A journey back to the origins of art — The Chauvet Cave

A journey back to the origins of art — The Chauvet Cave

In the southeastern corner of the Massif Central, the ancient highlands of central France, the Ardèche River carved its scenic way through the limestone plateau over millions of years.

The cliffs of the Ardèche Gorge are dotted with caves.

Before rejoining the Rhone River on its way to the Mediterranean, it created the largest natural canyon in Europe: the Ardèche Gorge. The cliff walls are dotted with caves, some of them still holding remnants of the lives of the prehistoric people who occupied them.  The most famous by far is the Grotte Chauvet (Chauvet Cave).

 

 

 

Discovering the Origins of Art

The Pont d’Arc is the iconic sight of the Ardèche Gorge.

The oldest known stone age art gallery in the world, and one of the most important, the Chauvet Cave was discovered on December 18, 1994, by three speleology enthusiasts, Jean-Marie Chauvet, Éliette Brunel and Christian Hillaire. They had been aware  for some time of a small cave in the cliffs, a few hundred meters from the iconic Pont d’Arc. Although the rear of the cave was obstructed by a heavy rock slide, they had noticed a trickle of air escaping from a small hole, indicating that there had to be a cavity behind the fallen rocks.

The find brought to light some of the most remarkable  prehistoric cave paintings in the world.

On this day, the three friends decided to attempt to unblock a crawlspace — and found themselves facing a dark, empty space. Using their speleological ladder, they descended into a vast chamber with a soaring roof, filled with glimmering concretions that appeared to branch off into further chambers. Fascinated by the breathtaking geological wonders around them, they pressed on in single file, exploring almost the entire space. They were on their way back when, on a rocky pendant, the beam of Éliette’s headlamp caught the image of a small ochre mammoth. “They were here!” she cried out. 

The three friends had just brought to light, along with some of the best preserved prehistoric cave paintings in the world, an important evidence of Upper Paleolithic life.

Who Were They…

… these Stone Age artists that left us such sophisticated images of their time?

These elaborate paintings bear witness to the sophistication of early Cro-Magnon humans.

Based on the latest (2016) radiocarbon dating, the cave appears to have been used by humans during two distinct periods: the earlier, around 36,500 years ago, during the Aurignacian era (i.e. the early wave of anatomically modern humans thought to have spread from Africa through the Near East into Paleolithic Europe where they became known as Cro-Magnons). Although the cave shows subsequent signs of occupation between 31,000 and 30,000 years ago, all the artwork dates back to the Aurignacians. The entrance was then sealed by a collapsing cliff some 29,000 years ago until its discovery in 1994, which helped keep it in pristine condition.

The World’s Oldest Art Gallery

The cave features unique lion frescoes.

The artists who produced these paintings used techniques rarely found in other cave art. Many appear to have been made only after the walls were scraped clear of debris and concretions, leaving a smoother and lighter surface upon which the artists worked. Also, a three-dimensional quality and the suggestion of movement were achieved by incising or etching around the outlines of certain figures.

A pair of woolly rhinoceroses butt horns,

Hundreds of animal paintings have been catalogued, representing at least 13 different species, including some rarely or never found in Paleolithic paintings. Rather than depicting only the familiar herbivores that dominate Stone Age cave art, i.e. horses, aurochs, elks, reindeers, etc., the walls of the Chauvet Cave favor rhinoceroses and predatory animals, such as lions, leopards and hyenas. The art is also exceptional for its time in that it includes animals interacting with each other, such as a pair of woolly rhinoceroses butting horns in an apparent contest for territory rights.

The latter occupation of the cave left little but a child’s footprint, the charred remains of ancient hearths and carbon smoke stains from torches that lit the caves. The footprint, however, may be the oldest human one anywhere to be accurately dated.

The Domain of the Cave Bears

Cave bears also occupied the Chauvet space.

The artists weren’t the cave’s only occupants. Cave bears, a prehistoric species approximately twice the size of a modern day grizzly and believed to be largely herbivorous, were clearly present when these painting were being done. The soft clay still holds paw prints, some with traces of pigment on them. There are also unmistakeable claw-marks on some of the animal paintings and “nest” indentations throughout, where bears apparently slept.

A bear skull was found displayed on a stone slab.

