Lascaux is the setting of a complex of caves
in southwestern France famous for its Paleolithic cave paintings. The original caves are located
near the village of Montignac, in the department of Dordogne. They contain some of the best-known
Upper Paleolithic art. These paintings are estimated to be 17,300 years old. They primarily
consist of images of large animals, most of which are known from fossil evidence to have
lived in the area at the time. In 1979, Lascaux was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites
list along with other prehistoric sites in the Vézère valley. History since rediscovery
On 12 September 1940, the entrance to Lascaux Cave was discovered by 18-year-old Marcel
Ravidat. Ravidat returned to the scene with three friends, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel,
and Simon Coencas, and entered the cave via a long shaft. The teenagers discovered that
the cave walls were covered with depictions of animals. The cave complex was opened to
the public in 1948. By 1955, the carbon dioxide produced by 1,200 visitors per day had visibly
damaged the paintings. The cave was closed to the public in 1963 to preserve the art.
After the cave was closed, the paintings were restored to their original state and were
monitored daily. Rooms in the cave include the Hall of the Bulls, the Passageway, the
Shaft, the Nave, the Apse, and the Chamber of Felines. Lascaux II, a replica of the Great Hall of
the Bulls and the Painted Gallery, was opened in 1983, 200 meters from the original. Reproductions
of other Lascaux artwork can be seen at the Centre of Prehistoric Art at Le Thot, France.
Since 1998 the cave has been beset with a fungus, variously blamed on a new air conditioning
system that was installed in the caves, the use of high-powered lights, and the presence
of too many visitors. As of 2008, the cave contained black mold which scientists were
and still are trying to keep away from the paintings. In January 2008, authorities closed
the cave for three months even to scientists and preservationists. A single individual
was allowed to enter the cave for 20 minutes once a week to monitor climatic conditions.
Now only a few scientific experts are allowed to work inside the cave and just for a few
days a month but the efforts to remove the mold have taken a toll, leaving dark patches
and damaging the pigments on the walls. Geographic setting
In its sedimentary composition, the Vézère drainage basin covers one fourth of the département
of the Dordogne, the northernmost region of the Black Périgord. Before joining the Dordogne
River near Limeuil, the Vézère flows in a south-westerly direction. At its centre
point, the river’s course is marked by a series of meanders flanked by high limestone cliffs
that determine the landscape. Upstream from this steep-sloped relief, near Montignac and
in the vicinity of Lascaux, the contours of the land soften considerably; the valley floor
widens, and the banks of the river lose their steepness.
The Lascaux valley is located some distance from the major concentrations of decorated
caves and inhabited sites, most of which were discovered further downstream. In the environs
of the village of Eyzies-de-Tayac Sireuil, there are no less than 37 decorated caves
and shelters, as well as an even greater number of habitation sites from the Upper Paleolithic,
located in the open, beneath a sheltering overhang, or at the entrance to one of the
area’s karst cavities. This is the highest concentration in western Europe.
The images The cave contains nearly 2,000 figures, which
can be grouped into three main categories: animals, human figures, and abstract signs.
The paintings contain no images of the surrounding landscape or the vegetation of the time. Most
of the major images have been painted onto the walls using mineral pigments, although
some designs have also been incised into the stone. Many images are too faint to discern,
and others have deteriorated entirely. Over 900 can be identified as animals, and
605 of these have been precisely identified. Out of these images, there are 364 paintings
of equines as well as 90 paintings of stags. Also represented are cattle and bison, each
representing 4 to 5% of the images. A smattering of other images include seven felines, a bird,
a bear, a rhinoceros, and a human. There are no images of reindeer, even though that was
the principal source of food for the artists. Geometric images have also been found on the
walls. The most famous section of the cave is The
Great Hall of the Bulls where bulls, equines, and stags are depicted. The four black bulls,
or aurochs, are the dominant figures among the 36 animals represented here. One of the
bulls is 5.2 metres long, the largest animal discovered so far in cave art. Additionally,
the bulls appear to be in motion. A painting referred to as “The Crossed Bison”,
found in the chamber called the Nave, is often submitted as an example of the skill of the
Paleolithic cave painters. The crossed hind legs create the illusion that one bison is
closer to us than the other. This visual depth in the scene demonstrates a primitive form
of perspective which was particularly advanced for the time.
