Tag Archives: Lascaux caves

les eyzies bison carving

Open a bottle of champagne and leave it out, and by morning it is flat and stale.

Opening up a prehistoric cave can be like that. Lascaux caves in France, with its menagerie of animal paintings, lasted for nearly 20,000 years intact. It was discovered (or more properly, rediscovered) in 1940 and after the war, was opened to tourists. It was soon apparent that the cave was beginning to be degraded. Lichens were starting to grow on the walls, and the huge jump in carbon dioxide levels, from the breath of all those making the pilgrimage through the caves, was joining with the calcium in the limestone to form a layer of calcite that would soon cover and blur all the imagery.

It was that, like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, the act of observation changed what was being observed. When you open up the box with Schrodinger’s cat inside, sometimes what you find is not quote so pleasant.

The caves were closed to the public. In 1983, a simulation — a copy of the original caves — was opened as Lascaux II, and tourism heated up again. Tour guides led groups through the ersatz caverns and let us see a simulacrum of the original experience. They assure us over and over that the copy is precise down to the millimeter.

Lascaux II

Lascaux II


I’m a naturally suspicious person. When a shopkeeper is friendly, I allow she may indeed be very nice, but I recognize she also has a self-interest in making customers feel good.

And when I see the great cathedrals of northern France, I question whether I’m getting the vision of the master builder and his sculptors, or am getting the Viollet le Duc version and a 19th century stylization of the Gothic art and architecture. They rarely let you know what parts of a church are original and what parts have been restored. Sometimes it is easy to tell, but much of the time, it is not.

Whether it is Sir Arthur Evans at the Palace of Knossos, or reconstructed pyramids at Chichen Itza or the Carnac alignments, the work, even of dedicated and honest archeologists, is suspect.

Entrance to Lascaux II

Entrance to Lascaux II

And when we visit Lascaux II in Montignac, Perigord, France, I am suspicious of the recreation of the original paintings by a 20th century artist, no matter how well meaning.

I’m not saying I don’t believe what I see is accurate, but that I harbor a constant suspicion that it may not be.

The problem is that the reproduced paintings are so much clearer and more contrasty than the genuine paintings we saw at Font-de-Gaume.

When I asked the tour guide about it, his answer was not satisfactory, and somewhat off point.

“These paintings were drawn from accurate photographs of the originals,” he said. “And they don’t vary as much as a millimeter from the real ones.”lascaux II panorama 2

But it isn’t the size that I was questioning, but that the photographs taken of the real cave may very likely have had their contrast boosted to make the images more legible, and I wondered if the artist who created the facsimile might have unconsciously reproduced jiggered-up photos.

Did he visit the original cave under the same lighting conditions he painted in, and did he compare his results, not with the photograph, but with the real paintings? This is not an academic question.

Our own biases secretly creep in whenever we look at the past. It cannot be otherwise. Even the most scrupulous “reproduction” is an interpretation.

It isn’t the honesty of the reproductions that I worry about. But I remember how easily fooled art experts were by Han van Meegeren’s forged Vermeers, and how shocked I was when I first saw them, with the gift of several decades between them and me, that anyone could ever have been fooled by them. Or even the Minuet by Paderewski, that he pawned off as a long-lost dance by Mozart. In the 19th century, it sounded genuinely like Mozart to their ears, but our ears can not be fooled: It is pure Victorian kitsch.

Abbe Breuil

Abbe Breuil

Often, in books, the images we see of cave paintings are not photographs of the original, but reproductions of drawings made of them. Abbe Henri Breuil, for instance, made many of them. He was one of the first and most influential archeologists to study the many cave paintings in France and northern Spain. But his drawings often make the originals clearer and of higher contrast. And we cannot always know if he has given us a perfect copy, or a modern interpretation.altamira bison pair

Consider his famous drawing of a bison from the caves at Altamira in Spain. He has added the horns and has made clear what is obscure — or has made guesses at what its original makers would have wanted us to understand.

He made a famous drawing of a supposed “sorcerer” from Caves of Trois-Frères, but a simple comparison of the drawing with a photo of the original makes one skeptical of all such attempts to reproduce the cave paintings.sorcerer pair

It is our own time and culture that colors what we pick from the welter of confused sense data that we see before us. We need to make sense of it, and invariably make a kind of sense that works in the confines of the culture we have been born into.

The air we breathe is invisible to us, the culture we absorb is odorless and tasteless. Only later can the habits and prejudices of one age be clearly spotted by its successor.

