Cave Lascaux and prehistoric paintings
Ancient people knew a lot about painting. This is particularly well illustrated by the Grotte de Lascaux in France. The main feature of this place – thousands of rock paintings on the vaults of the cave, most of them done with amazing realism.
Ancient people were quite good at drawing.
Where is the Lascaux Cave
It lies 1 km south of the town of Montignac, not far from the River Vezère in southwestern France, in the Perigord region.
History of the discovery
The cave was discovered in September 1940 by four teenagers from the nearby village of Montignac. It would have remained hidden beneath the surface of the earth if a pine tree had not fallen one day during a thunderstorm. It opened a small doorway for the inquisitive boys.
The boys, of course, dug into the cave and found a lot of ancient rock paintings. They told their teacher about it and since then, the place has been under the close attention of scientists.
One of the early photographs
The structure of the cave
Lascaux, located in a hill of limestone rocks, differs from most caves in the area in that it is quite dry. Massive marble layers prevent the ingress of moisture from the outside, so no calcite deposits form here.
In other words, you won’t find thousands of years of stalactites and stalagmites in this cave, like in the famous Cane Flute Cave in China.
Lascaux Cave is relatively modest in size and branched out.
Want to see a really big cave? Head to Shondong Cave in China. If you can’t get there right now, at least read about it.
The total length of the passages of the cave Lasko about 250 meters. The average height of the vaults is 30 meters. The volume of the entire cave is estimated at 1500 m 3
Paintings in Lascaux Cave
There are thousands of drawings, which are divided into 3 categories: animals, people and symbols. Most of the images are made in red, yellow and black from a complex variety of mineral pigments.
Of course, not all of the paintings are so well preserved.
Some are perfectly preserved, while others are damaged or completely destroyed. Now about 900 of them refer to animals (among them 364 horses and 90 deer).
The animals are shown not statically, but in motion. Herds of horses, mighty bulls and smooth, graceful representatives of the felines, bison and even rhinoceroses, all frozen in an elusive rush and ready to attack. However, there are no depictions of plants or natural landscapes in the cave. Some scholars have suggested that the drawings show an ancient star map with constellations. Others believe the cave was a sanctuary or a place of worship for ancient people.
An interesting fact: many prehistoric paintings have been preserved so well that it is difficult to believe their age. This phenomenon can be explained by the presence of a peculiar transparent crust of calcite salts on the vaults. It protects images like a varnish coating.
The Altamira Cave in Spain is no less interesting. There, the drawings have been preserved so well that at first they were thought to be faked.
Zones of Lascaux Cave
Scientists formally divide the cave into separate areas.
Hall of Bulls
Sometimes it is called the Rotunda. This segment is 17 meters long, 6 meters wide and up to 7 meters high. Here are images of four huge black bulls. One of them is more than 5 meters in size. It is the largest rock art ever discovered by archaeologists. The bulls may have been drawn life-size.
Hall of Bulls
This hall has the most impressive collection of images in the world. In addition to the bulls, there are a dozen horses, several deer and a bear. And also an incomprehensible animal with a horn on its forehead. Of course, it came to be called a unicorn (maybe they did exist after all?).
It follows immediately after the Hall of Bulls. Its length is also about 17 meters, but the width and height are less. Horses, deer and bulls can also be seen here. In addition, there are some simple symbols.
This area lies to the right of the axial passage. Most of the drawings here are damaged by the constant movement of the air.
The path directly across the axial passageway leads to the Nave. It is already higher, and is 20 meters long. The cow, deer and bison can be highlighted here. Plus there are many incomprehensible signs. In particular an area divided into squares. Presumably this is a dwelling, clothing made of scraps, and possibly a prehistoric animal trap.
Just beyond Neph there is a part of the cave where there are no drawings. Then follows a section called the Cat’s Claw. It is very narrow. Its length is 20 meters. Most of the images in this section show the feline family.
This part is a round grotto. It is located at the point where the “Axial passage” and the “Nave” converge. There are about 1,000 images of animals and various signs. Only in the Apsis you can see the only drawing of a reindeer in the entire cave Lascaux.