Over 150 cave bear skeletons were found throughout the cave, and most dramatically, a bear skull was perched on a stone slab in the center of one of the chamber, placed deliberately by some long-gone cave inhabitant with opposable thumbs. Although one can only speculate as to its significance, it suggests a form of relationship between man and bear.

 

 

Disclosure and Protection

The cave also holds ocher paintings of hyenas and leopards.

Conscious of the exceptional value of their discovery, the three speleologists immediately alerted the Regional Archeology Curator, who reached out to the prominent French Paleolithic prehistorian Jean Clottes, then General Inspector for Archaeology at the French Ministry of Culture, to authenticate the find. 

The artists also left us ocher stamped handprints.

Within two weeks, mindful to avoid the mistakes made at Lascaux, where tourists access had irreparably damaged the cave, immediate protection measures were taken, and decision made to permanently seal off the cave from the public. To access it, selected scholars, preservation experts, maintenance workers and rare guests visitors must comply with the latest protocols to ensure the preservation of the site.

 

 

 

The Identical Twin

Just as challenging as the protection of the cave was the answer to a pressing questions: how could humanity’s first true masterpiece be shared with the general public?

Chauvet 2 is an exact replica of the original down to minute details.

An ambitious project came into being in 2007 as a joint effort of the Regional Government, the French State and and the European Union, to create the largest and most authentic replica of a decorated prehistoric cave ever made. 

All the artwork is reproduced in full size.

Creating the identical twin of the greatest early-human masterpiece, with its floors, walls, vaults, and a whole realistic underground landscape to host human and animal remains, was a massive challenge. Five years of research and thirty months of construction were needed to accomplish this cultural, technological and scientific feat.

Due to the technical impossibility of reproducing the cave in its entirety, the most remarkable elements were identified first. Using a digital 3D survey of the original, a new cave with a floor area of 3,000 square meters (32,000 square feet) and 8,200 square meters (88,000 square feet) of walls and ceilings was created. The team came up with innovative solutions, using scenographic techniques that had never before been implemented on such a large scale. Despite the Chauvet Cave 2 being two and a half times smaller than the original, the surface of the walls was accurately reproduced to within millimeters. The paintings, engravings and most notable elements, as well as essential paleontological and geological features were reproduced in full size.

The visitors senses are further stimulated by the sensations of silence, darkness, temperature, humidity, and acoustics reproduced to match the original cave.

Timeless Landscape

Chauvet 2 discretely blends into the surrounding wilderness.

Located approximately one mile from the original, Chauvet Cave 2 was designed by the architectural firm Fabre & Speller (Clermont-Ferrand/Paris) and landscape architect Franck Neau (Paris) as a discreet imprint on the wilderness of its 20 hectare (50 acre) wooded site. 

The site features five complementary parts: the Cave, The Aurignacian Gallery (permanent exhibition centre), a pedagogical centre, temporary exhibition space, and a restaurant-gift shop. A stroll through the grounds leads visitors towards the cave and a panoramic viewpoint located on the side of the building, where visitors can get an idea of the breathtaking views shared by their early ancestors.

In one stunning frescoe, over 50 drawings of horses, aurochs, reindeers and lions mingle across 15 meters (50 feet) of limestone wall.

Good to Know

  • Getting there — Due to its remote location, Chauvet Cave 2 is best accessed by car: from the North by A7 and A49 via Exit 18, or from the South by A7 or A9 via Exit 19. Then take N7 and D4 to Vallon-Pont-d’Arc. It is a  2.5 hour drive  from Lyon, Marseille or Montpellier, 1.5 hour from Avignon, Nîmes or Valence. Free parking on site for cars, buses, and campers.
  • Visiting — Grotte Chauvet 2, 4941 Route de Bourg Saint Andéol, 07150 Vallon Pont d’Arc, can be visited year-round. Opening hours vary with the seasons and are clearly indicated on the website, where tickets must be purchased in advance. Contact:  tel.+ 33 (0) 4 75 94 39 40,  e-mail.
  • Note — Photography by visitors is prohibited throughout the cave. All interior images in this article are used by permission ©-Patrick-Aventurier—Grotte Chauvet 2- Ardèche.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Grotte Chauvet 2

An Irish Roadtrip — Brú na Bóinne and the Giant’s Causeway

An Irish Roadtrip — Brú na Bóinne and the Giant’s Causeway

It’s a one-hour drive north from Dublin to Brú na Bóinne (Gaelic for Palace of the Boyne), and 5,000 years back in time.

