See a pic­ture of life in pre­his­toric France with He­len Parkin­son

France - - Contents -

Find out about France’s un­der­ground trea­suries of pre­his­toric paint­ings.

It sounds like an ad­ven­ture straight from a Fa­mous Five story: a group of in­quis­i­tive school­boys and their dog stum­ble upon a mys­te­ri­ous hole in a for­est in 1940, lead­ing to a dis­cov­ery of in­ter­na­tional sig­nif­i­cance. Al­most eighty years later, the Grotte de Las­caux in the Vézère Val­ley re­mains home to some of the world’s fore­most ex­am­ples of pre­his­toric paint­ings – and it’s just one of many caves in France that have been con­ceal­ing artis­tic trea­sures for mil­len­nia.

Just last year, a team of Amer­i­can ar­chae­ol­o­gists made the break­through of their ca­reers in a Dordogne cave called Abri Cel­lier, where they found stone blocks fea­tur­ing 38,000-year-old pointil­list en­grav­ings. Crafted by the Aurig­na­cian, the ear­li­est mod­ern hu­man cul­ture in Europe, the find was par­tic­u­larly as­ton­ish­ing be­cause un­til then, pointil­lism was only be­lieved to have de­vel­oped in the late 19th cen­tury.

Dordogne is not the only trea­sure trove of cave art: deep in the Lot Val­ley hides the Grotte du Pech Merle, one of the few caves whose art re­mains on dis­play to the pub­lic. Here, a menagerie of an­i­mals – mam­moths, horses, bisons, stags – dance across a kilo­me­tre of gal­leries, some dat­ing from the Gravet­tian pe­riod (C.25,000BC)

Ariège, which has the most pre­his­toric cav­erns of any dé­parte­ment in France, also boasts pari­etal (cave) art still on view in the Grotte de Ni­aux. In the haunt­ing glow of torch­light, vis­i­tors can marvel at the stone can­vas cov­ered in vivid draw­ings in­clud­ing a char­coal sketch of a weasel, dat­ing back to be­tween 17,000 and 11,000 years ago dur­ing the Mag­dale­nian pe­riod.

Why is France one of the world’s cave paint­ing cap­i­tals? “Its cre­ators were rel­a­tively nu­mer­ous in south­ern France be­cause the cli­mate was not as se­vere and pop­u­la­tions were able to stay put – prob­a­bly in greater num­bers than in the north­ern Euro­pean plain,” said Pro­fes­sor Paul Pet­titt, Pro­fes­sor of Ar­chae­ol­ogy and cave art spe­cial­ist at Durham Univer­sity. “Cave art was an in­te­gral part of the way Up­per Palae­olithic hunter-gath­er­ers sur­vived in the wild en­vi­ron­ments of Pleis­tocene Europe. Cre­at­ing it, cel­e­brat­ing the prey an­i­mals it de­picts, and shar­ing themes and styles kept small groups to­gether in a dan­ger­ous world.”

Sadly, the big­gest threat to cave art ap­pears to be tourism. From 1948, Las­caux saw around 1,200 vis­i­tors a day, com­ing to ad­mire the artis­tic en­deav­ours of Cro-magnon man; un­for­tu­nately, they left be­hind harm­ful call­ing cards - hu­mid­ity, mois­ture and car­bon diox­ide. Dam­age was vis­i­ble as soon as 1955.

In 1963, France’s Min­is­ter of Cul­ture, An­dre Mal­raux, closed the cave to the pub­lic. The paint­ings were re­stored and daily mon­i­tor­ing was in­tro­duced. But a new air con­di­tion­ing sys­tem in 2001 led to white mould spread­ing across the cave ceil­ing and walls. The open­ing of two fac­sim­i­les, Las­caux II in 1983 and Las­caux IV in 2016, have seemed the ideal so­lu­tion; all the tourism in­come with none of the po­ten­tial for en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age.

The Grotte Chau­vet-pont d’arc in Ardèche, home to the old­est fig­u­ra­tive cave art in Europe dat­ing back an es­ti­mated 30,000 years, has been sealed off to the pub­lic since its dis­cov­ery in 1994. A copy, the largest cave replica ever built, opened in 2015. The art is re­pro­duced to ac­tual size, but in a cir­cu­lar build­ing a few kilo­me­tres from the ac­tual cave.

These fake caves have been a cause for con­ster­na­tion. “No art lover wants to see a replica Rem­brandt, a fake Freud or a sim­u­lacra of Seu­rat,” said The Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones when Chau­vet’s fac­sim­ile first opened. But it was surely bet­ter than the al­ter­na­tive: no art at all.

It is not just tourism that has had an im­pact; even care­tak­ers have ac­ci­den­tally caused dam­age. In the Grottes d’arcy-surCure in Bur­gundy, paint­ings lay undis­cov­ered un­til the 1990s, hid­den un­der a layer of smoke. Once re­vealed, it be­came ap­par­ent that reg­u­lar clean­ing over the decades had done un­told dam­age.

In the Grotte de Bédeil­hac in Ariège, the gi­gan­tic en­trance was used as a mil­i­tary base dur­ing World War II. First oc­cu­pied by the French and then by the Ger­mans, the lat­ter lev­elled the floor, lay­ing a con­crete base which harmed some of the side gal­leries.

With lessons learned from the past, con­ser­va­tion for the fu­ture is cru­cial. In 2009, an in­ter­na­tional sym­po­sium in Paris or­gan­ised by the French Min­istry of Cul­ture, saw 300 ex­perts shar­ing re­search gained from stud­ies in Las­caux and oth­ers to en­able bet­ter cave art preser­va­tion.

“The orig­i­nal Grotte de Las­caux will for cer­tain never re­open,” was the gloomy prog­no­sis from De­nis Tauxe, Las­caux’s res­i­dent his­to­rian. But whether it be in the au­then­tic cav­ern or an in­tri­cate replica, hope­fully a new gen­er­a­tion of his­tory en­thu­si­asts will be able to ex­pe­ri­ence the art of their an­ces­tors.

ABOVE: Part of the state of the art re­cre­ation of the an­cient paint­ings vis­i­ble at Las­caux IV

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