Grotte di Balzi Rossi


Useful Information

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Grotte dei Balzi Rossi, Nouvelle géographie universelle, 1877. Public Domain.
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Grimaldi Man. Public Domain.
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Grotte de Garavan, postcard. Public Domain.
Location: Near Grimaldi di Ventimiglia, Imperia.
(43.783829, 7.534251)
Open: Museum: All year Tue-Sun 8:30-19:30.
Grotta del Caviglione: All year Tue-Sun 11-12, 15-16.
[2023]
Fee: Adults EUR 4, Children (0-17) free, Students (18-25) EUR 2.
Combi ticket with Archaeological Area of Nervia + Forte S.Tecla available.
[2023]
Classification: SpeleologyKarst Cave
Light: LightIncandescent Electric Light System
Dimension:
Guided tours: self guided
Photography: allowed
Accessibility: no
Bibliography: Katerina Douka, Stefano Grimaldi, Giovanni Boschian, Angiolo del Lucchese, Thomas F.G. Higham (2011):
A new chronostratigraphic framework for the Upper Palaeolithic of Riparo Mochi (Italy),
Journal of Human Evolution 62(2), 19 December 2011, 286-299. online DOI pdf
Address: Museo preistorico dei Balzi Rossi, Via dei Balzi Rossi, 9, 18039 Ventimiglia IM, Tel: +39-0184-38113. E-mail:
Regional Directorate of Liguria Museums, Via Balbi, 10, 16126 Genoa, Tel: +39-010-2710-250. E-mail: E-mail:
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.

History

1846 caves explored by Prince Florestan I of Monaco.
1854 and 1858 research campaigns conducted by Antonio Grand of Lyon and the materials recovered were divided between the natural history museums of Siena, Turin, Nice and Lyon.
1858 excavations in Grotta del Caviglione and Barma Grande and first description of the complex stratigraphy of the Balzi Rossi caves by François Forel, president of the Historical Society of French-speaking Switzerland.
1871 Prince Albert I of Monaco and the French physician Emile Rivière excavate Grotta del Caviglione.
1883 area purchased by local entrepreneur, Francesco Abbo, who first built a retail outlet for visitors and later opened a quarry for the exploitation of limestone.
1892 the Abbo family uncovered a triple burial, of an adult male and two adolescent females, about 11 m from the original level of the Barma Grande.
1894 Sir Thomas Hanbury finances the construction of the Museum and the enhancement of Barma Grande to stop its destruction.
1895 Albert I of Monaco purchased the Barma del Ponte, which has since been called the Prince's Grotto, and commissioned Canon Leonce de Villeneuve to start research using a scientific method that he wanted to test.
1898 first museum opened to the public.
1900s Triple burial of the Barma Grande placed inside the cave, in a cabinet in the middle of the path.
1938 Riparo Mochi discovered by A.C. Blanc and L. Cardini of the Istituto Italiano di Paleontologia Umana (IIPU).
1944 Triple burial of the Barma Grande damaged by bombing of the railroad tracks.
1955 museum nationalized.
1994 construction of new museum completed.
29-SEP-2015 musem handed over to the Polo Museale della Liguria.
2018 partial refurbishment of the museum.

Description

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Balzi Rossi from Cap Martin. Public Domain.
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Museum of Balzi Rossi. Public Domain.
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Le Caverne Dritte. Public Domain.
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Former Border between France and Italy. Public Domain.
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The train from the over-path. Public Domain.
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Grotte de Florestan. Public Domain.

Balzi Rossi (Red Rocks) is one of the most important archaeological sites of the early Upper Paleolithic in Western Europe. The most important findings are Riparo Mochi remains from the early Aurignacian, 42,000 years ago, which are the earliest evidence for the presence of modern humans in Europe. Then there are the Grimaldi Man (25,000 BP) and the Venus figurines of Balzi Rossi (22,000 BP) from the Gravettian. The most important fact about the caves is that actually any wave of migration from Africa to Europe is documented. The oldest 200,000 years ago evidenced by the pelvis fragment of a female of Homo heidelbergensis. The layers also document the climate changes of hot and cold periods. The plural in the name is well-deserved, there are numerous small caves like the Grotta del Caviglione, the Barma Grande, the Barma del Ponte (Grotta del Principe), and and Grotta die Fanciulli. The site Riparo Mochi, located between the caves of Caviglione and Florestano is quite important, because due to its late discovery it is the only one which has been systematically investigated.

The series of caves is quite spectacular and easy to see from the sea. The SS1 coastal road is split into two roads, the lower one, Corso Europa, crosses the whole section underground through a 550 m long tunnel, the upper road called Corso Mentone runs along the hillside above the rocks. At the eastern exit of the tunnel is a roundabout where the Via Balzi Rossi turns off. There is a parking lot, which is mainly for the restaurant and apartment building, and from here visitors have to walk 100 m along the road to the museum. At the far end of the museum a trail uphill crosses the railroad tracks on a bridge and leads to the caves.

