Lascaux Cave is a rockshelter in the Dordogne Valley of France with fabulous cave paintings, painted between 15,000 and 17,000 years ago. Although it is no longer open to the public, a victim of too much tourism and the encroachment of dangerous bacteria, Lascaux has been recreated, online and in replica format, so that visitors may still see the amazing paintings of the Upper Paleolithic artists.
During the early fall of 1940, four teenage boys were exploring the hills above the Vézère River near the town of Montignac in the Dordogne Valley of south central France when they stumbled on an amazing archaeological discovery. A large pine tree had fallen from the hill years before and left a hole; the intrepid group slipped into the hole and fell into what is now called the Hall of the Bulls, a 20 by 5 meter (66 x 16 foot) tall fresco of cattle and deer and aurochs and horses, painted in masterful strokes and gorgeous colors some 15,000-17,000 years ago.
Lascaux Cave Art
Lascaux Cave is one of the world's great treasures. Exploration of its vast interior revealed about six hundred paintings and almost 1,500 engravings. Subject matter of the cave paintings and engravings reflect the climate of the time of their painting. Unlike older caves which contain mammoths and woolly rhinoceros, the paintings in Lascaux are birds and bison and deer and aurochs and horses, all from the warming Interstadial period. The cave also features hundreds of "signs", quadrilateral shapes and dots and other patterns we'll surely never decipher. Colors in the cave are blacks and yellows, reds and whites, and were produced from charcoal and manganese and ocher and iron oxides, which were probably recovered locally and do not appear to have been heated prior to their use.
Restorations at Lascaux Cave
Sadly, or perhaps inevitably, the beauty of Lascaux drew tremendous numbers of tourists by the late 1950s, and the size of the traffic endangered the paintings. The cave was closed to the public in 1963. In 1983, a replica of the Hall of the Bulls was opened, and it is there that most tourists go.
The original paintings have been restored, and we are tremendously fortunate that one of the first websites on the Internet was the Lascaux Cave site—in fact, it was the first web site I ever saw, back in 1994 or so. Today it is a marvel of wonderful graphics-enhanced information, truly one of my favorite web sites. Loads of pictures from each of the rooms; pictures of the boys as they are today and history and archaeological information as well. The discussion of the deterioration of Lascaux in 1963 and what the French government did to create a replica is particularly interesting. A time line illustrates Lascaux's place in time within the collection of known Paleolithic cave art sites, and active links on the line take you to Cosquer, Chauvet, La Ferassie, Cap Blanc and other caves in the Dordogne valley.
In 2009, the French government opened a new webpage for Lascaux. It features a video walk through of the cave, so you really get a feel for the warm, womb-like cave. A haunting sound track and extremely detailed views of each of the large panels are also available. It is even more spectacular than the original, and that's saying quite a bit.
Recent Research at Lascaux
Recent research on Lascaux has included some investigations of the hundreds of bacteria which have formed in the cave. Because it was air conditioned for decades, and then treated biochemically to reduce mold, many pathogens have made a home in the cave, including the bacillus for Legionnaire's disease. It is unlikely that the cave will ever be opened to the public again.
Lascaux's web sites are fully realized in French, Spanish, German, and English, and a real treat to visit. The website is a true innovation on the part of the French government, both conserving one of the world's most treasured art galleries and permitting untold numbers of visitors to see it. Even if we can never get into Lascaux Cave, there's two wonderful web sites to let us get a taste of the work of the masters of Paleolithic cave art.
Bastian, Fabiola, Claude Alabouvette, and Cesareo Saiz-Jimenez 2009 Bacteria and free-living amoeba in the Lascaux Cave. Research in Microbiology 160(1):38-40.
Chalmin, Emilie, et al. 2004 Les blasons de Lascaux. L'Anthropologie 108(5):571-592.
Delluc, Brigitte and Gilles Delluc 2006 Art paléolithique, saisons et climats. Comptes Rendus Palevol 5(1-2):203-211.
Vignaud, Colette, et al. 2006 Le groupe des « bisons adossés » de Lascaux. Étude de la technique de l'artiste par analyse des pigments. L'Anthropologie 110(4):482-499.