An ultra-modern replica of the prehistoric Lascaux cave has opened next to the original site in Dordogne. Peter Stewart travels back in time on a guided tour
Immerse yourself in prehistoric art at a stunning new replica of the original cave.
Iam staring at two rather menacing bulls. There they stand, with their thick black horns and surprisingly delicate thin legs, pawing the ground and ready to charge. Thankfully, I am not standing face-to-face with real-life beasts. Instead, these massive creatures, five metres from horn to tail, are impressive images displayed on the walls of the Centre International de l’art Pariétal, a spectacular new replica of the millennia-old Lascaux cave.
This €57 million state-of-the-art centre, also known as Lascaux 4, sits at the foot of a hill in the town of Montignac in the Dordogne département. It was here that the original cave was accidentally discovered by a group of teenagers – among them, Marcel Ravidat, and his dog Robot – in September 1940. The ultra-modern structure, characterised by oversized glass panels and grey, striated concrete, was designed by Norwegian architects Snøhetta, who wanted the building to be “an incision on the landscape” and to highlight the “link between the past and present”.
The original cave, which lies just over the hill, has been out of bounds to the public since 1963, when it was found that visitors’ breathing was destroying some of the paintings. In 1983, a replica known as Lascaux 2 opened 200 metres away, but concerns were soon raised about the number of visitors on top of the hill and the effect this would have on the original cave. In the early 1990s, the Périgord facsimile workshop created an 800 square metre mobile exhibition known as Lascaux 3, which has been on a world tour ever since.
Now there is Lascaux 4, which “makes you feel as if you are actually stepping into a real cave,” says Guillaume Colombo, director of the development. “Lascaux 2 did not feel as authentic and reproduced only 90 per cent of the original cave art, while Lascaux 4 is an entire full-scale reproduction.”
My tour begins on the grass-lined rooftop observation deck, the first of seven zones that make up the visitor experience. From here we enjoy a panoramic view over the rest of Lascaux 4 and the town of Montignac and I meet my guide, Mexicanborn Dyana. The intention is for the visitor to discover the cave as it was in September 1940, she explains, leading the way along a sloping path – built to re-create the experience of those four intrepid teenagers more than 75 years ago.
It is a short walk to the James Bond-esque bunker where a giant screen will catapult me back 17,00020,000 years to the Magdalenian period; a time in which this verdant corner of France was covered in tundra and inhabited by woolly rhinos, bison and Cro-magnon man.
In another room, a two-minute animation switches from lions racing across a reindeer-filled landscape to a scene depicting the four schoolboys who discovered the original cave. “They were hoping to find a treasure that day in 1940. They did, but not the one they thought they would,” Dyana says.
At the end of this short video, we are handed our compagnon de visite: a high-tech, hand-held device with headphones that guides visitors throughout the museum. But it doesn’t work in the cave. “This is because we want you, the visitors, to use all of your senses and contemplate everything.”
And then, through a giant sliding door and along a dark passageway, there it is: the replica Lascaux cave. Here I gaze at stunningly realistic walls; “the original cave walls have been topographically recreated,” Dyana tells me. What is more, the latest digital scanning and 3D-printing techniques have been employed to ensure Lascaux 4 really does feel like the real thing.
As you might imagine, making the new cave as true to the original as possible was no mean feat; it took more than 30 artists from the Atelier des Fac-similés du Périgord three years to reconstruct the cave walls and faithfully reproduce around 600 animal images as well as 400 signs and symbols on to them.
They didn’t stop there when it came to making visitors feel as if they were in the cave in 1940: sounds of Ravidat as a boy whistling for his dog Robot ring out, the lighting dims to near-darkness
and the air turns damp. And then there’s the temperature, which remains a cool 12°C.
The first room inside this life-size replica is the oval-shaped Hall of Bulls. “Cro-magnon man didn’t like to represent himself,” my guide tells me. Instead, the walls are replete with images of great bulls, galloping horses and fighting ibex. Yet these striking creatures are not what our ancestors would have tracked and killed. “They would have hunted for mammoths or reindeer,” Dyana explains. The animals displayed in this section would have most likely played a role in the beliefs and spiritual life of these early humans.
She points to an upside-down horse. “Look at that! The eyes, the mouth, the nose… the proportions are simply perfect.” Then, there is the bison whose eye appears to be engraved. “It is actually a natural cavity that the prehistoric painters manipulated to create the eye.” It is clear to see that by using such advanced technology you get to appreciate the real skills of the prehistoric artists and see how advanced the original painters were.
The following, long chamber, which is shaped like an inverted pear, reveals images of horses in shades of ochre and mustard, alongside marching ibex and bison pierced by arrows. In the final part of the cave, we encounter hundreds of other images, many of which are superimposed with geometric figures. Here the scenes become increasingly striking; we notice a rendering of a large cow with other cows hidden inside it, a bison shedding its coat, and horses with multiple heads, which was the prehistoric artists’ way of conveying the idea of motion.
With more questions now than when I first entered, I leave via another set of dark doors and am smothered in light as I emerge into an outdoor courtyard; this is a space designed for visitors to sit down, have a breather and process the incredible art they have just seen.
What lies next is the Atelier de Lascaux, a workshop where I am left to roam free and marvel at sections of important wall paintings that hang aesthetically from the ceiling on casts made from polymer resin. Here multi-sensory displays and ultra-violet demonstrations enable visitors to learn more about the prehistoric engraving techniques, and explain why the real caves are closed.
The mysteries that I am left pondering are
addressed further in another interactive room. Here a three-part theatrical multimedia show, with each one shown in a different room, examines the evolution of man’s understanding of cave art since the mid 19th-century; from the discovery of other prehistoric sites, such as Pech-merle and Rouffignac, to the invention of technology that enables archaeologists to tell whether, for example, a fire was started in a particular cave.
Leading on from here is another dark auditorium where I don 3D glasses for a 20-minute film that examines the mysteries surrounding Lascaux and links its art with that of other caves from around the world. A voiceover, which seemingly emerges from the depths of the cave, fuels my curiosity. Why didn’t Cro-magnon man paint images of the sun, the moon or landscapes? Why did they superimpose images? Why did they choose to use abstract lines and squares?
“I’m afraid we’ll never really know,” says archaeologist Jean-pierre Chadelle. “It’s important not to speculate too much, as these early humans had completely different thought processes to us and a different religion to us, or none at all.”
This fascinating visit ends with visitors being allowed to use their own creativity in the Galerie de l’imaginaire. This is the museum’s last exhibition space, where giant touch screens adorn the walls and ceiling displaying artworks from Palaeolithic times to the present day. The highlight is being able to assemble our own personal image gallery that is later sent electronically to visitors; this is a fitting finish in my eyes, allowing me to contemplate the mesmerising cave art long after I have left the museum.
The Centre International de l’art Pariétal is open every day from 9am-7pm. Tickets cost €16 for adults, €10.40 for 6-12s and €44.90 for a family. The site has full wheelchair access. lascaux.fr.
A replica wall painting in the atelier section of Lascaux 4
TOP: Visitors can sit and admire the paintings in the atelier section; ABOVE, FROM LEFT: Artworks from all eras in the Galerie de l’imaginaire; The modern corridor leading to the 3D cinema
TOP: A narrow walkway through the replica cave itself;
ABOVE: A computergenerated image of the 3D cinema
ABOVE: The strikingly modern exterior of Lascaux 4 – The Centre International de l’art Pariétal;
RIGHT: An artist at work on one of the replica cave paintings