Or as it is also called “The Well” lies just after the Apsis. To get into it, you have to go down to the bottom of the caves at a depth of about 5 meters.
It is here that there is one of the most mysterious drawings in all of Lascaux Cave. It shows a man standing (or lying, or maybe falling) between a rhinoceros and a bison. And the man has a bird’s head, the buffalo is pierced with a small spear, and the rhinoceros, apparently unable to endure this madness, rushes to leave the surreal drawing. There is a theory that this is an illustration of some myth.
Perhaps it is an illustration of an ancient legend.
A schematic layout of the sites is shown in the figure below.
Archaeological Research of Lascaux Cave
During the study, archaeologists hoped to find traces of burials that would shed light on the lives of ancient people, but found only new and new drawings, as well as primitive objects of the ancient world.
To date, more than 1,900 rock drawings have been documented (some reports put their number at about 6,000). Most of the drawings you will see a variety of animals. Recall that they are depicted in motion.
The time of appearance of these rock paintings is unknown. But scientists believe that it is about the 18th-15th century BC. At first, they were attributed to the Madlena culture, but later they were associated with the early Solutrean culture.
Archaeologists found the most ancient tools in the cave. More than 400 stone objects, 28 bone tools, objects similar to jewelry, and traces of dyeing substances used for painting.
The Rise and Fall of Tourism in the Lascaux Cave
In 1948 the cave was opened to the public. Its popularity grew steadily. Land works were carried out, which changed the level and characteristics of the soil. A staircase was built and lighting was installed.
The daily number of visitors was approaching 1,500. Unfortunately, this began to have a detrimental effect on the properties of the cave itself and especially its drawings.
The discovery of Lascaux Cave changed its microclimate. Tourists breathed out about 50 liters of water vapor and 2,500 liters of carbon dioxide daily, which reacted chemically and began to destroy thousands of years of protective layers of calcite deposits.
Mold colonies began to appear on the walls. In particular, so-called “white”, “green” and “black” diseases stood out. These are different kinds of fungus and mold, of corresponding colors.
Since we have a site “Sights of the World” and not “Biology”, we will not describe the Latin names of mold, bending and other destructive organisms. We will only say that the impact of an abundance of visitors has been detrimental to the cave.
In 1957, a system was installed to maintain the microclimate in the cave. But it was not up to the task. The cave was slowly deteriorating, and the drawings were spoiling. Given the extreme importance of the cave for research, the authorities decided to close it in 1963.
Only in 1965-67 it was possible to stabilize the optimum temperature and humidity inside the cave. It is worth noting that to this day mold periodically forms in different parts of the cave. Now twice a month a team of specialists in protective suits with surgical precision manually cleans the vaults from the fungus.
15 years of tourist raids upset the delicate balance, which has preserved the cave for many thousands of years, and the unique prehistoric paintings are under threat of extinction.
Imitation of an ancient cave – Lascaux 2
After the real Lascaux Cave was closed, scientists took a lot of pictures of the painted vaults of the cave. To give people the opportunity to touch the ancient art, it was decided to recreate part of the cave in life-size. For this purpose they built a building, where they reproduced the painting of the ancient cave. The copy became known as Lascaux 2. It includes the Hall of Bulls and Axial Passage, and lies 200 meters from the original cave. It was opened to the public in July 1983.
Copies of the Lascaux cave paintings can be found in the Parc du Tote near Montignac.
Ancient eras gone forever into oblivion are unlikely to tell the truth about the people who lived thousands of years ago, what they thought about themselves and the world and what they sought to comprehend. The shroud of time has shrouded in oblivion everything that we could learn about our distant ancestors, and the last ray of hope to touch even for a moment their face is already extinguished. But no, it is trying to rise again: in the depths of the caves there are examples of ancient art, which can be much more capacious than words to describe the worldview of the people who created them.
Paleolithic fine art (cave painting) never ceases to amaze modern people. Its discovery, or rather the finding of cave paintings in Western Europe, was at one time a sensation. In the middle of the nineteenth century, scientists knew no art older than ancient Egyptian or Celtic, so they believed a priori that any forms that preceded them, which may someday still be discovered, would be much more primitive. It was not easy for them to believe that in the depths of thousands of years there was art worthy of admiration and wonder in Europe. Drawings, engravings, friezes, and plastics testify that the primitive hunters and gatherers were not as primitive as they were imagined. These contemporaries of mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses rose to an artistic level that remained beyond the reach of later generations for many millennia.
