Lascaux Cave

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Location: Montignac, France

Official Listing: UNESCO World Heritage Site, 1979; French Registered Site & Classified Historic Monument

Significance: Lascaux cave, discovered in 1940, is a horizontal, wet cave covering 325 meters over its various galleries. Over 17,000 years old, it is one of the greatest concentrations of prehistoric rock paintings, pictographs, and petroglyphs in the world. The grotto consists of a series of limestone walled chambers: the Hall of the Bulls, Axial Passage and Shaft are covered with a hard limestone forming an irregular textured surface that exhibits only paintings. Other chambers have softer walls and were easier to work into engravings, although they do contain some paintings.

The cave depicts the animal world of prehistoric people and is filled with images of galloping bulls, horses and deer. The paintings are particularly notable because of their compositional and technical complexity. Several techniques were used including the use of sharpened sticks darkened with color for outlining animals, direct application of iron and manganese, daubing pigment using moss to produce a dappled aspect on horses, and blowing oxide through a hollow reed to provide an ephemeral quality that suggests the breath of the animal.

The cave is often referred to as the Sistine Chapel of Prehistoric Art because of its profound beauty and skill with which it was executed. Shortly after its discovery, Abbé Henri Breuil, a French archaeologist, and ethnologist, theorized that the site was used as a spiritual place. Joseph Campbell called Lascaux a “temple cave.” He also believed that Lascaux was associated with initiation and with the magic of the hunt. The paintings are especially remarkable for the sophisticated images that suggest the artists understood and used perspective in their compositions, a technique that did not resurface until the Renaissance. The natural contours on the walls enhance movement and lend perspective to the great herds of running bison.

Preservation Status: The cave has been under attack since 1998 from mold, fungi and bacteria. A new air conditioning system put into place in 2000 involved many workers coming in and out of the cave and it is believed that they did not properly disinfect their shoes upon entering, thereby bringing a common local mold into the cave. Authorities began spraying massive doses of antibiotics and fungicides in an effort to stop the rapidly spreading organisms. The foreign organisms continued to advance so most of the air conditioning system was shut down raising the temperature of the cave.

In 2001, authorities aggressively poured quicklime over the floor of the cave in an effort to stop the fungus. Compresses soaked in a mixture of fungicides and antibiotics were then applied directly on the paintings.

By 2002, the fungi and mold retreated, but the bacteria were still causing large dark spots to grow in the cave. An invasive and highly labor intensive, mechanical removal treatment was then tried. This involved the removal of the bacterias’ roots and proved to be damaging because crews were constantly inside physically removing the spots. Furthermore, the brown bacterial spots that remain are highly visible.

By 2006, colonies of black spots, some as large as human hands, were quickly proliferating, spreading over painted and unpainted surfaces. The spots have yet to be identified by a microbiologist. Some of the paintings are in critical condition and color tones are fading.

The cave, in addition, is currently very wet and water can be seen running over the face of paintings. The limestone which gave the cave a remarkable brilliance, has turned gray. Current managers have found no treatment and the spots continue to spread.

Poor management of the site, lack of independent oversight, and piecemeal treatments indicates the extremely urgent need for a board of scientific experts to develop a workable protocol for the protection of this site.

Nominated By: The International Committee for the Preservation of Lascaux

How You Can Help: Please sign the online petition to Save Lascaux

You can also send tax-deductible donations to:

The International Committee for the Preservation of Lascaux
322 Lewis Street
Oakland, CA 94607

The Committee is in the process of forming an independent group of scientists such as microbiologists and people working in biofilm, a relatively new science devoted to the flora and fauna of walls, to help formulate a policy and plan for the cave’s restoration and management.

For More Information: Sacred Sites Newsletter, Volume XX, Numbers 1 and 2, Fall 2008/Winter 2009

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