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The Cave of Lascaux

There once was a cave. It had people in it. Those people wanted to tell stories, stories that would last. So they did. They filled the cave walls with images - pictures of bulls and aurochs, horses and hemiones, stags and ibexes, deer and bison, bears, birds, and felines. Apart from these large herds of animals, there are also certain regular dots and boxes with nine squares that puzzle onlookers. In a few scenes there are people.

The pictures are engraved or painted using natural pigments, mainly black and red. They fill the walls and the ceilings of the many rooms of the cave. Many of the animals are in motion - some are fighting, others appear to be swimming across a river. One large black cow seems to be falling. The simple lines depict round and plump, yet graceful figures.

The cave consists of one great chamber, a corridor, and three narrowing shafts. Different places seem to have different themes, with a greater amount of bulls in the first great hall, and more felines in one of the more distant shafts. There are more paintings in the more spacious rooms where making them would have been easier. In some of the most popular places, several layers of depictions are even covered by one another, indicating that the decoration of the cave was an ongoing process. We obviously don't know exactly why these people made their drawings, but they probably had a religious significance.

Lascaux, located in the Périgord region of France, is not the only place with a prehistoric cave to boast of. This portion of the Massif Central consists of porous limestone, just the thing for homeless troglodytes. However, none of the palaeolithic dwellings have exhibited as rich and well preserved decorations as the cave at Lascaux.

Like a lot of the caves, Lascaux was gradually blocked by eroded earth and lay forgotten for a long time before being rediscovered. This is how it happened - and if it's not true to the smallest detail, remember we're still telling stories here.

September, 1940. Four young boys were running through the forest, looking for adventure. One of them had brought his dog, a terrier called Robot. Suddenly the dog disappeared into a hole in the ground. It could not or would not come out, no matter how much they called for it.

What to do? The boys went back home and fetched shovels. They wanted to rescue the dog, and besides, there was the feeling of something bigger than a rat hole about the opening they had seen. They might find anything in there - stalactites, underwater lakes, hidden gold...

They found a treasure. In the light from their torches they saw animals, perfectly preserved through the millennia. The boys explored the whole cave, then, excitedly, went home and spread the news to the rest of the village.

Because of the war, the find was not publicised at once. Soon after the war ended, however, the cave was opened for tourists, who arrived in thousands. The newfound fame was not beneficial for the images of the cave. The lamps they brought in caused the images to fade, the carbon dioxide and water from the visitors' breaths corroded the walls, and green algae carried on their shoes started growing in the cave.

To prevent further destruction the cave was closed for visitors in 1963. The prehistoric cave art was saved. The inside climate of the cave is still monitored daily to make sure further damage may be prevented. In order to keep the tourists happy (and present), a model cave was built to substitute the real thing. Lascaux II, an exact replica of the original, was opened to visitors in 1983.

History of the Caves and their discovery

The area on the western edge of the Massif Central of France is known for a vast collection of Palaeolithic caves, which house the only known collection of wall murals – or cave paintings. On September 12 1940, the cave of Lascaux was added to the list of caves in the Périgord region that include "Les Combarelles" and "Font-de-Gaume". Lascaux was stumbled upon, literally, by a group of young boys and their dog who were astounded to see vast murals of animals, men and symbols depicted on the walls of a hitherto undiscovered cave which has today become one of the most renowned examples of palaeolithic art.

The entrance to Lascaux is halfway up the side of a hill and reaches down approximately 250 metres. The entrance, once we imagine clearly visible to early man, had been gradually hidden over the years due to sediments caused by erosion. Recent dating techniques have placed the cave in the Magdalenian Age which occurred 17,000 years before today. There are indications, following Carbon 14 dating however, that some iconography may be more recent – nearer to 15000 years old.

Work commenced on the caves towards the end of the Second World War which made access much easier. The entrance was enlarged and the floors lowered in order to allow for the inevitable curiosity of tourists – infact around 1200 people a day were visiting at this stage.

By 1955 however, it was clear that the excess of carbon dioxide in the air (from visitors' breath) was causing serious deterioration in the paintings. So a system was then put in place to monitor the production of carbon dioxide.

A few years later still, green patches started to develop rapidly on the walls – indicating the presence of algae and mosses. Further research showed that this had been caused by the intensive development of the caves for tourism, so in 1963, the French government decided to close down the cave. The theories proved to be correct when, after the closure, the art gradually returned to its initial state as it had been on discovery in 1940. Today, the original cave is checked daily for any signs of deterioration – the techniques and regulations being headed by an official body – the "Historic Monuments Research Laboratory". A computerised system is now used to monitor variations in temperature and Carbon Dioxide pressure within the cave.

