Why make a replica of the Chauvet Cave?
Several reasons led to this decision. First of all, because the original cave is not visible, it is essential to make a copy so that it can be preserved. On the other hand, the Chauvet Cave has become an emblematic site of Ardèche, in France. Producing a replica brought the area into the heritage tourism domain, enriching the image of the Ardèche, which was already famous for its preserved environment and nature.
Somewhere in the south of Ardèche
This flat land with dense vegetation is located two miles from the actual cave. The replica of the Chauvet Cave was built there.
Working in the Chauvet Cave
Since the real cave is almost inaccessible, photographs were used extensively to reproduce it. After several digitization campaigns of the Chauvet Cave, a digital clone was made based on technical and scientific replication work carried out from 2008 to 2013.
Back in Ardèche in the Vallon-Pont-d'Arc commune, less than two miles from the Chauvet Cave. In October 2012, the site was already well advanced in terms of preparation. In the foreground to the left, the 10 foot excavated circular site will house the building where the cave replica was installed. In order to preserve the vegetation, uprooted trees will be transplanted two years later in the red fine soil of this limestone plateau.
The home of the replica
In February 2013, the replica building emerged from the omnipresent scrubland. Despite its dimensions (230 ft in diameter and 53 ft high), it will remain invisible. Visitors will discover the location only in the last stretch of their walk through the greenery from the reception area, nearly a quarter of a mile away.
A sanctuary under production
Outside the main building, there were four locations reserved for the production of the replica: adorned panels (two workshops), calcite concretions, and animal bones. In order to promote the accuracy of the rendering, the rock art panels were made of resin produced by a milling machine, the precursor of 3D printers. Several hundred square yards of surface broken down into 30 separate panels (the smallest 3 ft², the largest 196 ft²) were reproduced in the workshop of Alain Dalis (Société Arc & Os, Montignac). Internationally renowned for the quality of manufacture of prehistoric objects and decorations, Alain Dalis oversaw the production of all the adorned panels. This assignment was carried out from July 2012 to December 2014. This image shows one of the artists trained by Alain Dalis attempting to reproduce the topographic microforms of the wall, on which the Fresco of the Horses can be copied.
Detail of the Domino's Panel (2013-11-06/2013-11-06) by S. Compoint/ResoluteGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site
Once the topography and the rock surface were reproduced, the wall ornamentation phase began. The paintings were positioned precisely using HD video projectors whose projected image allowed the builders to place the drawings in the right location and to apply a technique inspired by decals. This work was entrusted to artists who could enter the real cave several times. They were accompanied by members of the scientific team studying the Chauvet Cave.
The Owl Panel (2013-08-02/2013-08-02) by S. Compoint/ResoluteGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site
Before being integrated into the geological setting in concrete, these reconstructed rock art panels were discussed at validation meetings that brought together the project owner (Syndicat mixte de l’Espace de restitution de la grotte Chauvet, SMERGC), representatives of the Scientific Committee set up by SMERGC, and the team of Alain Dalis. Here is the Owl Panel (in the foreground on the top right).
The Horses Fresco (2013-08-02/2013-08-02) by S. Compoint/ResoluteGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site
The panel of the Fresco of the Horses is finished. It will be prepared for shipment to Toulouse to the workshop of Gilles Tosello, a prehistorian and plastic artist who was commissioned to work on the ornamentation of two more iconic frescoes of the Chauvet Cave: the Fresco of the Horses and Fresco of the Big Cats.
Steel Framework for the Replica (2013-08-03/2013-08-03) by S. Compoint/ResoluteGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site
In July 2013, the main building is barricaded a little more every day behind its continuous walls that conceal the replica. A main metal frame (foreground at the top) with 25 m long spans will support the roof of the building as well as a secondary frame. It is on the latter where the Chauvet Cave replica will be suspended.
In the silence of his studio, Gilles Tosello does his meticulous work of reconstruction. He knows every square inch of this wall that he has been studying since 1998. His scientific knowledge, combined with his artistic sensibility, allows him to imitate the Paleolithic act, symbolizing beliefs and myths conceived and transmitted by our ancestors more than 36,000 years ago.
Natural ocres for the resine panels (2013-11-04/2013-11-04) by S. Compoint/ResoluteGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site
The energy injected into the act, the depth of the line, the speed of execution of the drawing are perceptible in this reconstruction of Paleolithic works. Materials matter as much as the rock wall that hosts the work. Gilles Tosello uses natural materials very similar to those collected in nature and prepared by our ancestors 36,000 years ago. The execution of the Chauvet Cave replica takes on an experimental archeological perspective.
Steel rods in being precisely folded (2013-11-05/2013-11-05) by S. Compoint/ResoluteGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site
The skeleton of the cave
Back in Ardèche on the construction site, since the end of summer 2013, the site has been gathering a community of skilled workers who will turn into a group cemented together by this unique project. These newcomers will manufacture the metal skeleton of the future replica.
This framework is shapeless and does not have the symmetry or the biological logic of a living organism.
How does one make a metal frame whose size exceeds the surface area of the national stadium of France?
A very mundane solution was devised: invent folding tables. Above the two tables are suspended video projectors that outline the topographic profiles of the cave walls, soils, and vaults by means of a projected green laser. More than 60 miles of metal rods will be bent and assembled by hand.
Welding of the steel rods (2013-11-04/2013-11-04) by S. Compoint/ResoluteGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site
Once labeled, these rods were then welded to form metal cages. Each cage outlined the morphologies of the cave more and more every day.
