Lascaux, Lost Caul

The cave of Lascaux, with its 600 paintings and 1500 engravings, is the most magnificent example of the Upper Paleolithic (32,000 to 9,000 years ago) creative force in human culture which surged into, and made sacred, for the first time, subterranean levels. The fauna that roam, trot, and gallop the walls of Lascaux’s 17,000 year old galleries, while painted by the Cro-Magnon people, exist outside of a human dimension—they are 100% animal and, with a few exceptions, are devoid of anthropomorphic gestures. Only in the obscure signs cropping up around and across the animal bodies does a symbolism assert that these divine beasts are being shifted into a human context. Such signs circulate around the animals either like incipient corrals and brands, looking for ways to move in, or as alphabetic gestures, linking the animals’ coats and gestures with seasonal changes.

Specific achievements at Lascaux include: the most important prehistoric signs, the use of an imaginary ground level, clear patterns of animals within each decorated panel, trick perspectives, breath from muzzles marked by dots or short strokes, dappled appearances created by powder or liquid pigments blown through bone tubes, hazy manes created by light sponging, sharp outlines made by use of movable marking instruments.

Color-wise, there are 25 tints, including 10 reds, 6 yellows, 6 blacks, and 1 white. The 355 horses are of all colors, plain, composite, chestnut, black, bays, grayish yellow, and dappled, with summer and winter coats. The largest of the animals depicted is a polychromatic aurochs 18 feet long.

The area known as the Apse is a cupolar ceiling once 9 feet above the ground (which involved scaffolding to reach). Over 10 feet in diameter, it is packed with over 1400 mostly engraved figures: animals and parts of animals, comets, blazons, ovals, barbed signs etc. The all-over impression created by the Apse is that of a location and a surface so special that it cried out to be covered with markings. As Lascaux’s “holy of holies,” it evokes a primordial star map, as well as a visual pun-filled labyrinth, a kind of Upper Paleolithic Finnegan’s Wake.

Below and to the west of the Apse is the entrance to the 16-foot-deep Shaft. In the 1960s, evidence of twisted rope made from vegetable fiber was discovered, suggesting that the Cro-Magnons descended into the Shaft hand over hand down such a rope. On the Shaft’s lower wall, to the left of the iron ladder now used for descent, is the most marvelous “scene” in Upper Paleolithic image-making. On one side is a hairy rhinoceros, on the other a bison with its intestines spilling out from a gash in its belly. Aslant under the bison is a bird-headed man, naked and ithyphallic, quite possibly a shaman in flight who has dropped his bird-headed staff as he penetrates bison paradise. While there are some 30 hybrid figures in Upper Paleolithic caves (including two in Lascaux’s Apse) that can be interpreted as magical hybrids, the bird-headed man in the Shaft is the most solid evidence that we have for the presence of proto-shamanic mental travel, or the rudiments of poetry, 17,000 years ago.

What I have briefly described are but a few of Lascaux’s truly amazing images, some of which in their lineaments, execution, and beauty are unsurpassed in historical art. In Lascaux, humankind’s greatest endowment, imagination, is initiated, empowered, and fully realized. It is arguably the most spiritual spot on earth.

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Lascaux was rediscovered in the fall of 1940 by several teen-age boys, altered (without archeological investigation) for visitors 8 years later, thronged by tourists for some 15 years, then closed to the general public (because of deterioration), in 1963, at which time the cave was scientifically equipped to permit small groups of specialists to make brief visits. This procedure worked until 1999 when it appears that Philippe Oudin, the Architect-in-chief of Historic Monuments, who had no previous experience with caves, decided to replace the old passive air-conditioning equipment (which had worked perfectly for nearly 40 years), with a new high-powered system. Soon after the new equipment was sloppily installed, with inadequate supervision, by a company that had never done such work before, various molds and fungi began to proliferate throughout the 235 meter cave, covering some of the paintings and many of the engravings.

Eleven years later, the cave is in far worse shape than it was in 1999 and none of the bureaucracies involved in the cave’s health have taken responsibility for its condition, nor facilitated a new scientific investigation of its climatological problems. What follows is a time line setting forth Lascaux’s tragic historical adventure.

