Lascaux

A place as special as this deserves its own post.

When we planned our trip and decided to do some walking in le Dordogne I was sold on this itinerary because on one day we would walk past Lascaux IV, the replica of the most sophisticated prehistoric art ever found. I first read about it years ago, in Jean Auel’s books, not realising it wasn’t a product of her imagination. Then I saw Werner Herzog’s excellent 3D movie of the actual cave, long since closed to the public but to which, with strict criteria, he was given special access.

The original cave was ‘discovered’ in 1943 by a young French man out walking his dog. The entrance had collapsed some centuries ago, sealing the cave and protecting the paintings from atmospheric influences that would degrade them. Within fifteen years of it opening to the public, introduced elements and human breath caused so much damage that the cave was closed.

Fifty years later 95% of the cave, in the form of a replica, can be seen by anyone with nineteen euros to spare. And if you have nineteen euros I recommend spending them here, the prehistoric equivalent of the Sistine Chapel.

The floor is levelled, a concession to safety, and there is subdued lighting, but otherwise the replica is an accurate representation. It’s cold, 13ºC, the exact temperature of the original, and light glows from a hole high up, the hole the dog found. I know it’s not the real thing, but my spine tingles as we enter. Within seconds I forget it isn’t the real thing. Parts of the wall have crumbled away, tearing off some of the paint, but the artwork is stunning. Of course there is no record of the artist but an artist he was, the animals he painted clearly identifiable, all earlier versions of their modern cousins.

Bulls, horses, aurochs leap from the walls and ceilings, their movements suggested by clever techniques: multiple heads show a horse rearing, extra legs give the impression of a running auroch. Mammoth lumber slowly across the great plains and a group of red deer swim across a river. I stand where the painter did 20,000 years ago as he mixed his colours and created his masterpiece. In one place he drew a horse around a pillar, impossible to see the whole thing at once, yet the proportions are perfect. In only one place did he draw anything resembling human form, and this has the head of a bird.

No one knows why he painted these animals. No one knows why he didn’t paint the most common animal around at the time, the reindeer, and an important food source for him. No one knows what the geometric symbols, the hatched squares, the dots, mean. And no one ever shall. All we can do is wonder at the marvel that is the cave of Lascaux.

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