Steel pieces reshaping the cave landforms (2013-11-04/2013-11-04) by S. Compoint/ResoluteGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site
One by one, the cages were brought to their location. What we had created in our minds became a reality that we frequently visited and observed in the humid coolness of the limestone mountains of the Gorges of the Ardèche…
Steel framework seen from down (2013-11-03/2013-11-03) by S. Compoint/ResoluteGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site
…we were witnessing the rebirth of the Chauvet Cave.
Recreating geological life
In September 2013, in the 13th borough of Paris, the Phénomènes workshop was learning how to duplicate the geological life of the Chauvet Cave. This artist workshop was exploring the materials and techniques that will make it possible to coat the walls of the replica with calcite. Many samples were produced and even brought to the Chauvet Cave for comparison and validation.
A giant concretion in duplication (2013-09-03/2013-09-03) by S. Compoint/ResoluteGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site
This work of reconstructing the geological life of the cave was managed by Danièle Allemand and Stéphane Gérard. Each micro-gour found its place, each straw became unique, and each drapery covered its thin calcite veil in the Frigos workshops.
Sprayed concretes on the steel framework (2013-11-03/2013-11-03) by S. Compoint/ResoluteGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site
In November 2013, the frame of the vaulted ceilings of the replica was sprayed with concrete. The company Aab was responsible for the job. They went into action with their sculptors who had to undergo a crash course in geology while in the field. This knowledge, acquired intensively and conducted in the Chauvet Cave and other caves, very quickly afforded them scientific and artistic enjoyment and assurance with regard to the work.
Sculptors recreating the cave landforms (2013-11-03/2013-11-03) by S. Compoint/ResoluteGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site
The Chauvet Cave replica was painted with a mineral coat. The speed varied between 3 to 60 square feet per day, depending on requirements of the reconstruction work.
The Horses Fresco imbricated into the setting (2014-04-03/2014-04-03) by S. Compoint/ResoluteGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site
The site of the Fresco of the Horses was reached in March 2014. This adorned object was embedded in the concrete decorations of the replica. This was precise and delicate work. In addition to the weight, the shapes of this wall involved a physical balancing act sensitive to the smallest displacement.
Mr. Olivier Poisson observing the sculptures (2014-11-03/2014-11-03) by S. Compoint/ResoluteGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site
In other areas of the replica, the decorations were finished. The construction site mutated into Chauvet Cave 2.0. Yves Poisson, head of the sculptors in charge of the vaulted ceilings of the replica, checked the work of his teams by means of virtual reality, a tool that was conceived and introduced for the very first time in France to carry out a cultural project.
25,000 years later, the bear is back
In July 2014, in Saint-Priest in the suburbs of Lyon, the Dasplets workshop is hidden behind a 1960s gas station, along an urban avenue that is identical to hundreds of others. This is where the plastic artist Agathe Max works. Max is who we entrusted for the reconstruction of the cave bear bones. It is impossible to ignore the cave bear, as they sometimes modified the reliefs of the walls by polishing them or by making hundreds of imprints in the soft soil. The reconstruction work was carried out using real cave bear bones.
Three different cave bear skulls templates (2014-07-05/2014-07-05) by S. Compoint/ResoluteGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site
Like the adorned panels and the concretions, the same resin-based materials were used to replicate cave bear bones. This photo, from bottom to top, shows three skull models very faithfully duplicated: a skull of a juvenile, a skull of a female, and the last, that of a male. The largest skull exceeds 45 cm (0.5 in) in length.
The animal bones in situ (2014-07-03/2014-07-03) by S. Compoint/ResoluteGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site
Once finished and validated scientifically, the resin bones were positioned on the ground. This precise action takes into account the slope of the ground or the water flow rates which, in the real cave, relocated and displaced the bones.
Concretions find their place
In April 2014, each decorative element was installed in its reserved location. The large concretion delicately embraced the rock reliefs of the replica. The puzzle was nearing completion.
Back in the cave
On June 10, 2014, we were visited by prehistorian Jean Clottes who chaired the Scientific Committee of the Replica. He was the prehistorian who authenticated the drawings of the Chauvet Cave at the end of 1994, as well as the person who set up the scientific program for the cave. His stroll through a reconstructed cave, even in an incomplete state, evoked a flashback of memories which he shared with us. He told us that in 1994, he cried in front of the Fresco of the Horses.
Final adjustments in the Rhinoceros Panel (2014-07-03/2014-07-03) by S. Compoint/ResoluteGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site
In the silence of the Toulouse studio, David Sarre-Doublet brings the final touches to a quasi-sacred work.
Inside the Cave bear skull Chamber (2014-09-04/2014-09-04) by S. Compoint/ResoluteGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site
In another part of the replica, the sets are completely finished. Like the molt of a snake, distended remnants inherited from the site are languidly hanging on the walls.
Get to know the Chauvet Cave
On April 25, 2015, the Chauvet Cave replica welcomed its first visitors. They saw what they could only observe in books or reports. The Chauvet Cave became tangible. Since then, two million people from all over the world have visited the Chauvet Cave replica.
The Syndicat mixte de l'Espace de restitution de la grotte Chauvet (Public Union to manage the Chauvet Cave/SMERGC) thanks the Ministry of Culture and Communication. This exhibition was created as part of an agreement linking these two partners to promote the Chauvet Cave and its geographical and historical context.
SMERGC is the designer, developer and owner of the La Grotte Chauvet 2 site (formerly known as Caverne du Pont d'Arc). It prepared and defended the application package of the Chauvet Cave for inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage List.
SMERGC also thanks Google Arts & Culture.