Grotte de Lascaux

The Cave of Lascaux - Lascaux II - Lascaux II - Lascaux IV


Useful Information

Horse, Lascaux, France. Public Domain.
Horse, Lascaux IV, France. Public Domain.
Megaloceros (Giant Deer) with a line of dots, Lascaux, France. Public Domain.
Location: Lascaux, Dordogne, south of Montignac on the D704, Avenue de Lascaux.
(45.058180, 1.169773)
Open: Lascaux I: closed to the public.
Lascaux II:
04-APR to 03-JUL daily 9:30-12:30, 14-18.
04-JUL to 18-JUL daily 9-19.
19-JUL to 22-AUG daily 9-20.
23-AUG to 29-AUG daily 9-19.
03-OCT to 16-OCT limited online sales.
17-OCT to 10-NOV daily 13:30-18.
Lascaux IV:
20-JUN to 22-JUN daily 10-18.
27-JUN to 01-JUL daily 10-18.
04-JUL to 19-JUL daily 9-20.
20-JUL to AUG daily 8-20.
Open hours not probably influenced by COVID-19.
[2020]
Fee: Lascaux II:
Adults EUR 14, Children (5-12) EUR 9, Children (0-4) free.
Groups (20+): Adults EUR 11, Children (5-12) EUR 6.50.
Lascaux IV:
Adults EUR 20, Children (5-12) EUR 12.90, Children (0-4) free, Students EUR 19, Unemployed EUR 19, Disabled EUR 19.
Groups (20+): Adults EUR 15, Children (5-12) EUR 9.50.
Combi Ticket Lascaux II+IV:
Adults EUR 26, Children (5-12) EUR 17, Children (0-4) free.
Groups (20+): Adults EUR 18, Children (5-12) EUR 12.
[2020]
Classification: SpeleologyKarst cave ArchaeologyPainted Cave SubterraneaCave Replica
Light: LightIncandescent Electric Light System
Dimension: Lascaux: 1,800 figures.
Lascaux IV: Ar=8,365 m², T=16 °C.
Guided tours: Lascaux: L=250 m.
Lascaux II: L=40 m, D=50 min.
Lascaux IV: D=1.5 h, audioguide.
Photography: Photography and video strictly forbidden. No explanation given.
Accessibility: Lascaux II: no.
Lascaux IV: yes
Bibliography: Mario Ruspoli (1987): Cave of Lascaux, Hardcover: 206pp, Harry N. Abrams; Reissue edition (May 1987), ISBN: 0810912678 Worldamazon.com
Roberta Angeletti (1999): The Cave Painter of Lascaux, (A Journey Through Time) Hardcover: 32 pp, Oxford Univ Pr Childrens Books; (October 1999)
Brad Burnham (2003): Cave of Lascaux: The Cave of Prehistoric Wall Paintings, Library Binding: 24 pp, Powerkids Pr; (August 2003), ISBN: 0823962571 Worldamazon.com
Jeanne K Hanson (2007): Caves, 142 pp, 16 colour and 30 B&W photos. Chelsea House, New York. pp 33-42
Address: L’équipe de Lascaux (The Lascaux team), Avenue de Lascaux, 24290 Montignac, Tel: +33-553-50-99-10. E-mail:
Group reservations, Tel: +33-553-05-65-60.
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.

History

08-SEP-1940 the 17,000 years old paintings were discovered by boys.
1940-1955 research by Henry Breuil.
1940s research by Séverin Blanc.
1947 first photo documentation by Ralph Morse from Life magazine.
1948 opened to the public.
1952-1963 research by André Glory.
1963 closed to the public.
1957 dissertation by Anette Laming-Emperaire, published with the name La signification de l´art rupestre paléolithique.
1976-1993 research by Norbert Aujoulat.
1978 research by André Leroi-Gourhan.
1970s begin of construction of first replica.
1979 inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
1980 replica of the Hall of the Bulls exposed at the Grand Palais.
18-JUL-1983 Lascaux II opened to the public.
2000 old and simple air conditioning replaced by new air conditioning system.
MAY-2001 renovation completed, first white fungus on the walls.
SEP-2001 the fungus now covers huge patches of the wall.
OCT-2001 scientific identification of the kind of fungus and possible fungizids.
JAN-2002 start of cave restoration by the use of fungicids and anti biotics.
SEP-2002 new scientifc commitee introduced.
JAN-2004 mechanical cleaning by injection and extraction, use of fungizids.
2006 new crisis, appearance of black fungus.
2007 UNESCO sends international scientists for help.
2008 UNESCO plans to put Lascaux on the red list of endangered World Heritage sites.
2012 Lascaux III created and first exhibited.
2016 Lascaux IV opened to the public.

