In 1985, while diving in the Massif of the Calanques, the jagged limestone cliffs that line the Mediterranean coastline between Marseille and Cassis, local professional diver Henri Cosquer came upon a cave that caught his attention. Located at a depth of 37 meters (121 feet), it would turn out to be the portal of a deep underwater passageway.

A  Unique Discovery

The Cosquer Cave is a surreal landscape of colossal stalactites and stalagmites.

Over the next few years, he returned to progressively explore the 175-meter (574-foot) long, upward-sloping tunnel. Finally, in 1990, he and three of his closest diving partners emerged onto the hardened limestone “beach” of a vast partially submerged chamber. For the next two hours, they explored a surreal landscape of colossal stalactites, stalagmites, leaning vaults and limestone walls, orange-hued in the light of their flashlights.

The outline of a hand first caught the divers’ eye.

Here the story would have ended, with the discovery of a magnificent cave inaccessible to anyone but the most determined of expert divers, if as they were getting ready to depart, the imprint of a hand hadn’t appeared in the beam of Cosquer’s lamp. In the weeks that followed, the team returned several times and discovered an astonishing prehistoric bestiary, as well as amazingly preserved hearths. In addition to multiple figures of the bisons, horses, ibexes and stags common in prehistoric caves, they also found seals and penguins, figures until then unknown in parietal art.

Bison close-up.

The find was officially reported to the Department of Underwater Archeological Research in September 1991 and subsequently authenticated. Carbon dating showed that the cave had been intermittently frequented from 31,000 BCE to 12,000 BCE by hunter-gatherers from the last ice age, when the sea level was 120 meters (393 feet)  lower than it is today, and the coast eight kilometers (five miles) farther. During that time, the entrance of the cave is believed to have been located high on the face of the cliff, in a landscape surrounded by grassland.

A Treasure in Jeopardy

The penguins panel.

To date, a staggering number of cave art have been inventoried on the vaults and walls, including 200 animals representing eleven species: horses, aurochs (the ancestors of all cattle), bisons, a variety of antelopes (megaceroses, ibexes, chamois and saiga), one feline, seals, penguins and fish. Also discovered are geometric motifs that may evoke other sea animals thus far not identified. There are also a few rare human representations, 65 negative handprints in red (21) and black (44), and more than 200 non-figurative signs: rectangles, zigzags and dots. 

 

The legs of a horse close to the water are already being swallowed by the sea.

The uniqueness of the site, the wealth and diversity of the engravings and paintings, and its long human occupation during the Upper Paleolithic Period make the Cosquer Cave a site of global significance — and one whose preservation is a matter of urgency. The process of disintegration began some 10,000 years ago: since the end of the last glacial period, the rising sea levels have submerged more than three quarters of the cave. The quarter that has remained dry is now being nibbled away by the effects of climate change and the rise of sea level. As specially trained diver-archeologists race to document the cave’s Paleolithic art treasures, they also note the acceleration of the process. The legs of a horse close to the water at the time of the discovery have already been swallowed by the sea.

An Essential Preservation Project

The spectacular contemporary Villa Méditerranée is now the permanent home of Cosquer Méditerranée.

Given that the location of the Cosquer Cave makes it inaccessible to anyone but a handful of expert and that, in the medium to long term, its submersion is inevitable, it was clear that creating an accurate replica was the only way to preserve this world heritage site and make it accessible to the general public. Unlike other centers of rock art (Lascaux and Chauvet), Cosquer Méditerranée is located in an urban area, in the heart of the Marseille waterfront, and housed in an existing building: the Villa Méditerranée, a spectacular contemporary architecture creation inaugurated in 2013. Fitting the  2,300-square meter (24,750-square foot), figure eight-shaped cave into a square area with a surface area of 1,750 square meters (18,800 square feet) in basement level of the building presented an additional challenge.

Visitors can now experience the cave in 3D and virtual reality.

Using the latest ultra high-precision 3D technology available today to capture hundreds of laser scans and 360-degree high definition images, more than fifty versions were made to produce a replica of the cave and adapt it to the constraints of the Villa Méditerranée, into which an itinerary had to be integrated. The unified model of the cave, which was then validated scientifically and stenographically, was sent to all the key participants in the project, and in particular, the artists who made the physical replica of the cave. Cosquer Méditerranée was inaugurated in June 2022, and now offers visitors the opportunity to experience the cave in 3D and in a virtual reality tour.

A Dive Into The World of Henri Cosquer

The circuit introduces visitors to every types of rock art.

The visit begins in a replica of Cosquer’s diving club, including the gear used by professional and amateur divers at the time of the cave’s discovery, followed by an elevator ride down to the entrance of the replica. Designed to accommodate twenty-four people, the elevator evokes a nautical elevator for divers: screens simulate the descent to 37 meters as visitors are taken to an underwater station in the basement level  to embark on exploratory vehicles.  

Giant Penguin close-up.

Each of these vehicles can accommodate up to six passengers for a slow, thirty-five minute 220-meter (725-foot) itinerary in semi-darkness. Wearing audio headsets that are synchronized with the panels, the visitors gradually discover the rock art panels that light up as they approach. The circuit enables visitors to see all the types of rock art and understand their significance. Everything, including the presence of bodies of water, contributes to creating the illusion of being in the real cave. 

The archaeological interpretation centre features a life-size replica of a megaceros antelope.

Visitors come back up into daylight via a large airy staircase that take them to the vast, light-filled third floor, where the archaeological interpretation centre is located. Here in addition to life-size models of the thirteen animal species represented on the cave walls, they can enjoy breathtaking views of the waterfront and the Mediterranean seascape all the way to the horizon. 

Cosquer Cave Panorama.

Good to Know

  • Getting there — By train: Marseille is easily reached by direct TGV (high speed train) connections throughout the day from Paris (3.5 hours) and Lyon (1.5 hour), as well as Geneva (3.5 hours), Brussels (5.5 hours) and Frankfurt (7 hours). By air: For air travelers, the Marseille-Provence International Airport is 30 kilometers (18.5 miles) northwest of the city. It has numerous flights throughout the day from Paris, London and other major European cities. A shuttle bus runs every 15 minutes between the airport and the center of the city.
  • Visiting — Cosquer Méditerranée is located on the J4 Esplanade, 13002, Marseille.  It is open everyday year round including holidays. Opening hours vary seasonally and are updated on the official website. Contact — tel.: +33 (0)4 91 31 23 12.
  •  Note — Photography by visitors is strictly prohibited throughout the cave. All images in the article are used by permission © Kleber Rossillon&Région Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur/Sources 3D MC.  

Location, location, location!

Villa Cosquer