 The River Boyne at  Brú na Bóinne.

Built around 3200 BC within a bend of the River Boyne, the Brú na Bóinne complex is the most prominent Neolithic site in Ireland, famous for the spectacular passage tombs of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. These ceremonial structures, which pre-date the Egyptian pyramids by some six centuries, also hold the most important concentration of megalithic art in Western Europe.

Brú na Bóinne

The Brú na Bóinne Visitor Reception Center.

On the south bank of the River Boyne, the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Reception Center is the only access point to the Neolithic sites of Newgrange and Knowth, located north of the river. On the lower level of the Center, extensive exhibits include a life-size replica of the Newgrange Chamber, as well as a model of one of Knowth’s smallest tombs. Access to the actual sites begins with visitors crossing the river via a footbridge to reach the shuttle bus that takes them to the monuments for their pre-booked, time-allocated guided visit.

Newgrange

A narrow passage of stone slabs leads to the central chamber.

Newgrange is the best example of a Stone Age passage tomb in Ireland and one of the most remarkable prehistoric sites in Europe. The burial mound is some 80 meters (260 feet) in diameter and 13 meters (42 feet) high. The narrow passage leading to the central chamber and its three side niches is 19 meters (62 feet) long, walled and roofed with sturdy, carved slabs. Above the chamber, the roof slabs are arranged to an astonishing steeple-like peak. Human remains and funeral goods were originally found here.

The roofbox allows the rising sun to reach the inner chamber.

However, the most remarkable feature of Newgrange is its roofbox (open panel above the entrance). Every year, on the days around the winter solstice, the rising sun gleams through the opening and for 15 minutes illuminate the passage within, down to the innermost chamber, brushing the decorations with amber light. (Note: for visitors at any other time, the event is now re-created electrically).

The passage stones display elaborately carved motives.

Over 200,000 tonnes of earth and stone were used in the construction of Newgrange. The stones are believed to have been quarried and transported from Wicklow, 80 kilometers (50 miles) to the south as well as the Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland. Newgrange also plays a role in Irish Mythology, as the burial place of the lovers Dairmuid and Grainne, and as the place where the great warrior Cuchulainn was conceived.

Knowth

The Knowth site consists of a one-hectare mound surrounded by smaller satellite mounds.

The Knowth site consists of one large mound and 18 smaller satellite mounds. The large mound covers one hectare (2.5 acres) and contains two passages, placed along an east-west line. The entire mound is encircled by 127 kerbstones, many of them decorated with megalithic art. Over 200 decorated stones were found during excavations. Most of the motifs here are typical: spirals, lozenges and concentric circles, as well as unusual crescent shapes.

The chamber contained basin stones used to hold creamated remains.

According to the virtual visit at the Visitor Center, the eastern passage of the large mound leads to a cruciform chamber, similar to that found at Newgrange. It contains three recesses and basin stones into which the cremated remains of the dead may have been placed. The interior of the actual mound is not open to visitors.

Dowth

Although it is not part of the official visit, the main mound of the Dowth site compares in size with its famous neighbors at Newgrange and Knowth, and visitors are free to walk around the site. Its original roof collapsed long ago and was replaced, so that from the outside, the tomb seems preserved. There is no access to the interior of the structure.

The Land of Giants 

Walking the Giant’s Causeway is an exhilarating experience.

It’s a 220-kilometer (136-mile), three-hour drive north from Brú na Bóinne to the Giant’s Causeway, a dramatic promontory of massive basalt columns, stretching along 4 miles (6 kilometers) of the northern coast of Northern Ireland, on the edge of the Antrim Plateau. Here, more than 40 thousand perfectly stacked basalt columns create what looks like a giant set of interlocking bricks leading down to the ocean.

Massive step formations descend into the ocean.

