See a picture of life in prehistoric France with Helen Parkinson
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