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

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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.

Dig­i­tal scan­ning

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.

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

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