Located in the south of France, at Vallon-Pont-d'Arc (Ardèche), the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave is exceptionnal for three reasons.
To begin with, it is the first time that archaeologists have the opportunity to study a decorated prehistoric cave which remained intact after the sudden obstruction of its natural entrance right in the middle of the ice age. Thanks to the precautions immediately taken by the discoverers - Jean-Marie Chauvet, Christian Hillaire and Heliette Brunel-Deschamps during the explorations carried out on 18 and 24 December 1994, the floors could be preserved in full : hibernation wallows and prints of cave bears, whose skeletons are very numerous, are side by side with traces of activity and human footprints. Laid out fireplaces, ashy deposits, braziers and snuffings from torch lightings, cut flints, samplings and splatters of clay, tracks ... reveal the settlement and the activity of man. Thus, a new perspective is opened with an archaeological and ethnographical study of the genesis, the functioning and the evolution of one of the largest (about 500 metres galleries) and the most decorated sanctuary (around 400 figurations have been registered so far). Under the control of Jean Clottes, undisputed specialist in cave paintings and paleolithic art, an international team composed of about fifteen experts started the researches thanks to a specific laying-out of the cave.
Secondly, the representations on the walls show an uncommon diversity and renew completely the prehistoric bestiary while repeating original associations : rhinoceros, lions, mammoths, horses, buffalos, bears, reindeers, aurochs, ibexes, megaceros stags, leopards, hyenas, owls, swans ... Before the discovery, only four or five species were known in the parietal group of the Ardèche department and the reindeer was not represented. Paintings and engravings are visible in the entrance zone, frequently isolated, and are numerous towards the back rooms where they come under large polychrome panoramic compositions from four to twelve metres long. They succeed former states, engraved or painted, which are themselves preceded by wide scrapings on the walls meant for the preparation of clear surfaces reaching up to several square metres. On a stylistic point of view, there are also numerous innovations : restitution of the relief by stamping, anatomical details clarified by engraved outlining of heads and muzzles, reproduction of the perspective by drawing repeated outlines of parallel profiles, representations of front view animals, drawing conventions for ears and eyes ... The decoration consists of a succession of intimist subjects with decimetrical dimensions and life-size individuals, such as felines reaching more than two and a half metres high.
Finally, besides the relative chronology, more especially visible on the large panels in the back where at least five states follow each other, from the engravings and the original digital sketches to the huge final frescos, it is now possible to estimate the ancientness and the duration of the use of this extraordinary sanctuary. With the help of radiocarbon methods, the dating of the oldest paintings (braved rhinoceros from the panel with horses) reveals a superimposition to digital sketches, around 32000 years before present. The big buffalo in the back dates back to 31000 years whereas the torch snuffings (26000 to 27000 years) and floor braziers (between 29500 and 22500 years) attest that the cave was occupied during nearly 10000 years until a violent collapse happened blocking up the natural entrance.
These exceptional facts put all together led to think up a special status for the study of the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave whose admittance will always remain forbidden to visitors. Frequent visits would endanger the integrity of the floors and the paintings with no possibility to install permanent observation and research equipments. On a bacteriological and climatological point of view, the experimentations carried out for now three years unabled to show the great stability of the cave's natural conditions and led to demand the preservation of the cave's natural balance as the only guarantee for the perpetuity of the works.
Consequently, it is important that the widest circles of art and archaeology specialists as well as the public as a whole, should be provided with a restitution of this universal heritage. Today's technologies make it possible to recall it here virtually,within a few years more spectacular cinematographic techniques will be displayed within a huge public lay out. The Department of Ardèche, with the help of the french State, has the purpose to open at Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, in the early years of the 21th century, a " place of restitution " as exceptional as the discovery.
The pictures which are presented further on invite you to visit the cave, from the entrance to the back, in order to recall the complexity and the extraordinary quality of the decorations which lie hidden inside.