Interpretation of images In recent years, new research has suggested
that the Lascaux paintings may incorporate prehistoric star charts. Michael Rappenglueck
of the University of Munich argues that some of the non-figurative dot clusters and dots
within some of the figurative images correlate with the constellations of Taurus, the Pleiades
and the grouping known as the “Summer Triangle”. Based on her own study of the astronomical
significance of Bronze Age petroglyphs in the Vallée des Merveilles and her extensive
survey of other prehistoric cave painting sites in the region—most of which appear
to have been selected because the interiors are illuminated by the setting sun on the
day of the winter solstice—French researcher Chantal Jègues-Wolkiewiez has further proposed
that the gallery of figurative images in the Great Hall represents an extensive star map
and that key points on major figures in the group correspond to stars in the main constellations
as they appeared in the Paleolithic. An alternative hypothesis proposed by David
Lewis-Williams and Jean Clottes following work with similar art of the San people of
Southern Africa is that this type of art is spiritual in nature relating to visions experienced
during ritualistic trance-dancing. These trance visions are a function of the human brain
and so are independent of geographical location. Nigel Spivey, a professor of classic art and
archeology at the University of Cambridge, has further postulated in his series, How
Art Made the World, that dot and lattice patterns overlapping the representational images of
animals are very similar to hallucinations provoked by sensory-deprivation. He further
postulates that the connections between culturally important animals and these hallucinations
led to the invention of image-making, or the art of drawing. Further extrapolations include
the later transference of image-making behavior from the cave to megalithic sites, and the
subsequent invention of agriculture to feed the site builders.
Some anthropologists and art historians also theorize that the paintings could be an account
of past hunting success, or could represent a mystical ritual in order to improve future
hunting endeavors. This latter theory is supported by the overlapping images of one group of
animals in the same cave-location as another group of animals, suggesting that one area
of the cave was more successful for predicting a plentiful hunting excursion.
Applying the iconographic method of analysis to the Lascaux paintings, Thérèse Guiot-Houdart
attempted to comprehend the symbolic function of the animals, to identify the theme of each
image and finally to reconstitute the canvas of the myth illustrated on the rock walls. Julien d’Huy and Jean-Loïc Le Quellec showed
that certain angular or barbed signs of Lascaux may be analysed as “weapon” or “wounds”. These
signs affect dangerous animals—big cats, aurochs and bison—more than others and may
be explained by a fear of the animation of the image. Another finding supports the hypothesis
of half-alive images. At Lascaux, bison, aurochs and ibex are not represented side by side.
Conversely, one can note a bison-horses-lions system and an aurochs-horses-deer-bears system,
these animals being frequently associated. Such a distribution may show the relationship
between the species pictured and their environmental conditions. Aurochs and bison fight one against
the other, and horses and deer are very social with other animals. Bison and lions live in
open plains areas; aurochs, deer and bears are associated with forests and marshes; ibex
habitat is rocky areas, and horses are highly adaptive for all these areas. The Lascaux
paintings’ disposition may be explained by a belief in the real life of the pictured
species, wherein the artists tried to respect their real environmental conditions.
Less known is the image area called the Abside, a roundish, semi-spherical chamber similar
to an apse in a Romanesque basilica. It is approximately 4.5 meters in diameter and covered
on every wall surface with thousands of entangled, overlapping, engraved drawings. The ceiling
of the Apse, which ranges from 1.6 to 2.7 meters high as measured from the original
floor height, is so completely decorated with such engravings that it indicates that the
prehistoric people who executed them first constructed a scaffold to do so.