The obvious continuing demand for a tourist site led the authorities to take the decision to build a replica of the original sanctuary. In March 1980, the local tourism authority for the Dordogne was given the responsibility for creating a life-size model reproducing the major attractions of the Lascaux site. The areas they decided to recreate were the "Great Hall of the Bulls" and the "Painted Gallery". The result is a cement shell which corresponds exactly in shape to the interior of the original cave. The framework for this was created with iron bars which were then overlaid with sections of wire mesh – and then cement was embedded into this to create the unique uneven contours of the cave. Projections of the original images enabled the intricate symbols and animal representations to be copied accurately.

The Paintings

The iconography within the caves can be divided into three categories: animal representations, human representations and signs. The animals are perhaps the most obvious theme and can be most easily identified – they are represented figuratively and are generally much bigger than the other representations. Horse depictions account for about one quarter of all the animal paintings. Also depicted are Bison, Stags and Mammoths. Even rarer are the paintings of birds and fish. There are around 600 paintings of animals in Lascaux. The human form is less frequently depicted in such sanctuaries and Lascaux follows this rule with only one representation known as the "Shaft of the Dead Man".

"The very stylised treatment of the silhouette gives it a caricature-like appearance. Man is more often depicted by the reproduction of an anatomical segment, hands, either in normal perspective or reversed, female sexual organs or, more rarely male organs. These can also take on a subtler aspect by substituting animal parts, horns, antlers, paws etc, for certain parts of the human body.” (from the Lascaux website - see source 1 below)

Signs and shapes also appear: simple ones made up of dots or lines and more elaborate ones – triangles, pentagons and branched chains. These symbols are often used in conjunction with the animal depictions.

Paint Techniques

Early man had obviously developed some skill in paint techniques and from the murals at Lascaux it is possible to determine what sort of techniques they may have used. For engraving hard rock surfaces a material such as flint that was resistant but with a fine grain would have been used. For more malleable surfaces such as clay, fingers or a piece of wood could be used. The areas known as "The Lateral Passage", "The Chamber of Engravings", "The Main Gallery" and "The Chamber of Felines" had a soft surface – and both painting and engraving can be seen here in combination.

In the areas known as "Great Hall of the Bulls" and "The Painted Gallery" the walls are heavy and hard – which explains the decoration being purely painting or drawing in colour. The colours are mineral-based, and some organic pigments may have been used, although these would have had a limited lifespan. From tests carried out, the colours used appear to be mainly metal oxides, iron and manganese. The latter is very abundant in the Périgord region.

The area known as "The Painted Gallery" is over 3.5 metres high – halfway up the passage there is a line of natural holes along the gallery walls. Experts have deduced that a wooden structure may have been inserted to allow painting at the higher levels.

Dating

Various methods have been used to date the cave art. Pigments have fallen to the ground in many places during painting or drawing and have been sealed into the earth at the foot of the walls – these have been dated using radiometry or typology. More recently, attempts have been made to directly date the paintings using the "radiocarbon method", however this only applies to paintings made in charcoal.

Lighting

Towards the end of the 19th century questions were raised concerning how cave paintings could have been executed when light within the caves must have been virtually absent - natural daylight can only have reached a certain distance into the caves. However, four years after the discovery of wall paintings in "La Mouthe" – also in the Dordogne region, a sandstone object was found – with a circular depression in one side. The base of the object was covered in a carbon deposit. Further analysis revealed the presence of inflammable matter with an animal-fat base. This was recognised as the first prehistoric lamp. Further lamps have been discovered at the Lascaux site – some more elaborate than others; most are small pieces of limestone with hollowed out centres where the combustible material would be placed. There is also evidence of fireplaces having been lit within the caves.

Purpose of the caves

Excavations show that the caves were only temporarily inhabited by Palaeolithic man – and this is true of the majority of cave sanctuaries. It has been shown that only the first few metres from the entrance – therefore still making use of natural light – would have been used for living quarters.

Caves such as Lascaux are often called sanctuaries. The sacred aspect of these caves for Palaeolithic man were the depictions of animals – their source of life. They show the fierce beauty of nature – and a great respect for the animals that they hunted in order to survive.

Post Script: I did visit the caves at Lascaux once, but I must have only been 9 or 10 years old. I remember being quite impressed nevertheless!

Source:
1) www.culture.fr/culture/arcnat/lascaux/en/
2) www.richeast.org/htwm/las/las.html

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