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The Caves at Lascaux

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The Discovery, Time and Space

The western edges of the Massif Central and the northern slopes of the Pyrenees are noted for an exceptional concentration of Palaeolithic caves. In fact, there are no fewer than one hundred and thirty sanctuaries, the most renowned of which is Lascaux.

Located on the left bank of the river Vezere, Lascaux is set a little apart from the traditional prehistoric sites further downstream, between Moustier and Bugue.

The excellent state of conservation of our prehistoric heritage is due to the numerous rock-shelters and natural caves in limestone, which dot the landscape.

A teenage jaunt on the hill overlooking the village of Montignac was to materialise into one of the most renowned archaeological discoveries of the XXth Century.

In the middle of the woods, above the Lascaux manor, a hole had opened up following the fall of a big pine tree several years before. 

After enlarging the hole, they slipped through the narrow crevice then tumbled down a big pile of rocks which hid the original entrance to the cave...

From the foot of this formation they ventured into a larger space which is now called the Great Hall of the Bulls.

Large red cows, yellow horses, bulls and black stags, all in uncoordinated movement   seemed as if they had been awakened from a night several millennia old  by the expressions of joy evoked by this somewhat unreal discovery.

The whole cave was explored up to a narrower passage, which was difficult to pass through because, in addition to the narrowness, there was a shaft about 12 metres deep, which had to be descended by rope.

Marcel Radiate ventured into the opening, widening it. When he reached the bottom he explored the only gallery in that network.

On the way back he paid more attention to the walls and must have encountered the Bird-headed Man from the Scene of the Dead Man.

The news of the discovery spread like wildfire.  On the following days the villagers came. Then came the leading lights of archaeology at that time, Abbot Henri Breuil, Dr. Cheynier, Abbot J. and Abbot A Bouysonnie and, later, D. Peyrony and Count Bégouën.

The Cave Entrance

The entrance to Lascaux is halfway up the side of a hill. The cave is no more than 250 metres deep, with a drop in level of about thirty metres. In prehistoric times a small rocky escarpment marked the entrance, which was later gradually hidden by sediments as a result of erosion.

These deposits accumulated over the millennia to form a scree covered cone which hid the entire entrance.


The Painted Gallery

...The iconography of this prehistoric "Sistine Chapel" is based on classical prehistoric animal themes: aurochs, horses, ibexes, a reminder of the stag at the entrance to this gallery and at the back, the bison.

On the right wall, the focal point of the composition, made up of a herd of small horses, is a large black cow whose distinguishing feature is an unusual movement evocative of a fall ...

 while in the front two ibexes are confronting each other.

The two last groups in this gallery are not without interest, notably the Upside-down Horse panel. This is no doubt the logical continuation of the story told by the horse as well as the cow of the two preceding panels.

The Great Hall of the Bulls

This composition is introduced by a strange figure, the unicorn..

... which seems to be chasing a herd of horses
linked with a large, partially drawn bull towards the back of the Hall...

...In the opposite direction, a similar illustration made up of three more large aurochs balances this composition...

...The meeting point of these two groupings is a group of small stags painted in ochre...

...The outline of a bear is hidden at the very centre of this composition. Because of its location in a section of the bull's belly, it is intentionally difficult to make out ; only the head, outline of the back and the right posterior paw are visible...


The Chamber of Engravings

The Chamber of Engravings, a rotunda which is smaller than the Great Hall of the Bulls, stands out because of the extremely high number of painted and, especially, engraved figures, more than 600 in all...

They cover the walls and ceiling and are in three, tiered, sections each with its own specific theme: aurochs in the lower frieze, then deer, then, covering the entire dome, the horses.

Here there is maximum overlapping of subjects. Superimposition, scraping, and obliteration, the many traces of activities make it particularly difficult to interpret the figures.

The Main Gallery

Adjacent to the Chamber of Engravings, the Main Gallery is larger. It is made up of a series of adjoining chambers which gradually become smaller. The walls on either side of the axis are perfectly symmetrical. Five panels, each with its own characteristics, and unequally distributed on either side distinguish this space...

...The Panel of the Imprint is composed of horses, bison and quadrangular signs...

...The Black Cow Panel, more fragmented than the Panel of the Imprint which is composed of horses, bison and quadrangular signs, is placed after the linear composition of seven ibexes...

...We note, at the base of the centre of this panel, three polychromatic quadrangular signs, or "blazons" each divided into geometric units...

...The panel of the Back-to Back Bison completes the panels on the left wall. It is certainly the most typical example of the rendering of three dimensions in this sanctuary.

Reserves around the limbs in the background, distortion of shapes, choice of surface, symmetrical composition, are all used to create a three dimensional effect...

...The opposite wall features only one group of figures, made up of stags' heads and shoulders reflecting the preceding iconography. They have been described by some as five stags crossing a river, whence the name, the "Swimming Stags" for this panel.
Nevertheless, this type of composition is not unique to the stags, several other groups with different themes, ibex or bulls, are similarly constructed without a similar interpretation being proposed.

The Closing of the Cave

The work carried out at Lascaux shortly after the Second World War made access to the cave easier.

At that time, the entrance was considerably enlarged and the floors lowered to enable the constant flow of tourists (almost 1,200 people per day) to circulate more easily.

But, in 1955 the first indications of deterioration of the paintings appeared.
A thorough study found that the cause was an excess of carbon dioxide in the air brought about by the visitors' breath.

This gas acidified the water vapour being breathed out and, as it condensed on the walls this corroded the rock face as well as the .

A system was then put in place to monitor the production of carbon dioxide. Nevertheless, a few years later, green patches developing rapidly on the walls indicated the presence of green algae and mosses.

Research showed that this deterioration was caused by the intensive development of this site. The Ministry of Cultural Affairs, headed by André Malraux, had the cave closed on April 20 1963.

Once the visits to the cave had been cancelled, the causes of the changes eliminated, and the original climatic conditions recreated, the Lascaux cave art returned to the state it was in on the day of its discovery.

At present, the site, in particular the walls and cave drawings, is checked daily. The protocol used to monitor the state of conservation was developed by the Historic monuments research laboratory. It has set up a computerized system which uses remote metering to record the least variation in temperature, hygrometry, and carbon dioxide gas pressure in the cave.

However, the biological equilibrium of the cave remains fragile. Throughout the summer of 2001, colonies of micro-organisms, mushrooms and bacteria developed on the rock edges and on the floor of the cave. Fungicides and antibiotics, as well as the application of quicklime, were immediately used to treat the affected areas. This new problem has now been contained.

The authorities decided to create a life size copy of this Palaeolithic sanctuary to compensate the general public for the loss caused by the closing of the cave. In March 1980, the Dordogne Department tourism authority was given responsibility for the work. They decided to reproduce the two most representative sections of the site, the Great Hall of the Bulls and the Painted Gallery.

The reproduction is a half-buried structure enclosing a cement shell which corresponds exactly in shape to the interior of the original. This shape was achieved by using isometric curves calculated by the I.G.N. (National Geography Institute), to create a series of transverse sections made up of square iron bars placed side by side at intervals of 50cm.

Several layers of wire mesh were laid over this metal framework. The mesh was fine enough to hold the cement projected onto the framework to create the skin of the copy.

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