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1940: on the 12th of September, Lascaux is discovered by four teenagers near the town of Montignac in the French Dordogne. Two of the boys (Marcel Ravidat, 1923-1995, and Jacques Marsal, 1926-1989), become caretakers and guides at the cave. During World War II, the French Resistance stores weapons in Lascaux.

1947: The cave is modified for public access: the entrance is widened, steps and concrete flooring are installed (with no archeological investigation of the cave’s sediments) along with electricity and a metal door.

1955: due to the huge number of visitors (at its peak, 1700 per day), the raised temperatures alter the cave’s humidity. Sometimes tourists faint due to the tainted atmosphere. Water vapors condense and run down the walls. Pollen and spores are brought in on the visitors’ shoes.

1958: An air-conditioning system is installed to remove carbon dioxide from the air, and to lower the temperature, allowing the visitors to breathe. However, the new machine blows pollen and spores everywhere. A year later, colonies of algae (referred to as the “green sickness”) are proliferating on the walls and some paintings.

1960-1962: The “green sickness” continues to spread. At one point, the “Falling Horse” at the back of the Axial Gallery is disappearing in a “prairie” of greenish algae.

Opaque crystals of calcite (referred to as the “white sickness”) are also noticed on some of the paintings. This problem is created by the levels of carbon dioxide, humidity and temperature brought about by the presence of visitors.

1963: It is decided to return the cave to its original condition. The air-conditioning machine is shut off, and the cave is closed to the public. Antibiotics and diluted formalin stop the “green sickness.” With the end of daily visitors, the “white sickness” disappears. The Minister of Culture, André Malraux, appoints a scientific commission to “study the changes inside the cave, find remedies, and bring the cave back to stable conditions.”

1965-67: A new cooling system to control and regulate temperature, carbon dioxide and humidity levels is installed. It processes Lascaux’s natural convection currents to regulate and maintain the cave’s delicate climate. The scientific commission determines that the problems had arisen primarily from the size of the tourist groups and the amount of time they had spent in the cave (thus raising its temperature and altering its humidity) as well as the pollen and spores brought in on the tourist’s shoes. The commission decides that once stabilized the cave can be opened five days a week to five people for a visit not exceeding 40 minutes. All visitors are required to decontaminate the soles of their shoes by immersing them in a formalin solution before leaving the airlock chamber guarding the cave’s entrance.

1972: Given the popularity of Lascaux and the impossibility of now accommodating tourist visits, it is decided to build a replica of part of the cave. The entrance to a quarry several hundred meters downhill from the original cave is chosen as the site. Only the Rotunda and the Axial Gallery, which contains most of the paintings, but none of the engravings, will be replicated. Construction is begun in 1980 and completed three years later. Lascaux II is a work of modeled concrete reproducing the smallest details in the relief of the original to within a few inches. The Dordogne painter Monique Pétral reproduces all the drawings and paintings from these two galleries.

1976: Lascaux is stabilized, and the scientific commission disbands. At this point Jacques Marsal becomes the primary caretaker and guide of the cave until his death in 1989. For the following 22 years there are no problems in the cave. My wife Caryl and I visited Lascaux 6 times between 1974 and 1997.

1998: An engineer from the Research Laboratory for Historical Monuments (LRMH) notices lichen growing in the cave. Jean-Michel Geneste, who became curator of the cave in 1992, and is in charge of research, apparently takes no action.

1999: Philippe Oudin, who will supervise all construction work in the cave from this point on, decides to replace the old air system with a new one designed to improve it by using two massive high-powered fans to move the air about. A refrigeration and plumbing company, with no cave experience, is given the contract.