The Lascaux Cave (or Liasco) is a unique example of Paleolithic genius. It has been called the “Sistine Chapel of the Paleolithic” and is considered one of the most important ancient monuments in terms of quantity, quality and degree of preservation of the rock drawings. The images created more than 15 thousand years ago can not only compare with many modern paintings, but also tell about the world-view of ancient people. Let’s take a closer look at this marvelous place and try to dispel the darkness, which shrouded us and our ingenious ancestors for thousands of years.
How to get there
Go to Paris with Aeroflot and Air France direct flights (from €400) or with a stopover in Budapest and save a lot of money (Malev, from €200).
Then go to Limoges: take a train (from €60) or Air France plane (from €110 one way, saving you three hours). If you decide to fly, add €20 extra for a cab from the airport to Limoges because there is no other way to get to Limoges. Then take a train to Perigueux (about €15), from there take a bus (up to €5) to the caves (destination is a small town on the banks of the river Montignac).
The modern history of the ancient Lascaux Cave
On September 12, 1940, four teenage friends, Marcel, Georges, Jacques and Simon, were out walking in the woods near the village of Montignac in the Dordogne Valley (southwest France) with their dog, Robot. After a while, the boys discovered that they had lost Robot, so they went looking for him. They saw that the dog had fallen into a hole already known to its owner Marcel: he knew it was a cave, but he had no idea it was that deep. The boys ran to get their equipment and on ropes and with flashlights in their hands went down into the mysterious cave after the dog. That’s how Lasko was discovered, one of the largest caves, whose rock art has been beautifully preserved to this day.
Lascaux, 1940. Local schoolteacher Léon Laval and schoolchildren Jacques Marsal and Marcel Ravida clear the “fox hole”. On the right is Abbé Henri Breuil.
Two weeks later, Lascaux was visited by Henri Breuil who had been hiding in the region during the German occupation (World War II was underway). He was the first explorer to descend into the cave on September 21, 1940, together with the Stone Age explorers Jean Buissoni and André Chenier. Breuil was also the first to authenticate the cave paintings and to describe and study them. Since the end of 1940, he took many measurements here and drew attention to the peculiarity of the drawings. His famous expression that “If Altamira is the capital of cave painting, then Lascaux is its Versailles” is well known.
Breill tried to unravel the secret of the images, find traces of their authors and answer the question of why the drawings were preserved for thousands of years. The answer is quite obvious: the cave is located on the left bank of the Weser River in a limestone hill. Unlike many other caves in the region, Lascaux is relatively dry: a layer of impermeable marble protects it from water infiltration, preventing the formation of mineral deposits that could destroy the walls and with them the images. Answers to other questions required more research.
After Breill, discoveries were made by another researcher, André Glory. From 1952 to 1963, at Breuil’s request, he excavated 120 m2 of the cave’s surface and counted 1,433 images (almost 2,000 have been found today). It is Glory’s excavations that are associated with the most striking finds, which helped subsequent researchers lift the veil of mystery associated with these rock art images.
In parallel with the study of the cave by archaeologists since the 1940s, tourists began to flock here. To organize the visits the entrance to the cave was completely rebuilt, a system of vestibules, which regulated the climatic differences from the outside, was installed a door and led light. As a result, since 1948 Lascaux became the new tourist Mecca.
A few years after this “modernization,” however, the first problems arose. For example, there were signs of damage to the images due to too much carbon dioxide and too much humidity due to the breathing of many visitors. In 1960, the so-called green sickness appeared: too much carbon dioxide, too high a temperature and artificial lighting caused algae to spread on the walls. Three years later, it was therefore decided that the general public would not have access to Lascaux.
