lion, and one red-spotted "panther".

The latter is an odd creature, having a spotted coat more reminiscent of a hyena, and a shape more reminiscent of a bear. See also the spotted or dappled horses of Pech Merle Cave (27,000 BC), in the Lot.

There are three less-important side galleries that lead off the Red Panels Gallery.

A low-ceilinged passage - known as the Candle Gallery - with no drawings, paintings or engravings - connects the Gallery of Hands with the Hillaire Chamber. Hereafter, the art becomes more monumental.

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Hillaire Chamber

The Hillaire Chamber contains a large number of individual animal paintings and several major animal groups.

One cave painting is instantly visible when entering the chamber. This is the 5-metre long triptych containing three panels: the "Panel of the Horses" on the left; the "Alcove of the Big Cats" in the centre; and on the right, the "Reindeer Panel".

Panel of the Horses

Also known as the "Panel of the Fighting Rhinos and Horses", this is one of the most important and dramatic panels in the Chauvet Cave. (Compare with Hall of the Bulls at Lascaux Cave.)

Prepared and scraped beforehand, the panel features twenty animals drawn in charcoal.

Two rhinoceroses are depicted, in direct confrontation. This is unique in Paleolithic art.

The four horses heads were then drawn as well as two more rhinos, two mammoths and a stag.

The artist used his/her fingers to apply a charcoal paste in order to emphasize the main outlines of the horses and give greater relief and shading to their heads.

To the right of the panel, is a bison shown in profile, facing right. The double lines of the back, hindquarters and feet may have been intended to create the illusion of movement, or the perspective of two bison standing side by side.

Alcove of the Big Cats

The animals were superimposed on this panel in order to preserve certain outlines and contours, thus creating an intimate connection between the figures.

Reindeer Panel

This panel depicts thirteen animals. On the upper level, are charcoal drawings of a stag's head, and a horse's head positioned between two reindeer fleeing in opposite directions.

The centre is occupied by two stags, head to tail. They are flanked by a bison and an aurochs, while above them is another stag and a red dot.

The weathered walls of the Hillaire Chamber are so soft in parts that they become ideal as surface for drawing on.

The "Panel of the Engraved Horse", for instance, which shows a horse walking to the left, was produced using the same finger-tracing technique as the nearby engraved drawing of an owl - the only bird in the cave.

The Hillaire Chamber contains two other panels: the "Panel of the Rhinoceros", featuring a single rhinoceros underneath the outline of another; and the "Panel of the Megaloceros", which depicts the profile of a rhinoceros.

After Hillaire, the cave forks.

Chamber of the Skull

The Chamber of the Skull is known for its hanging rock decorated with charcoal drawings and engravings of reindeer and other creatures.

It also contains the large "Panel of the Fighting Mammoths" featuring three engraved mammoths scratched out by hand.

The ceiling is marked by numerous folds and recesses many of which contain black drawings and more hand-drawn engravings.

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Gallery of Crosshatching

This gallery is located in the cave's north-west corner. It is best-known for its human footprint of a left foot, resembling that of a 9-year old male about 4.5 feet in height.

The footprint is the first in a trail of imprints extending some 160-feet in length.

The chamber also has a hand-made engraving of a large horse.

Megaloceros Gallery

Connecting the Hillaire Chamber with the north-east of the cave, is the 30-metre Megaceros Gallery, which leads to the heart of the sanctuary.

In the middle of the gallery, there are three engravings of 'pubic triangles'.

After this, on the left, just before the descent to the End Chamber, is the "Panel of the Megaloceros". (Now extinct, the Megaloceros was a type of giant deer.) Another fine example of the animal can be seen in the Cougnac Cave in southwest France.

The panel features a grouping of eight animals.

The main focus is the horse/megaloceros pairing, which is repeated twice in different sizes.

The megaloceros is shown without his majestic antlers, despite the detail given to the rest of his features. As elsewhere, the surface of the panel was roughly prepared beforehand, and the charcoal drawings are emphasized with engravings.

Just before the End Chamber, on the left, a large drawing of an ibex with outsized horns covers a rocky pendant.

Once again, the surface was carefully prepped, and the lines of the animal contrast well with the light background. Except for the horns, the profile of this animal is very similar to that of the aurochs in the Hillaire Chamber.

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End Chamber

This is the inner sanctum of the Chauvet cave complex, and contains several areas of artistic interest, as follows:

Panel of Feline Profiles

This shows the life-size outlines of a pair of lions, side by side, drawn in charcoal. The female lion appears in the foreground; the male in the background. To execute this large scale work, the artist needed enormous faith in his drawing skills.

Charcoal drawings of lions at Chauvet Cave
The famous Panel of Lions. Note the fierce concentration of the felines on their prey. Located in the End Chamber. Image by HTO. (Public Domain).

Panel of Lions and Rhinos

Then comes the huge 15-metre long mural, featuring (on the left) the Panel of the Rhinoceroses, and (on the right) the Great Panel of the Lions.

This huge panel is one of Chauvet's great masterpieces of Stone Age culture, comparable with the best of Lascaux's paintings or those in the Altamira Cave complex.