Threats The opening of the Lascaux cave after World
War II changed the cave environment. The exhalations of 1,200 visitors per day, presence of light,
and changes in air circulation have created a number of problems. In the late 1950s the
appearance of lichens and crystals on the walls led to closure of the caves in 1963.
This led to restriction of access to the real caves to a few visitors every week, and the
creation of a replica cave for visitors to Lascaux. In 2001, the authorities in charge
of Lascaux changed the air conditioning system which resulted in regulation of the temperature
and humidity. When the system had been established, an infestation of Fusarium solani, a white
mold, began spreading rapidly across the cave ceiling and walls. The mold is considered
to have been present in the cave soil and exposed by the work of tradesmen, leading
to the spread of the fungus which was treated with quicklime. In 2007, a new fungus, which
has created grey and black blemishes, began spreading in the real cave.
Organized through the initiative of the French Ministry of Culture, an international symposium
titled “Lascaux and Preservation Issues in Subterranean Environments” was held in Paris
on February 26 and 27, 2009, under the chairmanship of Jean Clottes. It brought together nearly
three hundred participants from seventeen countries with the goal of confronting research
and interventions conducted in Lascaux Cave since 2001 with the experiences gained in
other countries in the domain of preservation in subterranean environments. The proceedings
of this symposium were published in 2011. Seventy-four specialists in fields as varied
as biology, biochemistry, botany, hydrology, climatology, geology, fluid mechanics, archaeology,
anthropology, restoration and conservation, from numerous countries contributed to this
publication. The problem is ongoing, as are efforts to
control the microbial and fungal growths in the cave. The fungal infection crises have
led to the establishment of an International Scientific Committee for Lascaux and to rethinking
how, and how much, human access should be permitted in caves containing prehistoric
art. See also
Cave of Altamira Prehistoric art
Art of the Upper Paleolithic List of Stone Age art
List of archaeological sites by country List of caves
Cave painting References Further reading
Curtis, Gregory. The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists.
New York, New York, USA: Knopf. ISBN 1-4000-4348-4  Lewis-Williams, David. The Mind in the Cave:
Consciousness and the Origins of Art. Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0-500-28465-2 
Bataille, Georges. The Cradle of Humanity: Prehistoric Art and Culture. New York, New
York: Zone Books. ISBN 1-890951-55-2  Joseph Nechvatal, Immersive Excess in the
Apse of Lascaux, Technonoetic Arts 3, no3. 2005 G. Delluc, Le Livre du Jubilé de Lascaux 1940-1990, Société historique et archéologique
du Périgord, supplément au tome CXVII, 1990, 155 p., ill.
B. et G. Delluc, 2003 : Lascaux retrouvé. Les recherches de l’abbé André Glory, Pilote
24 édition, 368 p., ill. B. et G. Delluc, 2006 : Discovering Lascaux,
Sud Ouest, nouvelle édition entièrement revue et très augmentée, 80 p., ill. plans
et coupe. B. et G. Delluc, 2008 : Dictionnaire de Lascaux,
Sud Ouest, Bordeaux. Plus de 600 entrées et illustrations. Bibliographie. ISBN 978-2-87901-877-5.
B. et G. Delluc, 2010 : Lascaux et la guerre. Une galerie de portraits, Bull. de la Soc.
historique et arch. du Périgord, CXXXVI, 2e livraison, 40 p., ill., bibliographie.
A. Glory, 2008 : Les recherches à Lascaux. Documents recueillis et présentés par B.
et G. Delluc, XXXIXe suppl. à Gallia-Préhistoire, CNRS, Paris.
Joseph Nechvatal, 2011: Immersion Into Noise, University of Michigan Library’s Scholarly
Publishing Office. Ann Arbor. External links
Lascaux Cave Official Lascaux Web site, from the French Ministry of Culture
Save Lascaux Official website of the International Committee for the Preservation of Lascaux
Lascaux Cave Art Symposium The Bradshaw Foundation

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