This epic landscape was formed about 60 million years ago by a volcanic fissure eruption, when successive flows of lava cooled as they reached the water. Layers of basalt formed the columns, and the pressure between these columns sculpted them into polygonal shapes that vary from 38 to 51 centimeters (15 to 20 inches) in diameter and measure up to 25 meters (82 feet) in height. 

 

 

The hotel is a haven of timeless charm at the edge of the Causeway.

Since we plan to explore this storied coastal landscape at the first hour the following morning, we have opted to spend the night at the Causeway Hotel, itself an historic landmark, adjacent to the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Center and the head of the Causeway. The hotel was built in 1836 to create a place for travelers to stay when visiting the famous rock formations. Today, the cheerful white clapboard, 28-room property has retained its timeless charm, albeit with the addition of 21st century amenities.

Into the Myth

The basalt columns facade of the Center unobtrusively recedes into the horizon of the Antrim Plateau.

The next morning, after a gargantuan Irish breakfast, we head for the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Center. Open in 2012, the Center is a remarkable creation of the Irish firm of Heneghan Peng Architects, designed to evoke the towering columns of the Causeway. Its facade, lines of irregular basalt column separated by vertical windows, unobtrusively recedes into the landscape and integrates itself into the top of the plateau. Inside, the space consists of multiple levels connected by ramps, staggered to accommodate the sloping site.

A first glimpse of the Causeway, seen from the Center..

Here, multiple interpretive spaces tell the story of the Causeway from different points of view. As is traditional, it features the mainstream geological view, which says the lava flows erupted some 60 million years ago. But it also features the local mythology, about the legendary Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool) who built the Causeway as a bridge to Scotland to fight his Scottish arch nemesis, Benandonner. Then an immersive audio-visual experience places the viewer at the centre of the landscape’s dramatic geological formation. And at the far end of the building, the coffee shop also dishes out spectacular coastal views.

The Giant’s Organ Pipes.

From the Center it’s an easy 20-minute walk down a long scenic hill to the Causeway itself. Then the paved path leads all the way to the Amphitheater, along diverse surreal rock formations ranging from the Wishing Chair, the Giant’s Boot, Camel, Harp and Giant’s Organ Pipes. In case you can’t figure which is which, there is signage to give you a hint. And for the sure-footed, it’s ok to climb the rocks — at your own risk. 

I did not. But this walk along the wild Northern Atlantic shoreline and the awesome older-than-time wonders of the Giant’s territory remain an exhilarating highlight of my Irish road-trip.

Good to Know

  • Getting There — By Car to Brú na Bóinne: the  Visitor Centre is located approximately 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Dublin via highway M1 to Drogheda. Take Exit 9 to Donore Village and follow Staleen Road to the Visitor Center. From Brú na Bóinne to The Giant’s Causeway: it’s approximately 220 kilometers (136 miles) north via highways M1 and M2 to Bushmills and the Giant’s Causeway.  Note: About one hour into the drive, the bilingual (Gaelic and English) roadsigns used throughout the Republic of Ireland suddenly become English only. You have just crossed the open border into the British territory of Northern Ireland. From here on the speed indications change from kilometers to miles and the currency in use goes from Euro to British Pound. Also if you are planning to rent a car in Dublin for your roadtrip, you will need to purchase additional insurance for driving in Northern Ireland.
  • Visiting  Brú na Bóinne:  Access to the Brú na Bóinne archeological site is limited and advanced booking is required.  For opening hours and pre- booking your visit, consult the Brú na Bóinne website.  The Giant’s Causeway Visitor Center, 44 Causeway Road, Bushmills, County Antrim, BT57 8SU. Opening hours and access availability vary broadly with the seasons. Consult the Center’s website for details and strongly recommended advanced bookings. Contact: Tel. +44 28 2073 1855 or email. . 
  • Staying —  The Causeway Hotel, 40 Causeway Road, Bushmills, County Antrim, BT57 8SU. Contact: tel. +44 28 2073 1210, or  email.  Hotel guests receive complimentary on-site parking and entry to the adjacent Causeway Visitor Center.
  • Getting Around —To reach the Causeway, you can either walk 1.5 kilometer (1 mile) down the long scenic hill or take the Causeway Coaster minibus. A popular option with many visitors is to take the 20-minute walk downhill to the main causeway and catch the shuttle bus back up the hill (fare was 1 GBP each way, or 1.25 USD at the time of this writing). Note: While access to the Causeway itself is technically free, there is a 13.00 GBP (16 USD) per adult charge for parking at the site. Ticket price includes access to all the amenities of the Visitor Center, including guided tour, audio guide, immersive exhibitions and café. Visitors are encouraged to pre-book an entry time slot. Parking-only tickets are not available.

