Location of LascauxLascaux
Location of Lascaux

Introduction
The cave at Lascaux was found by four teenagers who were wandering in the French countryside.  They slipped inside and saw the ancient drawings but did not realize at first what they had discovered.  After a few days, they decided to report their findings to their schoolmaster.  The Abbe was astounded by what he saw.  He pledged to take care of the caves and did so during the tumultuous years of World War Two.  After the war, the owners of the property (the La Rochefoucauld family) decided to open the cave to the public as a tourist attraction.  They altered the interior of the cave, removing the stream and putting in concrete steps and a concrete walkway.  The caves were visited by thousands of people and eventually the carbon dioxide emitted by humans led to conditions in the cave that caused damage to the paintings.  The cave was closed to the public in the 1960s.  A replica of two of the chambers of the cave was created, Lascaux II, so that visitors could see copies of some of the drawings.  This seemed to help the cave and it seemed it was on its way to recovery.  However, in 2001, when a new ventilation system replaced an earlier one which had relied on natural air currents, a new fungal threat developed.  Fungus, this time Fusarium solani, once again began to appear on the cave walls.  As Graf notes, "Five years ago, after the ill-conceived installation of new climatic equipment, Lascaux suffered a fungal infection that threatened to destroy in a few years what thousands of years had left largely unscathed" (44).  Graf also points out that the French have tried to fix the problem but that the condition of the cave is as yet unknown as other countries have not been invited to assist with the repairs.

Description of the Ca
ve
Lascaux Floorplan

The cave at Lascaux contains about 600 paintings, 1500 engravings and many dots and geometric figures.  All but one of the painted living creatures are of animals:  aurochs, horses, deer, bulls, bison, and cows, for examples, which are found in the various chambers of the cave.  Evidence suggests that most of the works were completed 15,000 to 17,000 years ago by the Magdalenian culture.  As Jean-Philippe Rigaud notes, “We call the people who painted this cave Magdalenians, after the site of La Madeleine, the rock-shelter where evidence of their culture was first found.  This culture flourished from 18,000 to 11,000 years ago. It was marked by fine art and toolmaking . . .” (495).

The works were created artists using minerals found in the area of the limestone caves.  These minerals, ground into a powder by stone pestles,  were mixed with water to create a form in which the colors could be applied to the walls.  According to Christopher Scarre, manganese dioxide was used to create black, goethite was used to create yellow, kaolin was used for white, and hematite or red ochre was used for reds (38).  We now know that charcoal was also used to create the black images.  The pigments were applied to the walls with “the chewed end of a stick or pieces of hair or fur . . .” (Price 132), and even with the artist's fingers.

Lascaux consists of several chambers.  As shown on the map (left), the chambers of the cave are called the Great Hall of the Bulls, the Painted Gallery, the Lateral Passage, the Main Gallery, the Chamber of Engravings, the Chamber of Felines, and the Shaft of the Dead Man.  Below are examples from a few of the areas of the cave.
Lascaux Floorplan


Images from Lascaux          
The first three images, from the Great Hall of the Bulls (Salle des Taureaux), demonstrate
several characteristics of Paleolithic cave art including the overlapping or superimposing of images, the coloring, and the subject matter.  As Scarre notes,  "Clearly there was no single decorative theme here, but rather a whole series of schemes.  Curiously, prehistoric artists painted these schemes--at intervals that could be from years to millennia--one over the top of the other . . ." (34).  The walls of this section are composed of white calcite so the images really stand out.

Hall of Bulls Great Hall of Bulls
Great Hall of Bulls
             Overlapping animals in the Great Hall
Red Ochre, Charcoal, and Yellow--Examples of Coloring
                          This image  shows the white calcite surface.


Painted Gallery This image (left) from the Painted Gallery (Diverticule Axial) is an example of the artwork painted on the ceiling of the cave.  As noted earlier, it has been suggested that scaffolding was used to create the ceiling art, and some evidence of corroborating indentations has been found. 

Also found here are images of Chinese horses (right), which were, as Rigaud points out, "so named for their resemblance to later Asian paintings . . . Markings around and overlying the animals may have held meaning" (492-493). The body of the horse is much larger than the head, something that is quite common in Paleolithic mural art. 

The Painted Gallery has been called the "Sistine Chapel of Prehistory."
Chinese horse

Chinese Horse

Ceiling Image  from Painted Gallery

                                                                                                                                                    
Shaft of the Dead Man

Very rare in cave mural art, this painting from the Shaft of the Dead Man (Puits) shows a human figure--a man who appears to be lying down in front of a bison.   The bison has been injured and its innards are strewn about.  This image has created quite a bit of discussion over the years.  It has been suggested that it was used in rituals (many have pointed to the bird on the stick and the bird-like head of the figure to support this) and that the human figure is a shaman.  One researcher even suggests that a representation of the stars in the night sky can be seen surrounding the figures.
              The only painted figure of a human in Lascaux and
                 one of the few found in Paleolithic mural art.


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Please note that all images on this page are from
 www.culture.gouv.fr/culture/arnat/lascaux/en