Fifteen years of active tourist visits upset the delicate balance that had preserved Lascaux for thousands of years and put the unique rock art in danger of disappearing. However, the problems did not end there, there are problems even today. For example, due to a change of climate control equipment in 2000, colonies of fungi spread, destroying the unique images. In 2006, the infestation was stopped, but every two weeks a special team in protective overalls manually cleans the walls of fungal fibers, which, no matter what, continue to appear again and again.
The ancient cave was on the verge of destruction because of human curiosity, but hopefully it will remain, if not the property of the public, at least of history for many more centuries.
What does Lascaux Cave look like
To simplify the description, the cave was divided into several zones, corresponding to halls and a certain color scheme. These figurative names, which are still in use today, were suggested by A. Breil, an expert on the history of primitive society.
The first hall is the Hall of the Bulls, or rotunda; it is 17 m long, 6 m wide and 7 m high. The Hall of the Bulls turns into the so-called Axis Passage, a narrower gallery going in the same direction and about the same length. From the Hall of the Bulls, on the right side of the axis aisle, one enters the arcade, which is another gallery, 15 meters long. Behind this passageway is an aisle 20 m long. It passes into the part where there are no petroglyphs, behind it there is the so called cat’s hole – a narrow corridor 20 m long. The apse is a circular hall on the east, at the junction of the aisle and the nave. Behind the aisle is a shaft or well. To get there, it is necessary to go down 4-5 m.
Lascaux II – public domain
After closing the cave to the general public, the French National Geographic Institute conducted a stereo photogrammetric survey of all painted surfaces.
After that, the community that owns Lascaux voiced the idea of creating a replica of part of the cave (the axial passage and the bullring). Eventually a concrete structure was built, inside which the Lascaux cave paintings were accurately reproduced, using National Geographic Institute imagery. The replica, called Lascaux II, is located 200 meters from the original cave and has been open to the public since 1983.
Walking through the cave
Although access to Lascaux is closed to tourists today, who doesn’t want to enter the real cave and see the creations of the ancient craftsmen with their own eyes? Let’s take an imaginary walk through the real cave and try to feel the splendor of the figures and scenes depicted.
So, the first thing to do is to pass through the door to the three compartments-tambour at the very beginning of the cave-and get into the circular hall of bulls, where the most colorful composition is located. The walls are made of the limestone mineral calcite (suitable for engraving, which ancient people took advantage of). In front of us are images of bulls (some reach 5 meters or more in length), two rows of bison, located opposite each other (two drawings on one side and three on the other). We go a little further and see a dozen horses and a mysterious animal with something like a horn on its forehead, for which it is called a unicorn. There are several more bison and a bear on the belly of one of them.
We turn left and enter the axial ais. Bulls and horses are also depicted here, surrounded by deer and rams. Another horse is drawn in manganese chalk at a height of 2.5 m from the ground level. Some of the animals are placed on the ceiling and seem to run from one wall to the other. To these images (by the way, it was necessary to build a scaffolding to fulfill them) we add numerous signs (sticks, dots and rectangles), which obviously carried a certain meaning, but what exactly we can hardly know.
We leave the axial passage and through the hall of bulls we get to the passageway (in French it means “passageway” and corresponds to the location of this section of the cave). Here many of the images are badly damaged, especially because of the movement of air masses, so we do not linger and go on.
We enter the nave, which has four groups of figures: prints, a black cow on a background of horses, floating deer and bison intersecting with the figure of the black cow. These images are complemented by numerous cryptic geometric symbols and a colored plane divided into identical squares. Breill in his time called them coats of arms. There are also other hypotheses: for example, that they are traps for animals or huts or clothes made of painted skins.
We go deeper into the nave and reach the narrow cat’s hole. It owes its name to the image of animals of the cat family, one of which seems to be marking the territory. It is quite difficult to get here, but you can see engravings of wild animals, though made in a rather primitive style. There is also a drawing of a horse in full-face – a rather unusual example of Paleolithic art, because animals were usually depicted in profile or in the curved perspective technique.
We go back and turn to the apse, where the most engraved images (about a thousand), some of them on top of pictorial drawings. Here you will see animals, symbols, and the only engraving of a reindeer in the cave.
