Opening in Marseille in June 2022, Cosquer Méditerranée reproduces a major site in the history of Palaeolithic cave art. This underwater cave, the only one of its kind in the world, was listed as a historic monument in 1992. Dive into this jewel of humanity's heritage and relive the Cosquer adventure.
In the Villa Méditerranée, a cantilevered building designed by Italian architect Stefano Boeri next to the MUCEM, architect Corinne Vezzoni has restored 1,750 square metres of this cave, out of the 2,200 square metres of this precious sanctuary discovered in 1985 by diver Henri Cosquer and his friends in the Calanques massif, near Cap Morgiou. Situated at a depth of 37 metres, accessible only to experienced divers via a 116-metre-long underwater passageway, the cave was for a long time Cosquer's secret garden, visited from time to time but unable for years to make out the paintings. But in 1991 his friend Yann Gogan spotted a stenciled hand in the beam of his torch. Declared to the authorities in 1991 after three divers drowned there, the cave is now threatened with destruction by rising water levels and pollution. The slightest perforation of the cliff to make it accessible could have destroyed the site and its unique biotope. As a result, public access is out of the question.
Cosquer - A geological garden
In order to restore this unique underwater ornamented cave and conserve this treasure trove of Palaeolithic art, a complete virtual model of the cave had to be created to enable a team of visual artists to reproduce this " geological garden " as Henri Cosquer calls it , with its many formations known as speleothems: stalactites, stalagmites, columns, draperies. No fewer than thirty different trades, set designers, sculptors, draughtsmen, geologists, etc. worked on this millimetre-precision digital twin produced by the Aix-based company Perspective(s). " Its breathtaking realism has enabled us to design a concentrated version of the cave. "The aim was to provide an accurate rendering of the landscape of the cave and the works of the prehistoric artists who came here in two periods: between 33,000 and 29,000 years ago, and during the last Ice Age. The aim is to give as accurate a picture as possible of the landscape of the cave and the works of the prehistoric artists who came there at two periods, between 33,000 and 29,000 BP, and during the last Ice Age, between 25,00 and 19,000 BP, when the calanques were cliffs overlooking a steppe where antelopes and deer ran.
"Lascaux" under the sea
In this "Provence of the Cold" during the last Ice Age, sea level was 120 m lower than it is today, and the shoreline was 12 km from the cave entrance. Groups of Homo sapiens visited the cave on two occasions, but did not live there. They left handprints on the walls, using the stencil technique, and drew a rich bestiary of 200 animal figures, including horses (63 specimens), bison and aurochs (24 specimens), deer including megaceros, a feline, as well as 3 penguins, 4 fish and 9 seals.
Painted hands belong to the earliest phases of art, with certainty to the Gravettian period (around 27,000 to 20,000 years BC). There are four types. The most numerous are black negative hands (44) made with charcoal taken from fireplaces and red hands (25) made with red clay from the floor of the cave. A single brown positive hand made from clay has been identified at Cosquer, as has a child's hand printed in a soft medium and another that has been cut away. Several of these hands are shown with their fingers bent.
Most of the 500 pieces of cave art inventoried were carved with flint or fingers, and around fifty were drawn with charcoal. In addition, throughout the cave, the surfaces bear numerous traces of scraping, incision, removal, non-figurative signs and motifs suggesting sexual symbols (vulvas, phallus, stylised female body). " Female genitalia have often been depicted in decorated caves since the Aurignacian period (40,000 to 28,000 BC), with the cave itself certainly considered feminine" says Jean Clottes, a world expert in prehistoric art (1).
The inventory of these representations is still being studied. But we need to move fast. Due to global warming, the water level is rising. Four-fifths of the galleries and rooms are underwater. And the horses already have their paws in the water. The challenge is to gather as much data as possible before the site is inevitably submerged. All that will remain are films, surveys, photos and the replica that can now be seen in the port of Marseille.
A fascinating underwater odyssey
"Get ready to dive 37 metres below sea level and travel back in time to 33,000 years ago," announces the voice-over as we descend in a lift simulating a diving chamber to the museum's underwater base, where the cave is faithfully recreated. Once below sea level, the journey is made aboard exploration modules that move very slowly. With the audioguide on your ears, you will spend 35 minutes on an incredible journey through time, discovering copies of the paintings and engravings. Winding your way through a geological architecture that gives the perfect illusion of being deep underground, you discover a lair of calcite concretions, columns of stalactites and stalagmites whose relief is reflected in the pools of lapping water. You can imagine the emotion the divers must have felt when they discovered three horses drawn in charcoal in the first chamber. Then the tunnel narrows, and after this narrow passage, you come across the penguins that have become Cosquer's emblem. Pinguinus impennis has posed for eternity, which is just as well, because the last of this species of great auk was killed in the 19th century on the island of Eldez off the coast of Iceland. And then there are the realistic hands, the saiga antelopes, the ibex... In all, 480 works of art have been reproduced on the walls by a team of artists from AAB firm. All under subtle lighting. An immersive and magical visit for young and old alike.
Text and Photos Brigitte Postel
1 - L'Art des cavernes préhistoriques - Jean Clottes - Phaidon, 2008.