2000: Installation of the new equipment begins. Workers are instructed to wash their feet, limit working hours, and stay out of the painted areas of the cave. Geneste, who accepts the construction plans and supposedly oversees the installation (he visits once a week) comments that “The workers often ignored us and did not disinfect their feet. They didn’t keep the door closed all they time; they wanted to get the job done quickly.” He does not say why he did not reprimand or stop them. Isabelle Pallot-Frossard, Director of the LRMH, responsible for monitoring the cave’s biological conditions, makes no inspections during this period. The new installation involves removing the roof from the airlock chamber, where the old equipment is housed. The roof is replaced by a thin sheet of metal that allows drenching rains to pour into the chamber and the cave entrance. An art restorer, Rosalie Godin, who visits the cave at this time, describes the work site as a swamp, with construction waste all over the place. “It was an apocalyptic vision,” she states. Because of the disruption of the cave’s climatological balance, fungi begin to appear in the equipment chamber, and in one year have colonized the cave.

2001: Installation of the new air system is completed. A new fungus spreads on the floor and on outcroppings below the decorated walls. “It looks as if it had snowed inside the cave. Everything was covered in white,” Godin reports. In September, the LRMH identifies the fungus as Fusarium solani, a virulent mold that commonly infects soil and crops and often proves so drug resistant that whole crop fields must be dug up and burned. Fungicides are sprayed but the fungus returns. The treatment leaves large dark spots of fungi and bacteria 4 to 6 inches in diameter on the walls. Several tons of quicklime are spread out over the floor to sterilize the cave but this operation only raises the temperature. The new air system is shut down as it is now deemed inappropriate for the cave.

2002: A new scientific commission is appointed by Christine Albanel, the Minister of Culture “to evaluate the effects of emergency treatments and their effect on the preservation of the paintings and engraving.” Virtually no news of their deliberations reach the archeological community, let alone the general public. At this point it appears that four different individuals—Oudin, Geneste, Pallot-Frossard, and Albanel—are responsible for the cave’s well-being with no one authority held accountable. There is no independent international oversight. While the fungi and molds are retreating, bacteria is still growing in the large dark spots.

2003: Teams of workers, dressed in hooded biohazard suits, booties and face masks, move inside and out of the cave regularly over the next several years, mechanically removing the fungi by its roots. The first articles breaking the silence around Lascaux appear in La Researche, and Le Point. Laurence Léauté-Beasley and her husband, Bruce Beasley, a California sculptor, along with a group of international artists, form the International Committee for the Preservation of Lascaux (ICPL). For the past seven years the ICPL has fought to break the silence and to counter the misleading statements of the authorities.

2006: New colonies of black spots appear near the cave’s entrance. They are reported but not immediately analyzed or treated. In May 2006, Léauté-Beasley induces Time magazine to do a cover story on the cave’s situation. In writing about the Lascaux situation for The Wall Street Journal, Lee Rosenbaum reports that Geneste “was fuming about the Time article which suggested that the stewardship of the cave had been botched and that its 17,000-year-old paintings were in jeopardy.” Geneste also tells Rosenbaum that “there is no damage to the paintings. The situation is stable. The growth of fungi have disappeared naturally from the paintings.” Someone from the scientific commission set up in 2002 is said to have commented: “They tell us the cave’s situation is stable. But that’s what they said about Ariel Sharon.” At the time Geneste makes the above statement, the teams of workers are in the cave three days a week removing fungi roots. Root extractions are leaving dark marks and circles on the paintings.

By the year’s end the black spots have spread throughout the cave, covering some paintings and many of the engravings (including those in the Apse). Biologists are unable to determine the species, cause and treatment of these spots.

The sparkling white calcite crystal wall of The Rotunda, which served as an extraordinary background for the painted animals, has turned gray.

In an effort to remove responsibility from the LRMH, Pallot-Frossard claims that Lascaux’s crisis is simply a continuation of the old 1963 problems.

2007: The inappropriate new air-conditioning machine is shut down (but not replaced by one like the original machine that functioned well for some 30 years). The black spots continue to proliferate. The temporary roof remains in place still exposing the cave to exterior climate and precipitation. Water runs down the cave’s walls and paintings at times, followed by periods of extreme dryness. In December of this year, Léauté-Beasley and the ICPL succeed in bringing UNESCO into the picture; Lascaux is one of the first “World Heritage Sites” on UNESCO’S list.

By December, the black spots have tripled in number since the summer. It is now proposed that they have been created as a result of the direct lighting used by the survey team and art restorers over the last four years.

