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ART HISTORY This lion panel from the Chauvet Cave is 2.5m wide.

Ancient Grand Masters

Where do you find some of Europe's most magnificent paintings? Deep below the surface in a cave in the Ardèche region of southern France

Chauvet Cave, France

It was December 1994 and Jean-Pierre Daugas, head of archaeology in the Rhône-Alpes region of France, called with news of a discovery at Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, in the Ardèche Valley. It was a spectacular painted cave with hundreds of animal figures, including many lions and rhinos. But I had doubts. The area is well known for several minor painted caves and is a spelunker's paradise, but something that big would have been discovered long ago. And lions and rhinos are extremely rare in ancient cave art. Could this be a monstrous fake? I had to see for myself.

The next morning, with Daugas, his assistant and the three spelunkers who discovered the cave, I hiked to the bottom of a high cliff overlooking the valley where Le-Pont-d'Arc, a natural bridge of limestone, attracts millions of tourists each summer. After a very tight crawl into a long, narrow passage, we reached the brink of a shaft in the roof of the cave, then climbed down. My first impression was one of wonder at the pristine cave, a jewel full of stalactites that glittered white under the light of our torches. The ground was undisturbed except for long strips of black plastic put down by the discoverers to protect the path where they had walked. Bear bones were scattered here and there. The prehistoric entrance, level with the cave floor, could be seen where it was blocked by an ancient collapse of the cliff.

The first painted panel I saw was a maze of big red dots. I examined them closely, and was sure they were genuine. As I proceeded further into the cave, my amazement grew. Several red cave-bear images were outstanding. After a vast chamber devoid of paintings, we saw what looked like a hyena painted over what was clearly a leopard, the first representation of this kind in Ice Age art. A few meters further, a long panel was covered with a menagerie of rhinos, lions and mammoths among red dots, hand stencils and handprints. This panel alone is enough to rank Chauvet Cave — named for Jean-Marie Chauvet, the leader of the group that discovered it — among the great prehistoric sanctuaries. These spectacular paintings would fundamentally change our conception of the evolution of art. Sophisticated artists were at work 30,000 years ago when these images were made, and their stunning creations still speak to us today.

Sophisticated artists were at work 30,000 years ago when these images were made, and their stunning creations still speak to us toda

As we moved deeper into the cave, bear skulls and bones littered the ground; our lights revealed bear hollows, where they slept, and enormous paw prints. Then I was shocked to see a series of painted panels flanking both sides of a deep recess. In a scene unique in prehistoric art, two rhinos seemed to be fighting. Four horse heads were drawn in exquisite detail above them. All around, rhinos, bison, aurochs, lions, deer and reindeer appeared, as if born of the cave itself. On the wall of another chamber were two life-sized lions facing three other lions and a beautiful rhino. In another frieze, a pride of lions were depicted hunting bison. In the center of another chamber, a bear skull had been carefully placed on a stone fallen from the roof.

After more than six hours, I emerged from the cave, stunned by my luck to be part of one of the great discoveries of the 20th century. My mind was reeling. The piles of charcoal on the ground, the freshness of the works that Nature had sealed for so many millenniums, conspired to create a feeling of immediacy, even though the people who had made these spectacular images had died 30,000 years ago. I felt a wave of powerful emotion as I realized that this was one of the great masterpieces of all time.

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