Location, location, location!

Giant's Causeway, Ireland

Troglodyte Living in the Valley of the Vézère

Troglodyte Living in the Valley of the Vézère

Since the dawn of time, humans have set up camp in the Valley of the Vézère, a verdant corner of southwestern France where the river meanders along the base of forested limestone cliffs. While the Vézère brought an ample supply of water, the galleries it hollowed into the soft stone offered secure shelter against predators and harsh weather conditions. They also provided the canvas upon which the first stone ages artists came to express themselves. Within a radius of 25 kilometers (15 miles) from the village of Les Eyzies de Tayac-Sireuil, there are 15 major archeological sites now rated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Half of them are painted caves, including the world-famous Lascaux.

Layers of Time

Vezere-Bison

Found in the Abri de la Madeleine, this bison is carved on an reindeer antler. Les Eyzies, National Prehistory Museum.

While the painted caves say much about the sophistication of the people who created them and the fauna of their time, the archeological sites are no less fascinating. The early inhabitants of what was to become the Perigord Noir (thus named for its dense forests of dark oaks) have left proofs of the existence and way of life of layers upon layers of civilizations that succeeded here. Artifacts uncovered in La Micoque indicate occupancy of the area by our Paleolithic predecessors over 400,000 years ago. Then the Neanderthals showed up around 150,000 B.C. and left abundant clues of their lifestyle in Le Moustier. And finally our direct ancestors, the Homo Sapiens settled in Cro-Magnon some 30,000 years ago. While these sites only have reference value today, as they have been thoroughly excavated since late nineteeth century and are currently closed to visitors, a number of other sites are inviting us to visit our history.

The Magdalenian Age

Vezere - Troglodyte Madeleine.

Tucked high into the cliff, the troglodyte medieval village of La Madeleine overhangs the river. Beneath it, the prehistoric site is concealed by vegetation.

La Madeleine is a 250-meter (820-foot) long rock shelter complex within a 45-meter (150-foot) high cliff on the right bank of the Vézère. Its southern orientation and easy access to the water made it especially desirable to inhabitants that occupied the site from prehistoric times to the nineteenth century. Tucked within the base of the overhanging cliff, the Abri de la Madeleine (Magdalene Shelter) sits just a few meters above today’s river bank. It is recognized as having been densely occupied from five millennia, starting in 17,000 B.C., by tribes of semi-nomadic hunter-gathers.

Vezere - Madeleine horse baton.

Perforated baton with low relief horse, from La Madeleine. London, British Museum.

Discovered in the mid-nineteenth century, it yielded a treasure trove of silex tools for domestic and hunting use, bone needles and jewelry, harpoons and spear tips made of antlers, many decorated with engravings of animals. So important was the find that archeologists officially named the Upper Paleolithic culture in Western Europe the  Magdalenian Period. In total, some 500 pieces were found, most are on display at the Musée National de la Préhistoire in nearby Les Eyzie, with the remainder shared with museums around the world.

A Troglodyte Village

Vezere - Madeleine troglodyte home

The settlers built individual dwellings within the cave.

The next major occupancy of La Madeleine began in the ninth century. The local population, long settled in villages along the river in spite of a millennium of successive invasions (Romans, Visigoths and assorted barbarians) were now having to face waves of Norman river-born pirates (a.k.a Vikings). Some wisely took to the hills. In this case a long horizontal shelter carved halfway up the cliff, just upstream from the Abri. It offered a natural stronghold and an unlimited supply of stone. Over the next centuries, they set out to make it the secure troglodyte community we can still see today.

Vezere-Village street.

The layout of the homes was dictated by the shape of the rock.

