Sunday September 12, 2021’s Smile of the Day: Lascaux Cave Paintings
On this Day:
In 1940, four teens, following their dog down a hole near Lascaux, France, discovered 17,000 year old drawings now known as the Lascaux Cave Paintings.
On 12 September 1940, the entrance to the Lascaux Cave was discovered by 18-year-old Marcel Ravidat when his dog, Robot, fell in a hole. Ravidat returned to the scene with three friends, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel, and Simon Coencas. They entered the cave through a 15-metre-deep (50-foot) shaft that they believed might be a legendary secret passage to the nearby Lascaux Manor. The teenagers discovered that the cave walls were covered with depictions of animals. Galleries that suggest continuity, context or simply represent a cavern were given names. Those include the Hall of the Bulls, the Passageway, the Shaft, the Nave, the Apse, and the Chamber of Felines. They returned along with the Abbé Henri Breuil on 21 September 1940; Breuil would make many sketches of the cave, some of which are used as study material today due to the extreme degradation of many of the paintings. Breuil was accompanied by Denis Peyrony, curator of Les eyzies (Prehistory Museum) at Les Eyzies, Jean Bouyssonie and Dr Cheynier.
The cave complex was opened to the public on 14 July 1948, and initial archaeological investigations began a year later, focusing on the Shaft. By 1955, carbon dioxide, heat, humidity, and other contaminants produced by 1,200 visitors per day had visibly damaged the paintings. As air condition deteriorated, fungi and lichen increasingly infested the walls. Consequently, the cave was closed to the public in 1963, the paintings were restored to their original state, and a monitoring system on a daily basis was introduced.
The cave contains nearly 6,000 figures, which can be grouped into three main categories: animals, human figures, and abstract signs. The paintings contain no images of the surrounding landscape or the vegetation of the time. Most of the major images have been painted onto the walls using red, yellow, and black colours from a complex multiplicity of mineral pigments including iron compounds such as iron oxide (ochre), hematite, and goethite, as well as manganese-containing pigments. Charcoal may also have been used but seemingly to a sparing extent. On some of the cave walls, the colour may have been applied as a suspension of pigment in either animal fat or calcium-rich cave groundwater or clay, making paint that was swabbed or blotted on, rather than applied by brush. In other areas, the colour was applied by spraying the pigments by blowing the mixture through a tube. Where the rock surface is softer, some designs have been incised into the stone. Many images are too faint to discern, and others have deteriorated entirely.
Over 900 can be identified as animals, and 605 of these have been precisely identified. Out of these images, there are 364 paintings of equines as well as 90 paintings of stags. Also represented are cattle and bison, each representing 4 to 5% of the images. A smattering of other images includes seven felines, a bird, a bear, a rhinoceros, and a human. There are no images of reindeer, even though that was the principal source of food for the artists. Geometric images have also been found on the walls.
The most famous section of the cave is The Hall of the Bulls where bulls, equines, aurochs, stags and the only bear in the cave are depicted. The four black bulls, or aurochs, are the dominant figures among the 36 animals represented here. One of the bulls is 5.2 metres (17 ft 1 in) long, the largest animal discovered so far in cave art. Additionally, the bulls appear to be in motion.
A painting referred to as “The Crossed Bison”, found in the chamber called the Nave, is often submitted as an example of the skill of the Paleolithic cave painters. The crossed hind legs create the illusion that one leg is closer to the viewer than the other. This visual depth in the scene demonstrates a primitive form of perspective which was particularly advanced for the time.
The opening of Lascaux Cave after World War II changed the cave environment. The exhalations of 1,200 visitors per day, presence of light, and changes in air circulation have created a number of problems. Lichens and crystals began to appear on the walls in the late 1950s, leading to closure of the caves in 1963. This led to restriction of access to the real caves to a few visitors every week, and the creation of a replica cave for visitors to Lascaux. In 2001, the authorities in charge of Lascaux changed the air conditioning system which resulted in regulation of the temperature and humidity. When the system had been established, an infestation of Fusarium solani, a white mold, began spreading rapidly across the cave ceiling and walls. The mold is considered to have been present in the cave soil and exposed by the work of tradesmen, leading to the spread of the fungus which was treated with quicklime. In 2007, a new fungus, which has created grey and black blemishes, began spreading in the real cave.
As of 2008, the cave contained black mold. In January 2008, authorities closed the cave for three months, even to scientists and preservationists. A single individual was allowed to enter the cave for twenty minutes once a week to monitor climatic conditions. Now only a few scientific experts are allowed to work inside the cave and just for a few days a month, but the efforts to remove the mold have taken a toll, leaving dark patches and damaging the pigments on the walls. In 2009 the mold problem was pronounced stable. In 2011 the fungus seemed to be in retreat after the introduction of an additional, even stricter conservation program. Two research programs have been instigated at the CIAP concerning how to best treat the problem, and the cave also now possesses a climatisation system designed to reduce the introduction of bacteria.
Organized through the initiative of the French Ministry of Culture, an international symposium titled “Lascaux and Preservation Issues in Subterranean Environments” was held in Paris on 26 and 27 February 2009, under the chairmanship of Jean Clottes. It brought together nearly three hundred participants from seventeen countries with the goal of confronting research and interventions conducted in Lascaux Cave since 2001 with the experiences gained in other countries in the domain of preservation in subterranean environments. The proceedings of this symposium were published in 2011. Seventy-four specialists in fields as varied as biology, biochemistry, botany, hydrology, climatology, geology, fluid mechanics, archaeology, anthropology, restoration and conservation, from numerous countries (France, United States, Portugal, Spain, Japan, and others) contributed to this publication.
In May 2018 Ochroconis lascauxensis, a species of fungus of the Ascomycota phylum, was officially described and named after the place of its first emergence and isolation, the Lascaux cave. This followed on from the discovery of another closely related species Ochroconis anomala, first observed inside the cave in 2000. The following year black spots began to appear among the cave paintings. No official announcement on the effect or progress of attempted treatments has ever been made.
The problem is ongoing, as are efforts to control the microbial and fungal growths in the cave. The fungal infection crises have led to the establishment of an International Scientific Committee for Lascaux and to rethinking how, and how much, human access should be permitted in caves containing prehistoric art (per Wikipedia).
First, a Story:
I always said that I would never ever go walking into dark scary tunnels in the earth to look at prehistoric art…But eventually I caved.
Second, a Song:
National Geographic is the world’s premium destination for science, exploration, and adventure. Through their world-class scientists, photographers, journalists, and filmmakers, Nat Geo gets you closer to the stories that matter and past the edge of what’s possible.
From human hands to now-extinct animals, cave art gives us a glimpse into prehistoric life. Who created cave art, and what was its initial purpose? Explore the paintings of Chauvet-Pont d’Arc and Lascaux Grotto, and learn what prehistoric art can tell us about our world thousands of years ago (per YouTube.com).
Here is National Geographic’s video on the cave art of France. I hope you enjoy this!
Thought for the Day:
“All art, from the paintings on the walls of cave dwellers to art created today, is autobiographical because it comes from the secret place in the soul where imagination resides.” – Gloria Vanderbilt
Have a great day!
Dave & Colleen
© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky