After Lascaux in the Périgord and Chauvet in the Ardèche, the Cosquer caves have become the third French cave replica to open to the public. Located in sunny Marseille the caves were hidden for millennia. However, damage done to the original versions of these unique sites through visits, means they have been sealed off to the public. The race was on to replicate the Cosquer cave as rising sea levels are visibly rubbing the prehistoric decorations off the cave walls. In fact one poor horse has already lost his legs. It is estimated that 50 years from now, most of the cave will be submerged and the paintings and engravings lost forever.
The Cosquer Caves
The replica has been constructed inside the existing white modernistic and cubic Villa Méditerranée. It opens on to the sea in one direction and the local Yacht Club in another. All in all, a more ideal location is hard to imagine.
Visiting a cave replica is a very different experience to anything you might usually associate with this type of excursion. Forget the damp, the odors and pocket torches. Think more “It’s a Small World” at Disneyland – without the music. It does though, have its own almost unbelievable true story.
There are two visits possible, one lasting 35 minutes and another takes 50 minutes. Headsets are provided and the journey takes place seated in comfortable carts on wheels. They advance slowly stopping in front of the most important features of the caves (a bit Jurassic Park-like). This makes the caves accessibe for all. And having seen it before it opens to the public, we can assure you this fabulous new attraction is guaranteed to captivate young minds as well as old and those in between.
History of the Cosquer caves
The most recent chapter in the cave’s history began in 1985. An experienced amateur diver named Henri Cosquer came across an underwater passageway 37 m under the sea in the famous Calanques region near Marseilles. After a couple of thwarted attempts, he managed to follow the 116 m long gallery uphill into a large cave. Several visits later noticed a handprint which he photographed, mistaking it for modern graffiti. When he developed the film at home, he noticed six other handprints around it. They were unmistakably ancient. News broke fast in the region. A painted cave had been discovered. But when three divers tragically lost their lives in the long passageway, the game was up. The site was declared officially to the authorities and completely sealed off to non-official divers in 1991.
Unique paintings and engravings
For the last 30 years the whole cave has been examined in detail. And, we now know that many of the decorations predate the Lascaux site by some 15 thousand years. More than 500 charcoal paintings and engravings depicting mostly animals and handprints have been revealed. The unique feature of the Cosquer caves is the presence of marine mammals. Amazingly this includes both penguins and seals – animals not seen in prehistoric caves anywhere else.
Scientific studies have revealed that 30,000 years ago when these caves were used by local tribesmen and women, the sea lay some 12 km from the site. Incidentally penguins are now only found in and around Antarctica. Fossils found locally show that the species would have been the Great Penguin. They still existed in the 19th century but were hunted to extinction by sailors and fishermen for the edible flesh.
It is estimated that about two thirds of the drawings have already been rubbed off by the sea. This makes assumptions about the use of the cave largely impossible to verify. However, it is likely to have been a place of worship. One painting seems to show a man with the legs of a bison, and no digs have revealed any sign of habitation of the caves. The drawings are beautifully executed without errors, indicating that they were probably carried out by expert artists.
There are two main periods when the cave was used, 35-37 thousand years ago. Then again 17-19 thousand years ago. Fascinatingly there is no change in art style during this long interval. In addition, of course Cosquer has its fair share natural features including impressive stalactites and stalagmites.
Other exhibition spaces of the museum are filled with life-size stuffed mammals. There’s an unfriendly looking buffalo and the cutest wild horse. There is also a large amphitheater showing an 8-minute film subtitled in English. It includes footage from the very first visits to the cave when the divers somehow managed to haul a camera up the steep passageway.
And should you be wondering whether the replica is a true imitation of the original watery cavern, Henri Cosquer himself who still lives in the region, was permitted entry to the Villa for the first time when the work was almost complete. He was moved to tears by all that he saw.
Juliana Cantin is a Franco-British Communications professional living in Paris. She worked for many years at the British Embassy and now advises companies on strategies to build up their image and reach new audiences in France. She also writes, conducts interviews and creates podcasts. Clients include the Parisian bookshop Smith&Son, the Franco-British brasserie l’Entente and the professional association, Women In Leadership. She can be contacted at: juliana.cantin (at) gmail.com