(It is easier these days to spot the cultural accretions from the Romantic 19th century, less easy to spot our own. One scratches one’s head at Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, comparing when on one hand, he declares “alle menschen werden bruder” — all men will be brothers — with the “Hogan’s Heroes” march where the tenor tells us that joy is like the hero after victorious battle. Who has he battled, if all men are brothers? Clearly, the Romantics had a different, and mythic vision of war than we can ever sustain after the Somme, the bombing of Dresden or slaughter at Stalingrad. Beethoven and Schiller were certainly blind to this irony. We can never be.)

It isn’t that I think we should be allowed to visit the original Lascaux: It is clear that visitation destroys them, and I’m all for preserving them.

But I asked if scholars are allowed to visit the original and the guide said, “No. Not even scholars are allowed in. There is a keeper of the cave and he ventures in on a strict schedule to monitor the air, the humidity and the temperature, but no one else may enter.”

So, I wonder if all the latest scholarship is based on inaccurate reproductions.

Because at Font-de-Gaume, the paintings, while beautifully drawn, were noticeably low contrast, often barely legible on the walls. You had, in many cases, to acclimate your eyes to make out the bull or his eye or his horns.

In some cases, animals we were shown may be more like the fanciful shapes people make out of stalactites and stalagmites in tourist caves — “Here is the ‘ham and eggs,’” or “Can you see the elephant here?”

Our Lascaux guide assured us that the originals at Lascaux look “just like the reproductions, and are very clear,” and I have to say they look bright and legible in the photographs in the books.

In vintage photographs, the paintings look clear and contrasty.

In vintage photographs, the paintings look clear and contrasty.

“Font-de-Gaume was made something like 4000 years after the Lascaux paintings,” he said. “They were not the same culture.”

And he implied that the Font-de-Gaume artists were inferior and less able to articulate their animals and less able to make their contrast ring out.

So, when our guide tells us the Lascaux facsimiles are accurate, I am inclined to believe him, and when Carole tells me that the shopkeeper was really nice and loved talking with her, I tend to believe Carole knows it is so. Yet, I also remember that the shopkeeper does a better business by being friendly.

NEXT: Visiting Lascaux II 

font de gaume drawing

On every continent, save Antarctica, early humans have left their mark on rock faces. Whether Australia or southern Africa or Asia, there is rock art left behind. The most famous and most familiar, of course, are the cave paintings of Europe. Dating from 30,000 years ago to roughly 10,000 years ago, they are the starting point from which we begin every survey course in art history.

The most famous caves are Altamira in Spain and Lascaux in France, but there are hundreds of others, including the recently famous Chauvet cave in southern France.

I have taught some of those survey courses, but I had never seen any of the actual caves: I had only seen reproductions in my Janson or Gombrich. Several visits now to Europe have given my wife and me the chance to see some of the cultural monuments we had only dreamed of seeing: Chartres, Giverny, the Louvre — and the cave paintings.

You come to think of yourself as an adult, and that you have seen pretty much everything — in general if not in particular — and you develop a skin of insouciance. It is children whose eyes widen, not adults. We measure and compare, we add some small dram of new experience to the old and hold all in emotional proportion.

That ceases to be possible when staring at the bison, aurochs and horses scratched, drawn and painted in the inner recesses of inaccessible caverns, with a palpable lacuna of 20,000 to 30,000 years in between ourselves and the clearly living and breathing — and thinking and feeling — people who left this evidence on the limestone walls.

Bison, Font-de-Gaume

Bison, Font-de-Gaume

And we fall in awe that those people we depict as “primitive” cave dwellers could be so artistically advanced, so visually sophisticated. Yet, there is also a kind of glass wall between us and them. We have no idea why they painted and scratched these images; we have no idea what the images meant to them. We are left to guess.

Those guesses fall into two large categories: On one hand, a group of modern people assume the prehistoric people were decidedly primitive, unlike us in so many ways beyond merely not having smart phones; on the other hand, there are those who make the empathetic leap and recognize that the Cro-Magnon human is exactly the same species as we are, with exactly the same brain power, same potential for neuroses, same skills, and that if we had been in their position, we would perform exactly as they did, and so perhaps the cave paintings are not something alien and other, perhaps they can be understood, not as Alley Oop, the cave man, but as mon frere, ma soeur.

The first art we saw is 17,000 years old, on a cave wall in the Vezere river valley of the Perigord region of France. There were bison, reindeer and horses, drawn with an anatomical awareness that European artists didn’t seem to recapture until the Renaissance.