Description

The death scene in the Pit, Lascaux, France. Public Domain.
Frieze with aurochs, primeval horses and geometric forms in the atelier, Lascaux IV, France. Public Domain.
Ceiling with horse and aurochs, Lascaux IV, France. Public Domain.

The Cave of Lascaux is famous for its prehistoric paintings showing various animals, hunts, and wars. They were discovered by four local boys on Thursday 12-SEP-1940. This is the official date of discovery and generally agreed on. But the story behind is told in many different versions. Here is one of them, which is told in a popular children's book from the 1950s.

Marcel Ravidat was walking his dog Robot in the woods surrounding Montignac. The dog discovered a hole in the ground and crawled in, to search for its residents. The boy heard a whine and the dog was gone, when he crawled into the hole carefully, he discovered a drop, obviously the dog had fallen down into a bigger cave. He alarmed three friends, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel and Simon Coencas, and together they climbed down the drop and rescued the dog. When Ravidat explored another drop at the end of the cave, which turned out to be a dead end, he turned around and saw an extraordinary picture on the wall. It was a sketch of a man who was probably killed during a hunt. The picture was extrordinary, so they told their teacher, Leon Laval, about their discovery. He was so impressed that he wrote Abbe Henri Breuil, at that time the most famous French archaeologist. Breuil explored the cave for years and published his work internationally. Soon the cave became world renowned, was developed as a show cave and in 1948 opened to the public.

Other versions tell, that the boys were looking for a treasure in the area, which was told about in old legends. Some say the dog never fell in, but discovered the entrance four days before, on 08-SEP-1940, and the boys returned four days later to explore the cave. Others say the dog had nothing at all to do with the discovery.

Lascaux is often called the Sixtine Chapel of Prehistory, because of its wealth of pictures. 1,500 engravings and 600 drawings have been documented. They have been dated to be 17,000 years old, and are often dubbed the oldest artworks of mankind and the begin of art. This sounds good, but is obviously nonsense. Of course, Lascaux is one of the most outstanding painted caves, but since the 1940s numerous other caves have been discovered, both older and younger. Such an elaborated work of art does not come into existence from one day to the other. Probably there were thousands of similar paintings outside the cave, which are now destroyed by weathering, and only a small amount - which was protected by the cave - still exists. At least there must have been a culture which allowed the creation of the pictures, some kind of social system which allowed the painters to concentrate on painting while others were hunting. However, the oldest art known at the moment are human figures carved into ivory, which were found in southern Germany and were dated to be more than twice as old. And even nearby painted caves, like Grotte Chauvet are of similar quality and much older.

There is a very interesting fact about the drawings: the hunts were drawn on the wall like a comic strip. The story of the hunt goes from the left to the right, until the prey is captured. These pictures were obviously used to tell stories. And they may be called the oldest known comic books!

The Cave (Lascaux I)

The first chamber is called the Chamber of Bulls, and is probably the most impressive section with numerous animal paintings on the walls, most of them bulls. The artists were careful not to cover older pictures with the new one, which otherwise was rather common. The oldest paintings here are 17,000 years old and painted in a single colour, either in red or in yellow. The Great Bull is the center of the chamber, a 5.50 m long picture which is the largest painting in the chamber. The cave contains many pictures which simply depict animals, but a few are extraordinary, either with an extremely rare motive or so enigmatic that it is not clear what was depicted. One of this kind is the Unicorn, an animal with unusually large hindquarters, a pronounced abdomen, and two straight elongated horns protruding from the head. There is a sort of optical trick, when the head is viewed from a certain angle it resembles a human face. Its impossible to know if the artists intended such an optical trick or if it just was coincidence.

