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The woes of Lascaux

By Paul G. Bahn

Of all decorated Ice Age caves, by far the most famous is that of Lascaux, which was discovered 72 years ago today by four boys (the hole was found by a dog on 8 September 1940, but the boys entered the cave on 12 September). It houses the most spectacular collection of Paleolithic wall-art yet found. It is best known for its 600 magnificent paintings of aurochs (wild cattle), horses, deer, and “signs,” but it also contains almost 1,500 engravings dominated by horses. The decoration is highly complex, with numerous superimpositions, and clearly comprises a number of different episodes. The most famous feature is the great “Hall of the Bulls,” containing several great aurochs bull figures — some are 5 m in length, the biggest figures known in Ice Age art.

Lascaux painting. Photo by Prof saxx, 2006. Creative Commons License. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

After its discovery, Lascaux was rapidly subjected to a number of official atrocities: the widening of its entrance, the removal of its sediment without archaeological supervision, mass visitation, and the installation of an air conditioning system. The cave was closed to tourists in 1963 owing to pollution. A “green sickness” (a proliferation of algae) and a “white sickness” (crystal growth) had been noticed in the 1950s and were worsening. It was possible to reverse the effects of the algae and arrest the development of the crystals; but to ensure the survival of the cave’s art, it was necessary to drastically restrict the number of visitors and to take multiple other precautions. As compensation, a facsimile called Lascaux II was opened nearby in 1983, which permits the public to visit exact replicas of the main painted areas of the cave.

In 1999, a local firm was selected for the task of replacing the aging air conditioning equipment. It appears that they had no previous experience working in caves, and the workmen were left largely unsupervised, did not wear the sterilised footgear, and (it is said) often left the doors open. It is hardly surprising that by 2000 a new biological pollution had appeared in the cave: first a fungus Fusarium solani, characterised by white filaments, then a series of bacteria and fungi. Chemicals, while temporarily effective, could only slow the proliferation of the organisms. In 2002 France’s Ministry of Culture set up a scientific committee to tackle these problems, but very little news of its work ever reached the archaeological community, let alone the general public. The few official pronouncements were consistently optimistic, despite the terrible rumours in archaeological circles about the true state of affairs. It is known that the limitations of the chemical treatments were realized in 2003, and more sediment was removed from the cave to stop the micro-organisms from feeding off them.

What caused this sudden change in the cave? It was obvious to neutral observers that, after 40 years of stability, the shoddy work done in 1999 was to blame. Some claim that the organisms were always lurking, dormant, in the cave, and that this work merely aggravated the situation. Some have even tried to blame global warming. In any case, the responsibility lands solidly at the door of the administrators of the cave. Six different institutions have a hand in running the cave, and there seems to be little coordination.

Thanks in large measure to efforts by the International Committee for the Preservation of Lascaux (ICPL), led by French campaigner Laurence Léauté-Beasley, the true situation eventually emerged, and cave art specialists were at last able to learn the catastrophic condition of this World Heritage site. Amazingly, the scientific committee appointed by the French government didn’t feature a single rock art or cave art specialist. As the French magazine Paris Match pointed out in a ferocious article (7 May 2008), its director was inexplicably a specialist in Palaeochristian ceramics. Incredibly, the committee ignored the scientists who had cured the cave in the 1960s. It seemed that it was determined to start from scratch, and to treat the problems as if this was a new cave to be studied, playing things by ear as different factors arose. The knowledge and experience gained in the cave in the 1960s were deemed irrelevant.

The French authorities eventually organised a major conference in Paris in February 2009, advertised as a gathering of international scholars who would debate the problems of Lascaux. However, there was widespread shock when the conference programme was made public. It did not include anyone from the team who cured Lascaux in the 1960s, the ICPL, the French scholars who know the art of Lascaux best (Brigitte and Gilles Delluc, and Norbert Aujoulat) or, incredibly, a single cave art specialist. A few of the much-trumpeted international invitees from America, South Africa, Australia and elsewhere were involved in rock art research, but could contribute little to solving the very complex and unique problems of Lascaux. Under these circumstances, it is no surprise that the conference was largely irrelevant, although its deliberations were subsequently published in a lavish volume.

There was, however, one positive development: the original scientific committee was dissolved, replaced by a new one that is (theoretically) to operate independently of the non-scientific management of the cave. This met a key aspiration of the ICPL, since many of the mistakes made are seen as a direct result of managers rather than scientists making decisions about treatments of the cave. The new committee includes Spanish cave art specialists and excellent scientists. A truly independent, international group of scientists, the Lascaux International Scientific Thinktank (LIST) has also been formed, which monitors the deliberations and decisions of the official committee and offers objective information about the cave’s current condition.

Paul G. Bahn is the contributor of the popular Grove Art Online entry on Lascaux, as well as numerous other Grove articles on cave sites in France and Spain. He is the author of Cave Art: A Guide to the Decorated Ice Age Caves of Europe (2nd ed. 2012, Frances Lincoln, London), and Journey Through the Ice Age (1997, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London / University of California Press, Berkeley).

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