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Cosquer Cave

Gravettian/Solutrean hand stencils
Engravings, Placard signs 25,000 BC

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Diagram of Cosquer Cave showing the submergence of the cave and its paleolithic art
Cross section diagram of Cosquer Cave. Due to the rise in sea levels, some four fifths of the cave is now permanently or occasionally submerged and destroyed by sea water. Image by Jespa. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Underwater Prehistoric Cave

The partly submerged Cosquer cave is home to a unique collection of prehistoric art on the southern coast of France.

The site was occupied by Cro-Magnons no later than 25,000 BC, as Europe approached the Last Glacial Maximum.

At that time, sea levels were 400 feet lower than they are today and the shore of the Mediterranean was several kilometres away. Not surprisingly therefore, much of the cave, is now underwater and its entrance is 37 metres (121 ft) below sea level.

As a result, about three quarters of Cosquer's cave art has been destroyed.

Even in this reduced state, Cosquer remains an important site of Upper Paleolithic art with over 170 animal pictures, the oldest of which dates to the Gravettian era, around 25,000 BC.

It is one of the few paleolithic caves in France to contain more than 150 animal paintings.

Archaeologists estimate that if Cosquer had remained above sea level, it would be home to around 800 animal images alone, and would constitute a major centre of Franco-Cantabrian art, comparable with any of the 3 giants: namely, Chauvet Pont d'Arc (Ardèche), Lascaux Cave (Dordogne), and Altamira Cave in Spain.

Discovery and Location

Cosquer cave is embedded in the coastal karst terrain near Cap Morgiou, not far from Marseille.

This in itself is unusual since no paleolithic art has ever been discovered in the area. And it emphasizes the fact that - due to the rise in sea level - a large number of prehistoric caves along the shores of the Mediterranean, have probably been lost since the last Ice Age.

Cosquer was discovered in 1985 by the deep-sea diver Henri Cosquer, who returned to the site several times before he eventually discovered the dry area, with the surviving cave painting and other decorations.

In 1991, archaeologists mounted a number of investigations before control of the cave network was assumed by the French Ministry of Culture.

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Layout

The cave is accessed via a 175-metre underwater tunnel which slopes gradually upwards before reaching a huge chamber.

This cavern, partly above sea level, contains a large number of prehistoric paintings and engravings, as well as a quantity of floor deposits with remains of charcoal, animal bones and flints.

In the final chamber, which is also decorated, the ceiling suddenly rises to a height of 30 metres.

Panel of Horses at Cosquer, showing three black paintings similar in style to those at Chauvet
The famous Panel of Horses. Some of the 63 surviving drawings of horses at Cosquer. Image by Kleber Rossillon & Région Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

How Old is Cosquer's Art?

After extensive radiocarbon dating, we now know that Cosquer's rock art was created in two phases.

Despite being inundated, Cosquer remains an important centre of Stone Age culture in France. Only Chauvet Cave has been radiocarbon tested more often.

Cosquer Cave Art: Details

Cosquer contains a wide variety of cave art. It features a quantity of cave painting and numerous engravings, as well as other markings.

According to the French Ministry of Culture, the cave contains around 500 images. Of these, roughly half are animal pictures, nearly 200 are abstract signs, and the rest, hand stencils.

About two-thirds of the animal images are engraved, and one third painted.

Hand Stencils

Cosquer is probably best known for its hand stencils - comprising 44 black and 21 red handprints, more than any other cave in Europe, except for the Gargas Cave in the Haute-Garonne.

Most of Cosquer's hand stencils belong to adults, although some children's prints can be seen high up on the limestone walls where the surface is soft.

Many of the hands appear to be disfigured - the thumbs are intact but many fingers are incomplete or missing. However, we now know through sheer numbers that these 'deformities' are achieved by bending the fingers.

According to computer analysis, most of the prints are from female hands.

A number of the stencils have been scratched or over-painted with dots and bars.

For other sites with collections of hand stencils, see: Pech Merle Cave and Cougnac Cave in the Lot, and Grande Grotte d'Arcy-sur-Cure, in the Yonne.

Abstract Symbols

Among the many abstract signs at Cosquer, is a placard-type aviform sign.

Only twelve other sites have this type of odd bird-shaped symbol, including: Le Portel and Trois Frères Cave (Ariège), and Le Placard Cave (Charente).

Animal Pictures

Cosquer's rock art includes 177 engraved and painted animal figures belonging to 11 different species. (This compares to 14 species at Chauvet, 9 at Lascaux and only 6 in Niaux Cave.)

Species include: horses (63), ibex (28), bison and aurochs (24), red deer (15), chamois (4), megaloceros deer (2), lions (2), saiga antelope (1), as well as a number of highly unusual images of marine life, such as seals (9), fish (4), seabirds (3), jellyfish, penguins and squid.

A further 20 animal figures could not be identified precisely and 3 are combinations of different creatures.

Lastly, there is one anthropomorphic figure of a human figure with a seal's head.

Although several fish drawings were produced during the late Stone Age, the Cosquer images of seals are extremely rare. The only other known examples are in La Pileta Cave and Nerja Cave in Andalucía, Spain.

Contemporaneous engravings, similar to those at Cosquer, can be seen at Cussac Cave (26,500 BC) and at Pech Merle.

To see how Cosquer's rock art fits into the chronology of Stone Age culture, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

References

(1) "Cosquer Cave." J. Clottes. J. Courtin. International Newsletter on Rock Art 2005, No 42.
(2) "News from Cosquer Cave." J. Clottes, J, Courtin. Antiquity 71, 272: 321-326.
(3) "The Cave Beneath the Sea: Paleolithic Images at Cosquer." J. Clottes. J. Courtin. (1996) Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York ISBN 0-8109-4033-7

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