The Chauvet cave

One of the world’s oldest painted cave

Lit by the beam from a head-torch, lines of animals loom out of the shadows across the limestone walls of the cave – lions and bears, mammoths, bison and horses, all woven together across the fissures of the rock. And immortalised in the clay, prints of human hands and feet provide a spiritual link to those ancient artists.

An immense natural cathedral untouched for millennia, the Chauvet cave has retained a remarkable freshness. Time stands still here along the Combe d’Arc at Vallon- Pont-d’Arc in Ardèche, just a short way from the immense natural stone bridge of the Pont d’Arc. On the 18 December 1994, three local cave explorers – Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel and Christian Hillaire – discovered paintings, engravings, and prints that had been forgotten for 36,000 years.

Now the Chauvet cave is amongst the oldest known decorated caves worldwide. Its discovery astonished the worlds of both archaeology and art history, not just because of its amazing animal paintings (435 individual animals from 14 faunic species) but also for their quality, the techniques used and their immense age. Some of the images which adorn the cave walls were painted 36,000 years ago – a figure that’s hard to get your head around till you realise that as much time has passed between us and the prehistoric paintings in Lascaux as evolved between Chauvet and Lascaux – a staggering 19,000 years each.

The Chauvet cave

Unique site bids for UNESCO status

There’s nowhere else in the world like the Chauvet Pont-d’Arc cave, which makes it a prime candidate to join the 1092 (in 2019) sites worldwide that have been granted World Heritage Site status by UNESCO. Application has been made to the French government, supported by more than 10,000 signatures, and if this is put forward on behalf of France, the comprehensive dossier will be examined by UNESCO for 18 months. So by the summer 2014, the Chauvet cave could rank alongside such iconic sites as the Acropolis, the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the Grand Canyon, and France’s own Mont St-Michel.

The only other World Heritage Site in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region is the historic city of Lyon, the volcano-tectonic range of Chaîne des Puys and this new high profile candidate could turn the spotlight on Ardèche and attract many new visitors.

The Replica Cave opened since 2015

The Chauvet cave has attracted a huge amount of attention and in order to preserve its fragile atmosphere, has been closed to all except for scientists working on deciphering its many secrets. But to enable as many people as possible to discover the treasures left by our ancestors, the Ardèche council and Rhône-Alpes region are creating a replica cave, with support from the French Government and Europe.

The very latest techniques will be used in the formidable challenge of stirring the same kinds of emotions generated by the original. The facsimile will do this through a combination of scientific knowledge and geometric scale, faithful artistic reproductions and atmospheric presentation techniques. The 9000m² of the original cave will be condensed into 3000m², accessed via a space that immediately gives a feeling of mystery and anticipation.

Visitors will feel as though they’re in a real cave in this unique multisensory experience which will reproduce the temperature and humidity, the silence, darkness and even the smell of the real thing. The relief of the walls will be reproduced down to the last millimetre and the paintings, engravings and various geological elements positioned exactly as in the original. This humid, underground environment is being recreated using concrete and various resins, whilst flakes of mica will simulate the shine of the stalagmites and stalactites – all materials that are able to meet the high standards of quality and artistic reproduction demanded by such an ambitious cultural and tourist project. Those ancient wild animals will be painted by skilled artists, in order to reproduce exactly the brushstrokes and techniques used by prehistoric artists, and the finish will be achieved by using natural pigments and bonding materials. Meanwhile, great care is being taken to achieve the quiet atmosphere of the cave and provide a humbling experience for visitors. Built on stilts on a site that covers 8 hectares, the Chauvet Cave 2 is only one element of the Espace de Restitution which also includes a discovery centre, educational space, function area, restaurant and shop.

Under the leadership of the Syndicat Mixte de la Grotte Chauvet (Public Joint Union for the Chauvet cave Management Project), this ambitious cultural project has €55 million behind it. The replica cave and other visitor facilities will be managed by Kléber-Rossillon company, specialised in the management of cultural and tourist sites. Around 300,000 and 400,000 visitors per year are expected

The Chauvet Cave – catalyst for sustainable development

The discovery of the cave and the scientific studies, the replica cave project and the application to UNESCO are all closely linked, and together have provided a unique opportunity to create a real force for local sustainable development.

The Ardèche department, the Rhône-Alpes region, and the French government are fully backing this innovative project and their joint aim is to achieve as many positive, long term spin-offs as possible for the local area. Their aim is to make southern Ardèche into a cultural and heritage destination of national and international importance, to complement the area’s existing leisure and outdoor tourism industry.

The Chauvet cave project is the chance to complete the tourism strategy by welcoming a new wave of visitors with different needs and at different times of year. New low-impact methods of public transport will be tried out between sites, and training programmes put in place to enable local people to take on new jobs in areas such as construction and site maintenance, local heritage and hospitality.

For more information:

The Joint Public Union for the Management of the Chauvet cave Project : +33 (0)4 75 29 04 35 –