1. Epigravettian, or Solutrean, images of three horses on the wall of Cosquer Cave just above sea-level.

The painted cave beneath the sea

A replica of a submerged cave, containing more than 270 works of stunning rock art, is being constructed in Marseille, not far from the original. Cosquer Cave, which was used almost continuously between 33,000 BC and 19,000 BC, is in the Calanque of La Triperie, near Cap Morgiou, not far from Marseille. But, as its entrance lies
37 metres under the present sea-level, it is extremely inaccessible.

It was discovered in 1985 by diver Henri Cosquer (after whom it was named) who visited it several times before its existence was made public in 1991. At the end of a 175-metre-long tunnel, he found a series of submerged cavities featuring exceptional paintings, engravings and stencils. In the Upper Palaeolithic period, the coastline was five kilometres further south and sea-level was some hundred metres lower than today. When the water-level rose progressively during the Holocene period, not only the entrance, but also three-quarters of the cave was submerged. Today, the part above water occupies roughly 3,500 sq metres and consists of six sections, and the submerged part consists of four.

2. A realistic Epigravettian drawing of a bison, from circa 19,000 BC.

The rock art still visible was made during two periods of human occupation, from two Palaeolithic cultures, the Gravettian, circa 27,000 BC, and the Epigravettian or Solutrean, circa 19,000 BC. Around 65 stencilled hands – 44 black and 21 red – belong to the oldest period, together with signs traced with charcoaled fingers and flint tools. Some of the stencilled hands have been scratched or painted over. Work from the more recent Epigravettian era includes figurative paintings and engravings of animals, such as horses, ibex, deer, bison and aurochs. More unusual features of this rock art include depictions of marine fauna, such as seals, penguins (auks), jellyfish, fish, cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), and a man with a seal's head. A number of sexual representations as well as signs and symbols have also been recorded.

In La grotte Cosquer: Peintures et gravures de la caverne engloutie (published in French by Seuil in 1994) or Cave Beneath the Sea: Palaeolithic images at Cosquer (published in English by Harry N Abrams in 1996), the prehistorians Jean Clottes and Jean Courtin assert that: 'This is the only painted cave in the world with an entrance below present-day sea-level where cave art has been preserved from the flooding that occurred when the seas rose after the end of the last glaciation.'

3. One of 65 stencilled hands dating from the Gravettian period, circa 27,000 BC.

There is no sign that the cave was ever inhabited. The absence of food remains and traces of human activities other than those involved in making art works – charcoal from fires, torches, and a few flint tools – suggests that it could have been some sort of sanctuary where people came only for brief periods, probably for ritual purposes.

Cosquer Cave is inaccessible to the public and its precious rock art images continue to deteriorate due to further rises in sea-level and also because small earthquakes have damaged some areas and the paintings are fading ineluctably. For this reason it was decided that a replica of the cave should be created in the Villa Méditerranée in
the nearby port of Marseille; especially as the lower part of the new building is underwater. When finished it will include an interpretation centre presenting general information on rock art, the local area in prehistoric times, the theme of climate warming and the rise in sea-level.

Visitors will begin their exploration of the replica cave on a floating pontoon leading to the entrance and where Henri Cosquer's original boat will be moored. First, there will be an introduction to the world of diving; this will lead on to the 'discovery' of the cave under sea-level. Visitors will travel on 'exploration modules', taking them round an exact reproduction of the cave, designed to give them an aptly named fully 'immersive' experience.

This building work, which will take over two years to complete, is being carried out by a specialist company that has worked on similar projects, such as Grotte Chauvet 2 (Ardèche). It is due to open in June 2022.

Nicole Benazeth