The final stage of our tour is the mine (or well), where you can see one of the most enigmatic scenes of the paintings: a man falling between a bison and a rhinoceros. The man has a bird’s head (his image is rather primitive, like all the people in Lascaux), the bison is struck with a dart, and the rhinoceros seems to move away. An elongated object, topped with a bird figure, is drawn next to the man; it may be a bar which was tied to a spear or harpoon for better throwing. There are also two groups of interesting signs in this composition. The first is between the man and the rhinoceros – three pairs of dots (there are the same ones in the depth of the cat’s hole and in the most distant part of the cave). Under the image of a man and a bison, a complex toothed symbol is drawn. Almost identical signs can be seen on other walls, on the tips of darts and on a sandstone lamp found not far from this site.
Let us ponder a little more on this painting, since it is one of the first depictions of man in Paleolithic art. What a stunning difference in the representation of the animal and the human body! The bison is convincing and concrete. Not only his body mass can be felt, but also the pathos of his agony. But the human figure – just an elongated rectangular body, sticks and extremities, in a word, the top of simplification, barely recognizable appearance. Such primitiveness of the depiction of human figures is characteristic of almost all rock drawings of the Paleolithic, which cannot be said about the transfer of images of animals.
This concludes our virtual excursion to the Lascaux Cave. True, after visiting it there are still many questions that torment inquisitive minds of researchers: by whom and for what purpose was this magnificence created?
Authors of the artistic splendor of Lascaux Cave
It is difficult to establish who the author of the cave paintings really was. Judging by the archaeological finds in the excavations of Lasko (the scanty material found in it), we can confidently assume that Lasko was not an inhabited cave. And if to take into account that in ancient societies any manifestation of art is connected with something sacred, it becomes obvious that we deal with an ancient sanctuary where people worshipped animal totems and prayed for successful hunting. Entrance to it, apparently, was strictly limited, first of all, so that the mystery of the sacred action was preserved. Examples of such restricted access to sanctuaries can be found today in every culture.
This is how anthropologists reconstructed the Paleolithic people who lived in the south of France (Cro-Magnon).
There are many such Paleolithic sanctuaries in Western Europe: Altamira, Trois Frères, Chez Vaux, Von de Gom are just a few examples of painted caves in which ritual actions probably took place.
Following this hypothesis, Lasko was a certain sacred place where shamans – intermediaries between god and people – went into a trance and communicated with the gods. From ethnographic studies of shamanism (and in our case only comparison with other ancient nations will help to recreate the picture) it is known that entering into a trance, a shaman visits a certain underground world, the world of ancestors, another reality, where he meets the spirits of the dead and the gods, tries to find answers to many questions of reality. It is possible that the Lasko also embodied the underground, where the shaman descended to communicate with his ancestors.
The content of the ancient rituals today can only be guessed at. Obviously, they were hidden from the eyes of the “general public” (tribe, community), the images in the cave were directly related to them, and they were created by shaman-artists who passed from generation to generation the secret art of “creating beasts”, lost in the darkness of millennia…
What the image “rhinoceros, man and bison” in the mine tells us
What this scene means is a mystery. A. Leroy-Guran, one of the explorers of the cave, believed it was a reference to a myth, the meaning and significance of which are almost impossible to recover. His predecessor Breill, on the other hand, argued that it was simply a memorial of a warrior who died in the hunt. Nevertheless, we can try to speculate about the myth or plot of this painting, but speculation will remain speculation.
One of the most recent suggestions was made by the German scientist Michael Rappenglück, who discovered a summer-autumn triangle (the stars Vega, Deneb and Altair; visible in the sky in this period of the year), formed by the eyes of a bison, a man and a bird: this picture is a map of the sky in the view of the ancients.
The Sistine Paleolithic Chapel is a veritable underground museum, historical and artistic. Lascaux is one of the many signs of the spiritual and aesthetic development of our distant ancestors. It has always attracted scientists and tourists with its mysteries, which, hopefully, have yet to be solved: what is the true meaning of these drawings, what do the signs and symbols depicted in it mean, what role they played in that primitive society? The answers to these questions can only be found by carefully studying and analyzing all the rock art of Western Europe and perceiving it as a mass spiritual phenomenon of the Paleolithic era.