We had planned first to go to Lascaux in Montignac, but the roads are not always well marked in France and we wound up instead in Les Eyzies at the other end of the Vezere valley.

And it all came to us by accident.

The plan was to drive from Angouleme to Montignac to see the Lascaux II reproductions of the cave art of the original, now closed Lascaux caves.

The road wound through green valleys, up over wooded hillsides and over streams. Eventually, we got to Les Eyzies without ever seeing Montignac.

Les Eyzies de Tayac

Les Eyzies de Tayac

Turns out, that was a good thing.

Les Eyzies is a small village, made up mostly of cafes and souvenir shops, all along a single street below a tall yellow limestone cliff. These bluffs line the river valley. In them are dozens of caves, and many of those have prehistoric art in them.

Lascaux, further north just outside Montignac, is, of course, much more famous. But the cave has been closed for decades; a substitute cave, called Lascaux II is open to tourists, featuring recreations of the original art. It had been our intention to visit that cave first, and then perhaps check out some of the other, lesser sites along the river valley.

But because we came the wrong way, we found the Grotte de Font-de-Gaume, which is one of the only remaining caves with polychrome painting still open to the public. They protect the cave as well as they can by only allowing 12 people in at a time, and fewer than 200 a day. You have to make an appointment.font de gaume entrance

So, we stopped by the office — a shack with books and souvenirs for sale — and asked if it might be possible to get a ticket for the next day.

“We are closed Saturday,” she said. “But we have tickets available for this afternoon at 3.”

It was about 12:30 at the time. So we bought our tickets and drove around the countryside, looking at the paysage and enjoying the many roadside attractions, like the Prehisto-Parc, which features those familiar papier mache Neanderthals bagging a concrete mammoth. We passed on going in.

We drove all the way to Montignac, just to see the scenery, and, boy were we even happier we had come the wrong way.

Many years ago, when Carole and I first visited Canyon de Chelly on the Navajo reservation, we came to it the back way, along a dirt road from New Mexico. We didn’t know what we were looking for and got lost on the back roads through the forest. But eventually, the road started down the side of a cliff and we saw a large hole in the ground a couple of miles ahead. It was Canyon de Chelly, and the road led us up to it with no traffic, tourists or souvenir shops. We came upon it — actually upon Wild Cherry Canyon, a side canyon — and got out of the car and had the canyon to ourselves, looking 400 feet straight down into a rock hole. It was awesome. It was only later, getting to the head of the canyon, that we saw the traditional entryway, Chinle, a godawful tourist hole rank with traffic and jewelry stands. If we had come to Canyon de Chelly through the front entrance, we would have been put off by the wretched poverty of the Indians and the rancid commercialism of the dusty town.

Postcards for sale, Montignac

Postcards for sale, Montignac

So it was at Montignac, a fussy, busy, crummy town, catering to the worst of the tourist trade. If we had seen it first, we would have held our noses, visited Lascaux II and gotten the hell out of Dodge as fast as possible.

But coming up through Les Eyzies instead, we got a boat load of prehistoric places, smaller and less commercialized than Lascaux II, and we found a hotel a few miles north of town called the Hotel Peche-Lune, a large, new hotel with large, clean rooms and a great restaurant out front.

By then, we had used up our extra time and came back to Font-de-Gaume, in time to begin our tour.

It was an unannounced trek uphill for 500 meters, a grueling bit of alpine climbing for Carole and me, huffing and puffing, 20 yards behind the rest of the group, and losing ground.

Cave entrance, Font-de-Gaume

Cave entrance, Font-de-Gaume

At the top, there was a hole in the mountain and our guide took us 12 in to see the cave paintings. The cave is not the wide, high sort of Carlsbad Caverns sort of cave, but a seam in the limestone eroded out, about 120 meters into the hill, with several side cavities off at a good Karstian 90 degree angle. At its narrowest, the cave rubbed both shoulders, and there were a few places I had to duck my head, but mostly, it was wide enough for one or two people to pass, and in the main grotto, the ceiling was 100 feet up.

It is dark inside, with a faintly lighted footpath, and a few round lights on the wall that were switched on to dimly illuminate a three-foot bison on the wall about a foot above head height. No, there was another one a little on. And another. Actually there were five bison in the first section of the cave. The first was the clearest, hunch-shouldered, battering ram head, tiny legs and a wooly coat of brown. A small hole in the rock served as the beast’s eye.frieze of bison

The first impression is that the paintings are so faint as hardly to be visible at all. But as you get used to the low illumination in the cave, you realize that what is actually surprising is that they are still visible at all after 17,000 years. It is an astonishing passage of time: 15,000 years before Christ. 12,000 years before the Great Pyramid at Giza. That we could see them at all has to be a miracle.

