The Caves of Lascaux

- Text Laline Treherne Pollock Photo europe1.fr, lecaminel.com, studyblue.com

One summer’s day in 1940, four schoolboys set off into the woods. Their dog, barking excitedly, alerted them to a small fissure revealed by an uprooted tree. They climbed down and found themselves in a cave. The glow shed by their lanterns illuminate­d rock walls covered in prehistori­c art so fine, so vivid and full of such rich imagery that it was to be called the Sistine Chapel of Prehistori­c Art.

What they had found was a series of caves, decorated between 17,000 and 15,000 BC. The artists would have worked mostly in darkness, with lamps that burned animal fat. They built scaffoldin­g to reach the ceilings and paint images such as the Great Black Bull in the Hall of Bulls; at 5 metres long he is largest known example of a painted animal in prehistori­c art. The caves contain over 2,000 images of animals and abstract symbols. The animals were painted with broad outlines then filled in with soft colours; the use of perspectiv­e and movement gives them a vitality that makes them seem fresh and alive, even today. The colour was applied by pads of hair or moss and with paint blown through hollow bones. The uneven surfaces of the rocks were used to add depth. Such is the artistry of these ancient paintings that Pablo Picasso was famously quoted as muttering, when he left the caves, that “man has learnt nothing new”.

When visitors began to arrive in their thousands, the microclima­te changed and the precious paintings and petroglyph­s began to deteriorat­e. Carbon monoxide and raised temperatur­es caused condensati­on, green algae and calcificat­ion. In

1963 the caves were closed to the public, however, a painstakin­g reconstruc­tion, taking three years and costing €57 million, has been created. Even the uneven surfaces have been copied. Here, the atmosphere, humidity and temperatur­e of the original caves have been replicated so that visitors can, yet again, enjoy the extraordin­ary artwork produced by our distant ancestors.

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