Using car batteries as their only source of power, archaeologists from the University of York created a striking 3D scan of prehistoric paintings found in the Southern French Alps. Picturing two animals next to some parallel lines, the paintings are said to be the highest-altitude prehistoric animal art in Europe. Located 7,000 feet above sea level, they adorn a sandstone ceiling at Abri Faravel, a rock shelter discovered in 2010.
To allow virtual access to this unusual site, researchers from the University of York created a laser scan of the rock shelter and the entire surrounding landscape, plus a white-light scan of the paintings themselves. It was a bit of a logistical nightmare: After lugging car batteries and scanners to an altitude of 7,000 feet, the researchers captured the ancient scenery in great detail. These scans helped produce virtual models of the archaeological landscape, which are now published in Internet Archaeology, an open-access online journal. They’re paired with a paper, “Interpreting the Rock Paintings of Abri Faravel.”
Humans inhabited the rock shelter during various phases from the middle Stone Age to the medieval period. In addition to the paintings, archaeologists discovered Mesolithic and Neolithic flint tools, Iron Age hand-thrown pottery, a Roman fibula, and some medieval metalwork. The paintings, however, stood out.
“After years of research in this valley, the day we discovered these paintings was undeniably the highlight of the research program,” Dr. Kevin Walsh, Senior Lecturer in York’s Department of Archaeology and project lead, said in a statement. “Whilst we thought that we might discover engravings, such as in the Vallée des Merveilles to the south-east, we never expected to find prehistoric paintings in this exposed area that affords so few natural shelters.”
Similar to Google Earth, the scans online let you virtually roam a 360-degree panorama of the mountainous landscape. Sites of interest, where Neolithic and Mesolithic flint scatters were found, for example, are flagged with icons; as you approach and click them, photographs pop up with descriptions of the discoveries.
The researchers consider the project a pioneering example of how modern technology can enhance public access to ancient art and artifacts. “This is the only example of virtual models, including a scan of the art, done at high altitude in the Alps and probably the highest virtual model of an archaeological landscape in Europe,” Walsh said. While the interface is slightly glitchy, and the experience can’t quite compare to seeing the French Alps in person, the site is definitely easier to access on a computer than on foot.