PARIS — A locked iron gate and double metal doors now block the entrance to a cave in western France that archaeologists say contains the most important prehistoric engravings ever discovered in Europe.
Just past the newly erected barricade to Cussac cave is a winding succession of galleries decorated with engravings of women, beasts – including bison, mammoth and Paleolithic horses – and erotic imagery dating back as early as 28,000 B.C.
But the public is unlikely ever to glimpse the prehistoric art because of the high levels of carbon dioxide that fill the cave’s passageways, said Norbert Aujoulat, director of the Culture Ministry’s department for prehistoric cave art and the chief archaeologist for the Cussac excavation.
Authorities are considering creating a replica of Cussac cave for tourists as they did with the famed Lascaux cave, which holds the world’s oldest cave paintings that date back about 18,000 years. Both caves are located in France’s Dordogne valley.
The cave was discovered by amateur explorer Marc Delluc in September, but the find was not announced until this week.
“It is as important for engraving as Lascaux is for painting,” said Dany Baraud, chief archaeologist at the Regional Direction of Cultural Affairs of Aquitaine in western France.
Cussac is notable for what experts say is the remarkably well-preserved condition and vivid imagery of its art. Experts suspect that after months of exploration they’ve seen only the beginning of the cave’s treasures.
“There is no other cave with engravings that compare to Cussac – in France or the rest of Europe,” Aujoulat said.
Cussac’s narrow passageways open into large galleries at intervals of about 165 feet, experts said.
Most impressive is a gallery 825 feet from the entrance that shows about 50 well-defined figures of animals and voluptuous female figures.
Among the artwork is a picture of a bison that measures 13 feet long, thought to be the largest prehistoric engraving ever found, Aujoulat said.
Archaeologists have also found seven graves containing human skeletons but have not yet determined whether they date to the same period as the art. Test results are expected by next month.
So far, experts have only been able to advance just over a half mile into the cave, partly because the carbon dioxide has forced them to limit their time inside to four hours at a time.
The cave’s delicate limestone walls and soft clay floor could be damaged by hasty exploration.
“We’ve only had a partial viewing. The big question is, ‘What haven’t we seen?”’ Aujoulat said. “We expect to be pleasantly surprised.”