The Grotte di Balzi Rossi (Red Rocks Caves) are sometimes listed as a show cave. That's not accurate, as this site is actually a series of small shelters, not real caves, which were excavated. Many findings are in other museums, for example the Archaeological Museum of Monaco, but there is also an important archaeological museum right at the foot of the rocks called Museo preistorico dei "Balzi Rossi" (Prehistoric museum of the "Balzi Rossi"). The caves are part of the museum and there are trails to the cave entrances. As this are not show caves, nevertheless small caves and shelters open to the public, we classified the site as caves.

Originally there were 11 caves in the cliff, and they were known, obviously, since prehistoric times. They were first mentioned around 1700, and were the subject of scientific investigations since the work of Prince Florestan I of Monaco in 1846. In the next 30 years the research intensified, fueled by important discoveries, and even the touristic development started. The area was purchased in 1883 by Francesco Abbo, a local entrepreneur, who first built a retail outlet for visitors and later opened a quarry for the exploitation of limestone. After the great names had vanished, and the findings were divided between the museums of area, like Monaco, Siena, Turin, Nice and Lyon, some local enthusiasts continued the excavations. There were Stanislas Bonfils and Louis Alexandre Jullien, an art dealer and collector from Marseilles. Jullien discovered a burial site in the Barma Grande that went to the Menton Museum. He emigrated to Canada and in 1896 sold seven of the fifteen female stone statuettes or venuses he had excavated in Canada. Also the Abbo family started to excavate the caves and discovered a triple burial, of an adult male and two adolescent females, 11 m from the original level of the Barma Grande. Albert I of Monaco purchased the Barma del Ponte, which was then called the Prince's Grotto. He commissioned Canon Leonce de Villeneuve to start research using a scientific method that he wanted to test.

In hindsight it's not easy to say if those gold rush years were good or bad. A lot of archaeological evidence was destroyed by amateurs, commercial interests, and ignorance. On the other hand the importance of site and the discoveries became widely known, archaeology developed and there was a better financing due to its popularity.

The caves were used as burial site since the Upper Palaeolithic. There were 16 individuals recovered during the last two centuries, both in single or in multiple graves. 13 date to between 25,000 and 23,000 BP, the other three were much later, between 12,300 and 11,000 BP. Today the skeletons are distributed in numerous European museums. The local museum has a casts of the most important findings, for example the dame du Cavillon. But the famous triple burial of the Barma Grande is the original. It was in the early 1900s placed in the cave, in a cabinet in the middle of the path, as wished by Sir Hanbury. The bombing at the end of 1944 destroyed part of it, in particular the central portion of the skeleton of the two young women.

The most important caves are the Grotta del Caviglione, the Barma Grande, and the Barma del Ponte (Grotta del Principe). The triple burial of the Barma Grande includes the skeletons of an adult and two juvenile females buried at the same time and with a rich outfit composed of long French flint blades, perforated sea shells, fish vertebrae, deer canines, and pendants in worked bone. The Paleolithic burial was dated 25,000 BP. It was studied by anthropologists who mentioned a common feature: a branched imprint left by the parietal vein on the forehead. They guessed that the three individuals were related, a fact which was confirmed by DNA samples from the teeth of the two juveniles and the femur of the adult, 90 years later.

The museum started in 1894, after Sir Thomas Hanbury decided to finance the construction of the Museum. He also had the idea of placing the triple burial of the Barma Grande in the cave where it was discovered. But there were other venues at this location, a bathing establishment with adjoining restaurant and casino and a brewery. And as always along the Ligurian coast, the coastal road and the railroad also cross the site. The railroad was actually responsible for the damage to the site by explosives, actions aimed at destroying the Genoa-Nice railway link. The museum became national soon after the war in 1955 and finally in the 1990s it was completely rebuilt and redesigned. Today there are actually two buildings, the second is called Museo Vecchio and contains the results of excavations conducted in the Grotta del Principe by the team of the Museum of Prehistoric Anthropology of the Principality of Monaco. Also, the findings from the shelter Bombrini, at the Ciotti beach and the Caviglione Cave. The museum was finally handed over to the Polo Museale della Liguria on 29-SEP-2015, who operate it today. Fun fact, a part of the Grotta del Principe is owned by the Grimaldi family until today.

The State Museums of the Liguria Regional Directorate are participating in the European Heritage Days. They are in September every year. The Balzi Rossi Prehistoric Museum offers free guided tours during the day and the Grotta del Caviglione can be visited continuously from 10 to 17. We also recommend the visit of the Musée d'Anthropologie préhistorique in Monaco, which has the most important findings of the caves on display.


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Barma Grande. Grotte de Florestan. Eastern Cave. Public Domain.