Beyond the fortified guard post at the top of a steep lane so narrow it can only be managed by one person at a time, the village stretched along a “street” protected from the abyss by a sturdy stone parapet. Already provided with a common floor and roof, the inhabitants fashioned their individual homes with external walls of rough hewn stone and internal adobe partitions. The layout of the dwellings varied, dictated by the shape of the rock, but all followed the same two level pattern. Pigs, sheep, goats and poultry were kept in the lower level “barn,” with the family living in the loft above. An area of the village was allocated to craftsmen, traces of their tools still visible.

Vezere-Madeleine Chapel.

The chapel boasts a Gothic nave and two Romanesque alters.

The supplies to sustain the village came mainly by barges, and were hoisted up by a system of pulleys. There was also a kitchen garden within this fortified enclave, to provide vegetables even in times of siege. The most spectacular feature of the village, other than its panoramic view of the valley, is its gothic chapel. Built in the fourteenth century at the edge of the precipice, on the foundations of a previous Romanesque chapel, it is dedicated to Sainte Madeleine. Walking along this stretch of cliff, it is easy to imagine the vibrant life of the medieval troglodyte community. The village flourished thought the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of Religion, then showed a marked decline in the seventeenth century. It did, however, remain inhabited until the nineteenth century.

The Cliff Manor of Reignac

Vezere - Reignac.

Reignac is the only fully preserved cliff manor in France.

A mere three kilometers (two miles) upriver from La Madeleine, La Maison Forte de Reignac offers an other important insight into the medieval life of the area. While the site is known to have been settled since Magdalenian times, and a number of its prehistoric artifacts are on display in the large underground antechamber of its original entrance, the uniqueness of the cliff manor is its medieval history.

 

 

Vezere-Reignac entrance.

Fortified entrance of the Reignac Cliff Manor.

This fourteenth century citadel emerges from the face of a sheer cliff. Built first as a stronghold for the ruler of the area, it evolved into a fortified cliff manor in the sixteenth century when windows replaced the arrow slits and a proper façade took shape. Little has changed since then, although Reignac was occupied until the nineteenth century. Today, it is the only remaining intact cliff mansion in France.

 

Vezere-Reignac dining room.

The interior of the manor is remarkably spacious.

Seen from the outside, it is impossible to evaluate how large the manor really is. The bland façade with its fortified gatehouse conceals a multi-level maze of spacious chambers, including a main hall, weapons room, kitchen, dining room, several bedrooms and a guards’ dormitory. And de rigueur accommodations in any self-respecting medieval castle, prison cells and a  dungeon. All the rooms are fully furnished with antiques of the period. The hour-long guided visit is well scripted and informative, well worth the steep climb from the valley-floor parking lot.

La Grotte du Grand Roc

Vezere-Grand Roc.

La Grotte du Grand Roc.

Another cave not to be missed while in the area has nothing to do with either our stone-age or medieval forbearers. Rather, it is a gift from nature. Just five kilometers (three miles) from Les Eyzies, and once again halfway up a cliff overlooking the Valley of the Vezere, La Grotte du Grand Roc is a narrow, winding fairy grotto filled with thousands of small stalactites hanging from its ceiling and stalagmites rising toward them, in the most improbable shapes. A few of them have connected to form columns, but mainly they display an amazing array of eccentric rock formations. In case you are wondering, eccentric rock formations have to do with the velocity of the dripping droplets of calcite-laden water and how they land on the floor, projecting sediments randomly in all directions. They must have done it just right in Grand Roc, because the cave is filled with star and spike-shaped concretions that defy gravity and strain the limit of imagination!

The guided visit is lead by a geologist and take about an hour, I think. Time seems to stand still in this surreal environment.