There is still no independent scientific oversight of Lascaux’s situation.

2008: The black spots now contaminate 50% of Lascaux’s decorated walls. Most of the 1600 engravings are effected. In July, the ICPL calls for UNESCO to place Lascaux on the World Heritage Sites in Danger list (no action is taken). At no time over the past 8 years has the Lascaux administration conducted a thorough scientific investigation of the cave’s situation prior to treatments being applied. The World Heritage Commission now presents France with the following requirements:

1) To create an impact study before further intervention.

2) To invite a World Heritage Commission mission inside Lascaux to examine the current condition.

3) To submit to the Commission a conservation report by February 2009 on the causes of the damage (up to now only symptoms have been treated). Christine Albanel (The Minister of Culture), proposes to that the Commission requirements be ignored and that the current work inside the cave be continued.

2009: Albanel now sets up a symposium to focus on Lascaux’s problems. At the symposium, she announces the creation of a new scientific committee which will operate independently from the non-scientific bureaucratic management of the cave. However, at the end of the symposium, Jean Clottes, the renown rock art expert and Chairman of the Symposium, declares that the cave is no longer in danger! This contradicts his earlier statement on the “hundred or more micro-organisms cohabiting and interacting in the cave.”

International scientists offer their services to form a Lascaux International Think Tank. As of August 2009, France had not empowered them to act.

At the end of 2009, in brief the situation is as follows:

1) No study as to the origins of the damage has been undertaken.

2) No treatment has been found to stop the proliferation of the black spots.

3) The climatic balance in the cave has not been restored.

4) The Think Tank, earlier in the year given permission to begin its work by the new Minister of Culture, Frederic Mitterand, has been abolished.

5) There is still no scientific supervision of Lascaux.

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It is now clear that those primarily in charge of Lascaux, including those who have authorized the installation of new equipment or preventive measures inside the cave—primarily, as I understand it, Oudin, Geneste, Pallot-Frossard, and Albanel (and as of 2009, Frederic Mitterand)—have, as Paul Bahn has written, “orchestrated a policy of misinformation, denial, and blame-shifting since the beginning of the crisis in 2000.” Léauté-Beasley has explained: “It is clear that the authorities in charge of managing the Lascaux conservation crisis have, for the most part, some direct responsibility for its occurrence. This is why they have produced no objective view or critical analysis of what has been done since the inception of the crisis. The scientific committee which they direct cannot have the necessary critical approach needed to understand what happened, why, and how to remedy the problem. The scientific commission appointed in 2002 by the minister of culture meets two or three times a year to review the actions decided on by the administrators. The scientists on the committee are acting as consultants, not as decision makers. And being hired hands, or part of the Lascaux administration, they are prevented from talking about Lascaux’s problems with other scientists outside the commission. This situation with its lack of transparency is lethal for the cave.”

The global Upper Paleolithic is wrapped, as it were, in historical gauze. All our words for continents, regions, areas, sites, tools, weapons, techniques, and aesthetics are historically imposed, more often than not by modern history. While this is obvious, it is a slippery matter. Many a subliminal association has linked “France” to “the origin of art.” Which is to say that fundamentally Lascaux does not belong to France. It belongs to the earth of which France is a historic superimposition.

While this may be spiritually true, I do not know of any way to politically enforce it. Might the United Nations be called upon to intervene? Might the President of France have the intelligence and guts to release the cave from what must now be the shame-ridden strangle-hold of those now in charge and place Lascaux under the supervision of an international scientific committee?

Or is it too late?

Please sign this petition to Save Lascaux.


Note: The material in the time line part of this essay has drawn upon information available on the Save Lascaux website, including articles cited there from The Wall Street Journal, Time and Archeology magazines. I have also made use of research on Lascaux in my book, Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination & the Construction of the Underworld (Wesleyan University Press, 2003), and on information to be found in The Cave of Lascaux / The Final Photographs by Mario Ruspoli (Abrams, 1986) and Lascaux / Movement, Space, and Time by Norbert Aujoulat (Abrams, 2005).

CLAYTON ESHLEMAN is a poet, translator and author of Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination & the Construction of the Underworld.