The Chamber of Bulls is followed by a passage with a sequence of red cows, which show various aspects of perspective. This passage leads to Chamber 3, which once contained hundreds of paintings, but the walls above ground were destroyed over the millennia by erosion. Only the lower part of the wall, which was protected by the debris, is preserved. And it shows an impressive number of 209 figures, 122 horses, 25 wild oxen, two bison, four ibex and a large number of abstract shapes.

The Nave was named so because of its dome like shape, which resembles a cathedral. The rock is yellowish and softer, that's why the passage widens, and it also allowed the creation of engravings. At the left side of the entrance seven ibex look towards the chamber. Remains of colour make clear that they once were painted too, but the colour was destroyed and only faintly scratched outlines remain. A main artwork of this section are the Fighting Bison, two exaggerated bison which seem to be in conflict, and colored strokes are interpreted as detached rear legs, probably as a sign of death. Similar concepts were found in other caves.

This is the end of the former show cave, the following passage called Gallery of the Great Cats or Chamber of the Felines has never been open to the public. The narrow passageway is 30 m long but only one meter wide, and rather steep. It is the most secret part of the cave with pictures intended to be viewed by one person at a time. Beneath the paintings and engravings of cats it shows the portrait of a bison, a shape resembling the roman numeral XIII, and then a line of red dots.

Conservation Issues

The paintings are not really very fragile, but their long endurance was a result of the natural climate of the cave. Black colour is charcoal, red and brown colors are various clays. Paintings with such pigments may bleach slowly from ultraviolet light or be washed down from rain water, but both does not happen inside caves. In caves the humidity of 100% and the low temperature keeps the paintings extremely stable and preserves them. And a cave is a very low energy environment, so there is very little food for any kind of life, which means that there are no biogene threads to the paintings. Nevertheless several paintings were destroyed by layers of rocks falling off the walls, taking the paintings on the surface with them.

But the high amount of visitors - up to 2,000 per day - raised the temperature, changed humidity, brought in dust and seeds of plants, and changed the chemistry of the air. One result was dramatically increased deposition of calcite on top of the paintings, called maladie blanche (white sickness) because of the white colour of fresh calcite. The thin calcite originally protected the paintings, but becoming too thick it went opaque. Another problem was the light, it bleached the paintings and caused the growth of plants, especially algae, an effect called lampenflora. This was called maladie verte (green sickness), because of the green colour of the plants. The negative effects of the visitors on the paintings was first discovered in 1955 and as a result the authorities closed the cave in 1963 to protect the paintings. Climate control equipment was installed inside the cave and in the mid 1970s the situation was under control. Temperature and humidity were stable again and even a very limited amount of visits was possible, five persons per day for about 20 minutes each. The calcite was not removed, but did not grow further, the plants died after the light was off, and the green colour vanished by decomposition.

Unfortunately this is not the happy end of the story. After decades during which the situation had stabilized, things went very bad very fast. The dramatic worsening of the situation started in 2000, when the management started to replace the climate control equipment inside the caves. It is unclear why this was necessary, but it is clear that all protocols were violated during the work and the installed machinery was not working as intended. Workers were entering and leaving all the time, the roof over the entrance was removed, and for the work a high energy light system was installed. The renovation was completed in MAY-2001, and at the same time the first patches of white fungus were discovered.

The walls were soon covered in a layer of white mould, at the end of the summer white patches were covering huge areas of the wall. The outbreak of the fungal infection of fusarium covered the walls and was fought by antibiotics, anti fungal substances and by manual removing. All those methods are problematic, as touching the paintings may destroy them as well as spraying chemicals on them. And it pollutes the environment. Additionally the fungus may become resistant. However the paintings were covered with cotton which was then sprayed with special fungicides, specifically designed to destroy this fungus. The results were promising, the fungus reduced, after two years the measures were reduced and the situation seemed stable.

However, the new air conditioning was not redesigned, and the materials introduced into the cave during the installation were not removed. The biogene material is the base of the fungus growth and its removing would stop the growth, unfortunately this is virtually impossible. The modern sensors of the air conditioning were not able to regulate the work of the air condition, because the humidity is always 100% underground. The old air conditioning removed an excess amount of water without regulation, but the humidity was still the natural 100%. In order to control the new air condition with electronic humidity sensors, the humidity was reduced to 95%. Several other changes were made, for example an internal door, the remains of an air lock of the 60s was removed. The resulting changes in the cave climate had very unfortunate effects. In 2006 black spots appeared on the wall, another sort of fungus, which does not grow at 100% humidity, but very well at 95%. It incorporates melanine, the pigment which is responsible for the suntan in human skin. Unfortunately this dark stain will stay, if the fungus is killed by fungicides. So the damage which already happened will be irreversible this time.