Good to Know

  • Getting There – Les Eyzies de Tayac-Sireuil is located 5.5 hours by car southwest of Paris, 2.5 hours northeast of Bordeaux and 2.5 hours north of Toulouse. Nearest commercial airports are Brive Vallee Dordogne Airport, 55 minutes northeast and Bergerac Dordogne Perigord Airport, one and a half hour west of Les Eyzies.
  • Getting Around – All these and several other remarkable sites are within a few kilometers of each other. Unless you are an avid hiker or cyclist, a car is necessary to get around.
  • Visiting Village de la Madeleine 20260 Tursac, Dordogne, France. Contact: e-mail lamadelainegrandsite@gmail.com. Tel. +33 (0) 5 53 46 36 88. Maison Forte de Reignac – 20360 Tursac, Dordogne, France. Contact: e-mail info@maison-forte-reignac.com. Tel. +33 (0) 5 53 50 67 28. Grotte du Grand Roc – 24620 Les Eyzies de Tayac, Dordogne, France. Contact: e-mail grandroc@perigord.com. Tel. +33 (0) 5 53 06 92 70. All three sites are open year-round. Opening hours vary with the seasons and can be found on their individual websites.
  • Staying There – There are lodging options to suit all tastes and budgets within easy access to all the main sites of the Vézère Valley. We opted for the Chateau la Fleunie, a fully restored medieval castle turned three star boutique hotel in for its bucolic setting and superb gourmet restaurant in Condat-sur-Vézère.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Les Eyzies de Tayac-Sireuil

Scenes From The Stone Age – The Cave Paintings of Lascaux

Scenes From The Stone Age – The Cave Paintings of Lascaux

On a September afternoon of 1940 in a quiet corner of the Dordogne in southwestern France, four teenagers were walking into the forest above the village of Montignac when their dog vanished into a hole. They crawled in to the rescue and stumbled upon one of the richest Stone Age art galleries in the world.

FR-Lascaux Bull.

The iconic Lascaux bulls.

La Grotte de Lascaux, or simply Lascaux as it is commonly known, is a network of limestone caves located high above the Vézère River valley. Over 600 paintings decorate its interior walls and ceiling. The polychrome images in vivid black, brown, red, yellow and white, are estimated to date back between 17,000 and 20,000 years. They represent mainly large mammals known through fossil records to have been native to the area at the time. Beyond their numbers, scale and age, it is their exceptional quality and sophistication that make them one of the greatest treasure trove of Paleolithic art ever discovered.

Patrimony in Peril

FR-Lascaux Chinese Horse.

The “Chinese” horse.

Lascaux opened to the public in 1948 and soon more than 1,000 visitors a day came to see the Stone Age pictures that changed the way we think about our Cro-Magnon ancestors. Within a few years, the paintings, which had remained in pristine condition for millennia in a cave sealed by the formation of a protective layer of clay in the soil, began to deteriorate. To stop the damage from the carbon dioxide and the rise in humidity generated by the presence of visitors, the cave was permanently closed in 1963.

FR-Lascaux red-black horse

The great black and red horse.

Conscious of the significance of Lascaux, the French Ministry of Culture funded the creation of an exact replica of the main areas of the cave, the Hall of Bulls and the Axial Recess, which together contain a majority of the artwork at the site. This Lascaux II, built on the same hill and only 200 meters (650 feet) away from the original cave opened in 1983. Since then, it has received over 10 million visitors. But in time, there began to be signs that the traffic of too many visitors on top of the hill was affecting the original cave.

Meanwhile, a traveling exhibit dubbed Lascaux III, consisting of five life-size panels of images not included in Lascaux II as well as a virtual tour of the entire cave, has been seen in a number of European, North American and Asian destinations since 2012.

The Birth of Lascaux IV

It was in 2010, the 70th anniversary of the cave’s discovery, that the International Center of Rock Wall Art of Montignac-Lascaux project was announced. Its mission was to give better public access to the treasures of this unique UNESCO World Heritage site and foster a better understanding of the history and meaning of Paleolithic cave art. A design competition was launched in 2011 to create Lascaux IV. The proposal of Norwegian architect Kjetil Trædal Thorsen, a founding principal of Oslo-based Snøhetta design studio, was selected from a field of 80 entries from all over the world.

FR-Lascaux IV.

The International Center of Rock Wall Art, a.k.a Lascaux IV.  in Montignac, Dordogne.

His sprawling concrete and glass structure is unobtrusively wedged into the base of the forested hill that contains both the original cave and its Lascaux II replica. Its design evokes a futuristic version of the rock shelters found throughout the Dordogne region.

The Lascaux IV Experience

FR-Lascaux Hall of Bulls.

The Hall of the Bulls.