Panel of Rhinoceroses

This panel of charcoal drawings includes a staggering seventeen rhinos. According to Jean Clottes, an expert on the art of the Stone Age, the rhinos are always shown with small ears, arched jawline, dorsal band, and ball-like feet.

In addition, says Clottes, spatial perspective was created in two ways.

First, the rhino's left legs were drawn in their entirety, while a gap was left at the top of the right legs - those furthest from the spectator, creating an impression of distance.

Second, when painting the rhinosceroses at the top of the grouping, the painter first drew a complete animal, before adding two horns to the front and three horns to the rear. And by decreasing the size of the horns, the artist creates the impression of a herd of rhinos standing side by side.

It's worth noting that until Chauvet, only twenty rhinos were known in the entire history of Paleolithic wall art.

The juxtaposition of so many rhino horns adds a tremendous sense of dynamic movement in the heart of the composition.

Panel of Lions

The "Great Panel of Lions" (Grand Panneau des Lions) is adjacent to the Panel of the Rhinoceroses.

The panel depicts a hunt. All animals are shown in profile and most are represented by their heads alone.

To the left, eleven bison and two rhinos are pursued from the right by a pride of sixteen lions, including males and females. In addition to their tense expressions, the eyes of the lions are fixed on their prey, adding to the drama.

A breathtaking snapshot of wild animals on the kill, and one of the most dramatic images in Upper Paleolithic art.

Above this drama, drawn to a different scale, a large lion can be seen standing face to face with a cub.

Panel of Bison

On a large rocky pillar, to the far right of the big cats fresco, there are several bison, each drawn in charcoal and measuring over a metre wide. Their outlines are enhanced with shadings and engravings.

The lower bison, which is less defined, has been partly erased - probably by the passage of bears through the chamber.

The charcoal of the upper bison painting has been radiocarbon dated at 36,500-32,100 BC.

Note that, for some reason, images of bison were only painted in the deepest parts of the cave.

The panel also includes an engraved sketch of a mammoth head - done prior to the black drawings - as well as a pattern of engraved dashes that form an unusual sign.

The End Chamber also includes a famous niche, known as the "Niche of the Horse". This contains a single charcoal picture of a horse, whose tail is drawn into a recess in the rock.

As a result, the animal appears to emerge from out of the rock, as if by magic.

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Venus and Sorcerer

At the far end of the End Chamber, a limestone pendant hangs down from the roof to a point about one metre off the ground. This formation, known as the "Panel of the Sorcerer", is decorated with a mass of charcoal and engraved drawings.

They include images of one horse, one musk ox, two mammoths, four lions, and "The Sorcerer", a mysterious figure with the body of a human and the horned head of a bison.

Next to the Sorcerer is the "Venus", a stylistic image of a woman's pelvis joined to long tapering legs. Her pubic triangle and genitalia are clearly defined.

The figure of the Sorcerer wraps around and faces the Venus's pubic triangle, which is set at eye level and seems to be the focus of the entire composition.

Significantly, the venus was the first charcoal drawing to be created. All the other images, including the Sorcerer, came later.

According to Jean Clottes, a world authority on paleolithic art, the proportions, stylistic elements, and choice of anatomical elements of the Venus, are totally consistent with those seen in the venus figurines of Central and Eastern Europe.

Note also the similarity between the Sorcerer of Chauvet and the Sorcerer found in the sanctuary of the Trois-Frères Cave, Ariège, painted about 13,000 BC.

Sacristy and Belvedere Gallery

The Sacristy is a largely unexplored space, which is accessed through a small passage at the left of the End Chamber. It contains drawings of a horse, a rhino, a mammoth and a lion, as well as an engraving of a large bison.

At the right of the End Chamber it is possible to access the Belvedere Gallery, an awkward, and mostly unexplored area, with no known art.

Curiously, scientists found no mobiliary art in the cave or any prehistoric sculpture, although certain areas are yet to be explored.

Abstract Signs at Chauvet

As well as its awesome animal paintings, Chauvet Cave contains a large quantity of abstract signs, including fifteen of the thirty-two symbols documented by Canadian scholar Genevieve von Petzinger. They include:

How Many More Chauvets are Waiting to be Discovered?

The chance discovery of the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave in the Ardeche region, is a reminder to us that other caches of ancient art are also likely to be awaiting discovery in underground caves and shelters around the world. See, for instance, the relatively recent discoveries at Grande Grotte at Arcy-sur-Cure in the French Yonne.

To see how the paintings of Chauvet fit into the evolution of painting during the Upper paleolithic, see: Timeline of Prehistoric Art (from 540,000 BC).

See: World's Oldest Art.

References

(1) "A high-precision chronological model for the decorated Upper Paleolithic cave of Chauvet-Pont d’Arc, Ardèche, France". Anita Quiles et al. PNAS 2016 113 (17) 4670–75.
(2) "Decorated Cave of Pont d’Arc, known as Grotte Chauvet-Pont d’Arc, Ardèche." UNESCO World heritage Centre.
(3) "Cave Art" Jean Clottes. Phaidon. ISBN 978-0-7148-5723-7.

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