as bears, cave lions and mammoths lived on the banks of the Meuse


They are located in the heart of the province of Liege, on the banks of the River Maas between Huy and Liege, the municipality of Engis.

By Frédéric Marchesani

Extremely rich from a geological point of view, it houses many caves, two of which are located on the plain of the village of Ehein on the edge of the Engihoul Valley, where the stream of the same name flows and which is bordered by the thirty-six turning road known to the inhabitants of the region.

Discovery and exploration

The Crystal Palace and its rain of stalactites. ©Guy Focant / SPW-AWaP

In the 1830s, the Liege physician Philippe-Charles Schmerling explored several caves near Engis and Flémalle. There he discovered human bones, which were later attributed to Neanderthals. In 1860, the British geologist Charles Lyell (1797-1875), president of the Geological Society of London, visited the same cave and made important discoveries there. The site, formerly known as the Great Cave of Engihoul, was later renamed Lyell Cave in his honor. This is not the only homage the scientific world has paid to this great man buried under the Illusories in Westminster: his name also refers to a mountain in Canada, Mount Lyell, as well as several craters on the moon and the planet Mars.

In July 1906, a mine shot carried out in a quarry by Baron Jacques de Rosée discovered a new cave, which was explored by some specialists, including the anthropologist Ernest Doudou, from 15 September. It was named after its owner, who gave scientists access to it and protected access.

Since then, the two caves have been regularly explored by researchers. In the 1970s, the carmeuse site was acquired to destroy the rock in order to continue its industrial exploitation. The mobilisation of the scientific community led to the classification of the site in 1977. In 1999, convinced of the extraordinary interest of these caves, Carmeuse decided to hand over full ownership to the Royal Belgian Society of Geological and Archaeological Studies for a symbolic franc. This is unprecedented for the protection and investigation of the underworld.

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Cascade of Stalactites

Crystallizations are reminiscent of corals. ©Guy Focant / SPW-AWaP

Exceptional site, this cave has been researched for more than a hundred years has always amazed researchers. Ernest Doudou said it was “a domain that was much more reserved for fairies than intended to be kicked by the brutal foot of man.” Among the main rooms of the place, the most extraordinary is probably the “Crystal Palace”. One is blown away by the cascade of stalactites falling from the ceiling.

This white crystalline harp is the result of a so-called “tubiform” concreting phenomenon due to the extremely elongated character of these stalactites, which have a reduced diameter of 4 to 5 mm. There are also stalagmites, whose main candle is 2.8 m high and has a diameter of 60 cm. And that’s not all! The cave is teeming with other eccentric crystallizations formed by capillarity in various forms (draperies, hooks, loops, propellers…) reminiscent of corals. There is also an important paleontological deposit containing fossilized remains of the diverse fauna that inhabited our regions 300,000 years ago.

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Strange Animals

A view into the interior of the caves. ©Guy Focant / SPW-AWaP

This cave has two entrances. One in the west consists of two corridors, one of which was closed in 1910 by the factory’s powder warehouse; the other, in the east, is located at the foot of the rocky wall of the Engihoul Gorge, 13 meters above the Meuse. From west to east, five rooms follow through narrow passages. In this second cave, archaeologists worked alongside geologists: human bones attributed to the Cro-Magnon-type genera, as well as some flints, were excavated. However, it was paleontologists who worked the most there.

The salvaged fossils provided a great illustration of the prehistoric fauna of the late Pleistocene, the first geological epoch of the Quaternary (from 2.58 million years to 11,700 BC). On the banks of the Meuse, in this very distant time, bears, cave lions, mammoths and other rhinos could be found.

After all, the main interest of the Lyell Cave lies in the field of biology. There are three species of troglobies, a type of cave animal that can only survive in the underground world, very ancient species that the French naturalist René Jeannel called living fossils. Among them is Belgium’s only Troglobia beetle, a rare and little-explored species.

After their classification in 1977, the two caves were added to the list of the extraordinary heritage of Wallonia. They have a great biological, geological, paleontological and archaeological interest. Due to their fragility, they can never be made accessible to the public.

A little geology

©Guy Focant / SPW-AWaP

Along the axis formed by the Sambre and the Meuse there is an important fault network, the most famous of which is the Eifel fault, which literally follows the path of these two rivers. In Engis there is a small fault, the Ivoz fault, on the right bank slope. In the south there is an anticlinal, a convex fold, whose central geological layers are the oldest. The caves of Rosée and Lyell were dug in the limestone of the Viséen, a geological stage whose rocks formed between 346 and 300 million BC.