Beyond the vast central reception area, the guided visit follows a thoughtfully choreographed itinerary, starting with a glass elevator ride to the Belvedere rooftop. From there, the view of the Vézère River valley and the village of Montignac is what the four boys would have seen on that long ago September afternoon. And in case we fail to make the connection, a discrete sound track in the woods evokes their presence and that of their adventurous canine companion. Then it’s down the slight incline of a canyon-like corridor open to the sky, into a dark projection space where a short film takes us back to the Magdalenian period (17,000 to 12,000 years ago) with its tundra landscape, woolly rhinos, bison, lions and Cro-Magnon men. Another brief walk outside and we reenter the building. Suddenly, we are in the cave, right at the boulder where the original exploration began.

FR-Lascaux stags.

The stags sport spectacular antlers.

A moment later, we arrive at the Hall of the Bulls. Although I have seen many reproductions over the years, the in-situ sight of the massive beasts in motion leaves me breathless. The cool temperature, the subdued lighting that hints at the flicker of oil lamps, the faintly stale cave smell, the muffled sounds, everything “feels right.” To allow full focus on the experience, digital devices don’t work in the cave, and photography is strictly prohibited.

As I go further into the tunnels, more animal figures keep coming at me, beautifully detailed stags with their elaborate antlers, galloping horses, fighting ibex and bison shedding their winter coat. As the passage narrows and its ceiling lowers, I find myself closer to red and black cows and polychrome horses. Their proximity makes it easier to spot how the original artists incorporated the faintest relief in the rock into their work.

Stone Age Art in Today’s World

FR-Lascaux falling horse.

The falling horse.

The entire cave and its overwhelming paintings are reproduced down to millimeter accuracy. The latest advances in laser imaging technology, 3D digital scanning and printing enabled today’s artists to recreate every nook and cranny in minute detail. The use of polystyrene, resin and fiberglass “stone veil” coating recreated the walls and their covering, including the ubiquitous streaks of moonmilk and even the faint sparkle that still exist in places.

 

FR-Lascaux deers/

The herd of swimming deers

High definition images of the paintings were then projected onto this perfect Stone Age canvas and manually copied pixel by pixel. At the end of the passage known as the Axial Recess, I pass the famous painting of the falling horse, before looping back to a side passage with a herd of swimming deer on the right wall and two massive bison on the left. By the time I exit the cave, I am breathless with awe at the timeless power of the art within. Is this perfect duplicate any less powerful, less meaningful than the original? This is the source of much controversy, and ultimately a matter of personal opinion. For me, it evokes the same emotional reaction that expect I would I have experienced in the original.

FR-Lascaux Studio.

The cave’s major works are represented in life-size units hanging from the ceiling.

The guided tour ends as we exit the cave and enter the Lascaux Studio, a vast hall where all the  major works from the cave are represented in eight life-size units hanging from the ceiling. Some of the panels include ultraviolet demonstrations of prehistoric engraving and painting techniques. Here visitors are free to explore and snap pictures to their heart’s content. Guides remain on hand to answer any questions.

The Gallerly of Imagination

FR-Lascaux virtual reality.

Virtual reality stations are available to visitors.

Further along, virtual reality stations enable visitors to scan the surface of the model and view the works from various vantage points within the cave.

The last space is the Gallery of Imagination, a digital cave where 90 large floating touch-screens explore the connections between cave art and contemporary art.

 Good to Know

  • Getting There The Centre International d’Art Parietal (International Center of Rock Wall Art) in Montignac, Dordogne, France, which is home to Lascaux IV, is located four hours by car southwest of Paris and 2 hours northeast of Bordeaux, (Highway A89, exit n°17 Montignac-Lascaux).
  • VisitingLascaux IV is open daily throughout the year – Consult their website for opening hours, which vary with the seasons, and advanced tickets purchases (strongly recommended).
  • The entire Lascaux IV site is fully wheelchair accessible.
  • Lascaux was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979 as part of the Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley.
  • In addition to Lascaux IV, Kjetil Trædal Thorsen credits include the Oslo Opera House, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt and the National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion in New York City.
  • Staying There – There are lodging options to suit all tastes and budgets within easy range of the Lascaux site. We opted for the Chateau la Fleunie, a fully restored medieval castle turned three star boutique hotel for its bucolic setting, superb gourmet restaurant and close proximity (eight kilometers, i.e. five miles) via a scenic back road from Lascaux.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Lascaux IV