The Lascaux Cave System
Located on the western edge of Central France's Massif Central mountain range, the Lascaux Caves are one of the most important pre-historic sites and are home to some of the world's best stone age cave art. Experts think that the caves were used for hunting rituals and shamanistic rites, and it is thought that the first paintings were done some 17,000 years ago. However, recent carbon dating techniques have fixed the date of the latest illustrations at 15,000 years ago, meaning that the caves were occupied for at least 2,000 years.
The caves were discovered in 1940 by four teenage boys. Following a landslide, which had opened up the mouth of a cave just above the village, the boys decided to explore. After enlarging the entrance, they climbed down into the cave. A few metres further into the hillside they entered a large cavern. On shining their lanterns around the cavern, they discovered that the walls were covered in strange paintings. They had reached what would come to be known as 'The Hall of the Bulls'.
The cave system stretches some 100 metres north to south, and 50 metres east to west. In total there are seven decorated chambers and passages.
La Salle des Taureaux1
The first cavern has a continuous fresco, some 20 metres in length, showing horses, deer, bears and strange red cattle. The paintings run the length of an overhang, along the full length of one of the cavern walls. Among the drawings there are even some animals which resemble unicorns.
It is considered that this cavern contains the best examples of pre-historic cave drawings in existence. The paintings cover the upper sections of the walls and continue up onto the roof of the cave, over a length of some 30 metres. They include extinct races of cattle and some highly detailed drawings of horses.
This was one of the first areas to be made fit for visitors. Unfortunately, the few paintings that remain are faded and it is extremely difficult to discern their contents. This is due to erosion of the walls, which occurred long before the first visitors arrived.
While this chamber is smaller than the Hall of the Bulls, it is remarkable for the sheer number of drawings. In all, there are over 600 separate works of art in this cave. Many are painted, but the vast majority are engraved into the surface of the sandstone. The pictures cover three of the walls, and reach up onto the roof of the cavern. They appear to be divided into three bands, each one of a separate subject: cattle on the lower walls, deer-like creatures above them and finally horses, stretching up onto the ceiling.
Slightly lower than the other caverns, this small pit is remarkable as being one of the only to include man, and to tell a story. The drawings appear to illustrate the hunting of a prehistoric bison by men using primitive spears and harpoons.
A continuation of the lateral passage, but much longer and wider. One of the strangest works of art in this passageway is a pair of small, multicoloured geometric forms, the purpose of which is a complete mystery.
Diverticule des Félins 7
The last of the chambers is a continuation of the Nave. The Chamber of Cats is very narrow in places, and the stone is extremely fragile. Most of the works of art are etched into the stone, with very few actually being painted. The cavern gets its name from the six cats etched on to one of the walls. This is the only time these particular animals are represented throughout the whole cave system.
Visiting the Caves
Just after the Second World War, the caves were made suitable for visitors, and at one time, up to 1,200 visitors per day passed through the caverns.
In the 1960s, someone noticed that the paintings were starting to fade. The vast number of visitors were changing the humidity of the caverns and were causing irreparable damage to the drawings. So, in 1963, the caves were closed to the general public.
They are now hermetically sealed, with a computer monitoring and controlling temperature, humidity and air quality. Very few archaeologists now have access to the caves.
Obviously, this closure caused a public outcry and in 1980, work was started on Lascaux II embedded into the hillside. It is an exact replica of the cave network, constructed using concrete and steel. The drawings were reproduced in the finest detail and every effort was made to reproduce the atmosphere of the original caves. This centre was finally opened to the public in 1983.
For those who cannot make the visit to France to see the paintings, there is an excellent virtual tour of the caves here.
Finally, for those who would like to learn more about Stone Age art in general, try Stone Age Art, which has examples of various types of prehistory sculpture and painting.
For a virtual glimpse of the caves, hike down to The Cave of Lascaux.