See Prehistoric Art in the Cosquer Cave in Marseille
In 1991, Henri Cosquer made a remarkable discovery: he found a grotto filled with prehistoric paintings. Even more remarkable is that the cave is only accessible via an underwater passageway.
Cosquer was a professional diver, leading underwater tours around the Calanques National Park near Marseille. He also dove for pleasure, exploring the nooks and crannies of the rugged coastline.
One day, Cosquer noticed a narrow underwater passageway. Intrigued, he followed it and found himself in a labyrinth of tunnels going here and there. Over multiple dives, he followed these tunnels until, one day, he surfaced inside a cave. It was filled with incredible stalagmites and stalactites. “An unknown grotto!” he thought to himself. “I’ve just discovered it!”
As he explored the cavern, he was stunned to find a human handprint on a wall, then another and another. As he pushed further into the cave, more wonders were revealed: a painting of a horse, a deer, and a lion. Finally, Cosquer realized that he had stumbled onto a set of prehistoric cave paintings, lost to the world for millennia.
How Was the Cave Submerged?
Thousands of years ago, sea levels were much lower than today during the Ice Age because so much water was held in glaciers. So, the French Mediterranean coastline was miles further south than it is today. As a result, the underwater passage that Cosquer followed was above water, where our ancestors could walk in and create their works of art.
Like the caves of Lascaux and Grotte Chauvet, the French government has created a brilliant replica of the Cosquer Cave with its many prehistoric paintings. It is near the Vieux Port of Marseille and is a must for any visitor to the city.
Visiting the Cosquer Cave
Tickets are available online or at the door, though buying online ahead of time is advised. The tickets are timed, with a new group entering every 5-10 minutes.
After you enter, you follow a floating queue that leads into the main building. Soon you pass through a re-creation of Cosquer’s old diving club, with pressure tanks and masks lining the wall. A television plays a recording of the news clip announcing the cave’s discovery.
You are given a set of headphones and an audio guide, available in six languages. Then you are led to an elevator where you “descend 37 meters” to the underwater level of the cave (remember, this is a replica, not the real thing.)
You load into cars (six people maximum) that will take you through the cave. This part might seem like a Disney ride, but it’s a smart way to “tour” a site partly filled with water.
Now you are transported into the world of the cave. The car moves slowly, turning this way to direct your attention while the audio explains what you are seeing. And what you see is fascinating, like the drawings of the penguins, which existed here thousands of years ago.
There are over 150 animals painted or engraved, making Cosquer one of the most densely painted caves ever found. And the 11 different species depicted are more than at Lascaux and nearly as many as at Chauvet.
After the ride, the tour heads to a theatre, where you can watch a fascinating film (with English subtitles) about how Cosquer discovered the cave. Especially interesting is how he used a long yellow cord to avoid getting lost in the underwater labyrinth.
From there, you pass through a museum with full-sized replicas of some animals depicted in the cave, like the enormous auroch, the ancestor of today’s cattle. There are also depictions of sea levels rising over time and what might happen if they continue.
The Cosquer Cave is next to the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (MUCEM) and just a short walk from the Vieux Port section of Marseille. Combining the three could make for a fabulous day trip to this Mediterranean city.
Open daily from 9 am to 9 pm, with reduced hours in the fall and winter.
Tickets are 16 euros for adults, with reduced prices for younger visitors
Detail on ticket pricing and operating hours.
Underground parking is available at the Indigo lot nearby
The average visit is estimated to be two hours
Cross section of the cave: Creative Commons License, attribution Jespa
Other images are courtesy of Grotte Cosquer Méditerranée (as indicated).