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11 February 2015 |   ByB Chazaly
Fugro Author

The Cosquer Cave, whose only entrance lies 37 metres below sea level, is located in the Urgonian limestones of Cap Morgiou near Marseille, France. Although the cave was discovered in 1985 by professional diver, Henri Cosquer, the existence of its Palaeolithic paintings and engravings, dating from 27,000 to 18,500 BC, was not revealed until 1991.

Despite the gradual deterioration of the paintings due to rising sea levels, the Cosquer Cave is one of only a few in the world to contain so many animal figures: a total of 177 animal paintings and engravings. The depictions represent eleven different species of animals – including horses, bison, aurochs, ibex, deer, felines, seals, penguins and jellyfish – which is considered unusual in Upper Palaeolithic art. In comparison, the world-renowned sites of Chauvet and Lascaux each contain fourteen and nine species respectively. Other depictions that have been discovered in Cosquer Cave include a human with a seal's head, hand stencils and various geometric signs.

The Cave Under The Sea
Sub-millimetre textured 3D mesh of the horses panel.

To take up this challenge, we assembled a team of experienced individuals that possessed a unique combination of skills in surveying, diving and speleology – and of course sensitivity to art and cultural heritage.
Bertrand Chazaly, Fugro Geoid SAS
The Cave Under The Sea
The gallery slopes up for about 360 feet under water before reaching a huge chamber where many prehistoric paintings and engravings are preserved on the walls. 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.

With two-thirds of the cave already under water, rising sea levels are threatening to claim even more of its paintings and engravings. Some of the most beautiful parts of the monument, such as the ‘horses’ panel, are in immediate danger. In order to record this artistic treasure before its inevitable disappearance, the French Ministry of Culture and Communication decided to perform a highly accurate and dense 3D survey of the sections of the cave that remain above water.

As part of a scientific team, Fugro used its expertise in 3D laser scanning to successfully carry out the survey of the cave. The extreme conditions demanded a unique approach so the 3D laser scan was performed with an accuracy of two millimetres, with high-resolution digital imagery, to develop a sub-millimetre textured 3D model of this wonderful and authentic account of ancient life. The result provides a detailed reconstruction of the cave so accurate that it allows scientists to continue their research on the paintings and engravings using the virtual 3D models, without having to put on a wetsuit!

 

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