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Lascaux Cave - Sistine Chapel Prehistory

This page was updated on: Sunday, December 10, 2017 at: 4:47 pm

Montignac

Lascaux is located in the outskirts of Montignac.

The village developed along the Vézère River, below the castle of the Counts of Périgord.

Picturesque half-timbered and limestone houses border the old streets and the river banks.

You'll find the Tourist-Ticket Office on the left bank, by the church and the Musée Eugène Le Roy.

The museum is dedicated to the author of Jacquou le Croquant, a popular novel based on the peasant revolt in Périgord.

Some of the rooms exhibit a few prehistoric artifacts as well as ancient crafts.

However, what makes Montignac's international fame is Lascaux Cave!

Here is the story of a discovery, which nearly 80 years ago, changed our understanding of prehistory!

Four boys and a dog

On September 8, 1940, four teenagers from Montignac (Marcel Ravidat, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agniel and Simon Coencas) set off with their dog on a treasure hunt on the hillside overlooking the village.

The discovery of the cave should be credited to their dog though, because he disappeared into a small cavity and refused to come out!

The four boys then slipped into the narrow entrance in order to rescue him.

To their astonishment, they found the undisturbed cave and its exceptional paintings.

The story said that they swore secrecy of this big secret...

However, they could not resist bragging about it.

A few days later, they were telling about their extraordinary adventure to their old school teacher, Mr Leon Laval.

Laval immediately realized the importance of the discovery and informed the renowned archaeologist Abbé Breuil.

The abbot was overwhelmed by the beauty, variety and quality of the wall paintings and carvings when he visited the cave on September 21.

As a result, he named it the Sistine Chapel of Prehistory and succeeded in having Lascaux immediately listed as a Historical Monument.

Lascaux Cave, the most important prehistoric site of Europe

Lascaux Cave is indeed an exceptional site!

The French Ministry of Culture listed it as Historical Monument in 1940 and UNESCO as World Heritage Site in 1979.

Our distant ancestors Cro Magnon were the descendants of nomadic tribes who came from Africa via Asia.

They painted these stunning murals some 20,000 years ago.

However, they stopped decorating and living in their caves about 8,000BP.

The obvious guess is that the mastering of stock farming allowed them to access a new step on the ladder of evolution, as they realized the superiority of the human race over animals.

After all, they had survived and thrived when many species had been decimated!

They therefore deserted their cave dwellings to live in tents in organized communities.

This was the dawn of a new era.

For an unknown reason, natural cause or human intervention, the entrance to Lascaux collapsed soon after completion of the paintings.

The rocks indeed partially sealed the cave for the following 18 millennia, therefore protecting the magnificent works from excessive humidity and light.

Another important factor in the exceptional preservation of Lascaux comes from the presence of an impermeable layer of marl.

This marl, located in the limestone just above the cave, therefore prevented water infiltration.

The Sistine Chapel of Prehistory

A wealth of archaeological artifacts - bones, grease lamps, spear points, flint tools, pigments, palettes and pieces of charcoal - were recovered from the cave.

Carbon dating attest that they were used about 17,000 years ago.

Their study also confirms that the cave was never been inhabited but was open to the air at the time of the painting.

Lascaux Cave extends to a depth of approximately 2000m.

The polychromatic paintings (Solutrean-Magdalenian epochs) spread over a succession of four galleries and more or less circular chambers.

Archeologists named these chambers after the topic of their murals.

However, the Bulls' Great Hall and the Axial Gallery, alone, contain 90% of the Lascaux paintings!

A narrow corridor links the Bulls' Hall to the Apse that extends into the Nef -Nave and the Diverticule des Félins - Feline Gallery.

Another gallery, the Salle du Puits - Well Gallery, originates to the right of the Apse.

Its lower section is painted with the rare representation of a human figure (a hunter or a shaman?) being chased by a wounded bison.

Our distant ancestors painted nearly 600 animals on the walls of Lascaux Cave!

They mostly represented horses, bison, aurochs and deer, but also some cave lions and one bear.

Amazingly, there is only one representation of reindeer; this is odd as this animal was very important in Cro Magnon culture!

However, there is no mammoth, as they had already left the area at the time of the paintings.

There is also a very enigmatic representation of an animal resembling a unicorn.