The end of this story is open, at the moment it seems to us that the paintings will be mostly destroyed in very few years. The UNESCO sees this similar, in 2008 it told the French government, which is responsible for the protection of this French World Heritage site, to ensure the protection of the paintings. Otherwise the site will be listed on the red list of endangered WH sites.

In 2008 British scientists dated the paintings with the U/Th method for the first time. Before only the carbon of the charcoal in the paintings was used to determine the age of the paintings using the C14 method. Obviously this works only for the black parts of the paintings, which consist of charcoal. Uranium decays to thorium and this process happens in any kind of calcite deposit, if there is a trace of uranium. This method measures the uranium and thorium content in flowstone crusts which grew on top of the painting. As a matter of fact this method only gives a minimum age, but it is usable also for engravings and paintings without charcoal. The results are astonishing: parts of the artworks are between 25,000 and 35,000 years old, much older than previously thought.

The Replica (Lascaux II)

To allow the visitors to see the cave paintings anyway, an exact facsimile called Lascaux II (faux Lascaux or fake Lascaux), was built just 200 m from the original cave. In Lascaux II two galleries have been reproduced: the Chamber of Bulls and the central corridor. This two parts of the Lascaux cave show the most important paintings, about 40%.

The construction of the replica was a chance for scientists, to prove their knowledge how the paintings were made. Inside a shell of reinforced concrete with the contours of the cave, the paintings were executed in the same manner, using the same types of materials believed to have been used 19,000 years ago. This were natural pigments like ochre, charcoal, and iron oxides. So while it was intended for touristic purposes it also is a famous example of experimental archaeology.

Even more impressive than the quality of the paintings is the atmosphere of the replica. It is underground, made of stone, and has the same humidity and temperature as a normal cave. Even the smell of the replica is that of a real cave, and there is no possibility for visitors to see the difference.

Le Thot

The Le Thot site, Espace Cro-Magnon, or sometimes Prehisto Parc, is located near Montignac. It is dedicated to experimental archaeology, where archaeologists try to really produce the artifacts they find. If you want more details please see SubterraneaLe Thot.

The site includes another cave replica of Lascaux. Le Thot has a symbolic cave passage with patches of the cave wall, so it is not a realistic cave replica. The reconstructed parts of the cave have the form and material of the original cave wall. The paintings and engravings were reconstructed using techniques which are also based on experimental archaeology. The paintings differ from Lascaux II, here are the most iportant which are not part of Lascaux II.

Lascaux Révélé (Lascaux III)

For unknown reasons the replica at Le Thot was not named Lascaux III, so the third replica is actually called Lascaux III. It was created with most modern technology including photogrammetry and 3D laser survey. As a result it is the most exact copy possible at that time. The use of lightweight materials like aluminium and plastic make this replica transportable. It is the first travelling cave replica in the world and was shown on five continents.

Lascaux IV

Lascaux IV is the newest addition, a huge museum which was created adjacent to the village Montignac at the foot of the hill. It is the fourth generation of replica and officially named Centre International d’Art Parietal (International Centre for Cave Art). The building was designed by the Norwegian architects from Snøhetta. The building is mostly underground and contains a full copy of the original Lascaux cave, additional exhibitions including a modern art exhibition. Visitors enter from the parking lot, reach the huge reception with ticket office, café and museum shop. The tour starts with an elevator ride to the roof, which is a green meadow. A trail leads to the cave entrance, and after exploring the cave replica the visitors reach a second exhibition where the most important paintings are separately explained. Through the art exhibition the visitors return to the reception.

This new replica is the most modern, most accurate and most complete replica of the cave. The museum is huge and has a total floor surface of 8,365 m². After the enormous conservation issues the cave had until 2010, it seems the government tried to optimize the public reception. If this was so, then it was a pretty expensive marketing stunt. The result is quite spectacular.