We moved down the corridor of the cave to another spot, where we saw a giant reindeer, maybe 4 feet long, with a great hoop of antlers curved in a giant C from his head and forward. The shoulders and antlers were the clearest to see, the head, partly painted and partly incised in the stone, was more difficult to make out, but when you did, you saw the reindeer was licking another animal standing in front of it: another reindeer, facing the opposite way, darker and more obscure.

Comparing the "enhanced" reproduction with the actual drawing. More on this in Part 2

Comparing the “enhanced” reproduction with the actual drawing. More on this in Part 2

There were more bison and some horses, and what struck you, after realizing how faint some of the imagery was, was how beautifully they were drawn. It is the drawing, not the painting, that is the most notable.

The painting is really bichrome: There is black, mostly for outline, and there is a kind of white, faintly yellow, and there is the ocher mixture of the two, making the brown.

Why are these images here? Who made them? You cannot help but agonize over their meaning. Over the years, there have been many proposed explanations, but none of them really help.

Surely, you think, the paintings might have been the only part of some more elaborate installation that has otherwise long rotted away. We’ll never know.

Over dinner, Carole and I came up with a dozen stories.

I mentioned the football “Game Plan Theory,” with Xs and Os on the blackboard to teach the tactics of the game. Perhaps some ancient hunting teacher was showing the younger generation the ropes.

Or perhaps it was a school, says Carole. One bison, two bison, three bison, learning to count.

She also wondered if they might not have been painted not by adults, but by children, or a single child especially talented at art. And perhaps they are in the caves because that child kept them as his secret place, where he decorated his play fort walls with his drawings.

I said that we should not rule out the possibility that they were created not by men or boys, but by women. “It has to be possible,” I said. “Perhaps the cave was the place in which women were isolated for their menses. Many primitive societies do such things.”

“Then I would expect the animal paintings to be about mothers and calves, or animals giving birth,” she said.

The usual explanations about magic and shamans might be true, but I wondered if we don’t too often condescend to our ancient forebears.

“These were Cro-Magnons, which means they were modern humans in every anatomical aspect. They were exactly the same species as us, with exactly the same brainpower. The only difference between then and now is cultural: We have built on the culture we inherited, as our grandfathers built on the culture they inherited, from the pickax to the digital watch.

“Perhaps we should ask what would we have made these paintings for. Maybe the answer isn’t some tribal woo-woo, heebie-jeebies, but something as practical or as quotidian as our own lives.”

I wasn’t sure what that would be: Certainly these cave paintings were not made as art galleries. Seeing them is a pain in the ass, and there is no track lighting, to say nothing of the lack of white wine and cheese.

It used to be thought that the paintings were hunting magic, capturing the image of the animal to be hunted, to make it easier to capture the meat on the hoof. But recent studies of the caves make it clear that the animals in the paintings were not prey animals. The cavemen did not eat bison or lions or bears.font de gaume single bison

The second theory is that they were “animal masters,” that is, the animals of cult worship, and the painting of them was a magical means to capture their power, their emotional power.

My own best guess is that they might have been images for meditation, something to concentrate on to bring the observer into an altered state of consciousness. Certainly, many of the drawings — at least elsewhere in the world — contain odd hallucinogenic dots, crosses and spiral patterns, the same imagery that modern drug-religion ceremonies induce and that can be seen in Huichol paintings.

The thing is, we’ll never really know. Almost certainly, vital evidence has disappeared over time, rotted into oblivion: The paintings are denuded of their context and we have nothing to go on but the measly remains, not even so much evidence as dinosaur bones.

We discussed this all over a great dinner at our hotel: We began with a salade de perigourdaise, which was lettuce, foie gras on toast, and lots of duck innards skizzied up and hot. It was surprisingly delicious and very meaty. Carole picked at the lettuce, but couldn’t bring herself to eat duck parts she couldn’t recognize: gizzards, livers — for all we knew duck tongues and spleens.

The main courses were better accepted by a wider population of the Nilsen household. Carole had a faux filet — a beefsteak — bien cuit, thank you very much, and some sliced, fried potatoes. I had a magret de canard with the same potatoes. My duck was really great.

“Duck, the OTHER red meat,” I said.

I saw no ducks on the cave walls. Surely they enjoyed ducks as much as I do.