Did it really exist then?

Cro-Magnon artists also painted over 400 divers signs along the animals.

The meaning of these signs is of course unknown.

Animal representations show a great originality in the graphic, which conveys our ancestors' extreme mastery of techniques and styles.

The irregularity of the walls was indeed often used in order to enhance the effect of perspective.

It was also combined with a wide array of techniques, in order to represent animals in movement and sometimes in position of confrontation.

Paintings were often superimposed; we don't know if this had a special meaning or if it was just of way of saving wall space!

Finally, marks on the ground suggest that Cro-Magnon artists used scaffolds in order to reach the top of the walls.

Lascaux' issues

Lascaux Cave was open to the public in 1948.

Unfortunately, it benefited from an instant and excessive notoriety, which almost led it to the edge of disaster.

One million people indeed visited the cave before scientists discovered, but alas too late, the negative effect of the carbon dioxide and moisture produced by human respiration and body heat.

These affected the delicate balance of the cave and therefore triggered the appearance of white mould patches and green algae, which started to deteriorate the paintings.

These caves are indeed real ecosystems, alive and very susceptible to contamination.

Fortunately, on March 20, 1963, André Malraux the Minister of Culture of the time, took the decision of closing the cave to the public.

A replica was later built.

White fungus in 2001

However, this decision came too late.

Lascaux indeed suffered two further bacteriological attacks, the first in 2001 and the second in 2007.

Experts disputed the origin of the white mould that spread on the walls of the cave in 2001.

Many believed that the new ventilation system put in place in 2000 was to blame and that the first ventilation system, which functioned from 1967 to 2000, was better for the cave.

They argued that it was low powered (100W) and therefore produced very accurate and thus optimum conditions for the conservation of the cave with an ambient air saturated with 99% humidity.

They added that the system installed in 2000 was so powerful and bulky that it required the disassembling the airlock entry to get it into the cave.

Installation work, which took place over the winter months, also allowed excess moisture to enter the cave thus disrupt the internal conditions.

The fans were then stopped two months later.

Not only did they fail in sufficiently cooling the cave, but they also triggered strong damaging drafts.

Black fungus in 2007

Experts have reached the conclusion that the pulverization of a fungicide (Devor Mousse) used to eliminate the white mould patches triggered the development of the black spots in 2007!

However, the black spots kept spreading when the use of fungicide stopped in 2004.

The cause was most likely linked to the constant comings and goings of the investigation teams, who took pictures in order to monitor the progress of the fungi!

They indeed impacted on the internal climate, moisture and temperature of the cave, which in turn stimulated the development of the fungi.

The use of benzalkonium

The conservation of the paintings was a major concern throughout the 2000s.

In 2007 it was a true worry!

Two new species of fungi were indeed identified in samples taken from the black spots during that period!

These fungi grow in the presence of nitrogen and carbon, two chemicals triggered from the degradation of benzalkonium.

And benzalkonium entered into the composition of the fungicide that was used for years!

This fungicide has no negative consequences when used in watertight environment, but experts should have known that it was not suitable for treating Lascaux.

The cave's delicate balance of moisture and air indeed comes from water seepage on the walls and natural ventilation from the micro holes in the rock.

The situation today: the black spots seem to have stopped spreading and have stabilized.

Lascaux seems saved, however, only experts are allowed to enter it.

Lascaux IV versus Lascaux II

Lascaux IV is located at the edge of the hillside; it opened to the public late 2015 and has now superseded Lascaux II.

The Conseil Général de Dordogne (regional council) funded its creation after F. Hollande's Culture Minister withdrew the state’s contributions planned by the previous team!

The construction of Lascaux II facsimile was undertaken in order to meet the public demand; its entrance stood  a couple of hundred meters below the original cave.

Lascaux II opened to the public in 1983 and was a true technical feat.

However, this facsimile only reproduced the first two galleries, the Bulls' Great Hall and the Axial Gallery.

Department of Dordogne - Montignac
Coordinates: Lat 45.054132 - Long 1.166895

Photos via Wikimedia Commons:  Horse  Attribution  -  Black cow + Abside  Public Domain  -  Lascaux map  Source   - Shaman and wounded bison and Bulls' Gallery both Attribution- Peter80 - Grease lamp  Author  - Murals Attribution
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