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 Location: Dordoigne, Montignac, France.  Grid Reference: N 45° 3' 27",  E 1° 10' 12".

 

      Lascaux Cave: (Palaeolithic Cave-art).

Lascaux contains some of the best-known Upper Palaeolithic art. These paintings are estimated to be around 17,300 years old. (1) They primarily consist of primitive images of large animals, most of which are now known from fossil evidence to have lived in the area at the time.

Lascaux is one of the worlds richest examples of cave-art with over 1,500 engravings and 600 drawings having been documented. The Vézère valley in which Lascaux is found contains 147 prehistoric sites dating from the Palaeolithic and 25 decorated caves. (1)

 

(Virtual Tour of Lascaux Caves)

(Map of Lascaux Interior Layout)

 

   Lascaux Cave:

In addition to the painted images, Lascaux is rich with engravings of animals as well as abstract designs. It has long been argued that in the absence of natural light, these works could only have been created with the aid of torches and stone lamps filled with animal fat, however new research has suggested that the parts of the caves might have been temporarily illuminated by the sun at certain times of the year (see below).

There are various theories on the significance of the paintings: Some people believe them to be records of real life events, others an astro-mythical representation of the night skies, and there are those that believe them to be 'Shamanic offerings' or 'Hunt Magic' (6). Perhaps a little of each may be true. Today, we are left to marvel at their skilful execution and artistic beauty

It has been suggested that the art represents moments from real life such as hunts which were drawn on the wall like a comic strip. (The story of the hunt goes from the left to the right, until the prey is captured). We can assume from their large number that the society from which the artist(s) came from tolerated people painting walls while others hunted or made weapons for the hunters.

The Main Hall.

At Lascaux and Chauvet, another magnificently painted cave in France, images of animals are superimposed on top of earlier depictions, which suggests that the motivation for the paintings may have been in the act of portraying the animals rather than in the artistic effect of the final composition. However, their purpose remains obscure. Most of the paintings are located at a distance from the cave's entrance, and many of the chambers are not easily accessible. This placement, together with the enormous size and compelling grandeur of the paintings, suggests that the remote chambers may have served as sacred or ceremonial meeting places.

 

 

 The Lascaux Planetarium.

Hall of the Bulls.

In recent years, new research has suggested that the Lascaux paintings may incorporate prehistoric star charts. Dr Michael Rappenglueck of the University of Munich argued that some of the non-figurative dot clusters and dots within some of the figurative images correlate with the constellations of Taurus, The Pleiades and the grouping known as the "Summer Triangle". (2) Based on her own study of the astronomical significance of Bronze Age petroglyphs in the Vallée des Merveilles and her extensive survey of other prehistoric cave painting sites in the region — most of which appear to have been specifically selected because the interiors are illuminated by the setting sun on the day of the winter solstice — French researcher Chantal Jègues-Wolkiewiez has further proposed that the gallery of figurative images in the Great Hall represents an extensive star map and that key points on major figures in the group correspond to stars in the main constellations as they appeared in the Palaeolithic. (3)

Near to the entrance of the Lascaux cave complex is a magnificent painting of a bull. Hanging over its shoulder is what appears (to us) to be a map of the Pleiades, the cluster of stars sometimes called the Seven Sisters. Inside the bull painting, there are also indications of spots that may be a representation of other stars found in that region of sky. Today, this region forms part of the constellation of Taurus the bull, with the remarkable suggestion of a direct transfer of information for over 17,000 years.
 

“At Lascaux in 15,300 B.C. the Pleiades were very near the point of the autumn equinox (: 12h, : 0°), when we consider the relation to the position of the brightest star 25 • Tau (Alcyone; 2m.9, : 12h 16.6m, : +2° 51´). That means that the distance separating the two was the equivalent of only 5.5 times the width of the moon, that is only 2.8° away from the equinoctial point. Even better is the star 27 • Tau (Atlas; 3m.6, : 12h 17.8m, : +2° 34´). This star reached its smallest distance of 2.6° at the time of 15300BC. Only [one] hundred years earlier or later the distance was already larger.”

“The six stars in the Salle des Taureaux therefore represent a striking and excellent heavenly marker for the beginning of autumn and of spring. The epoch calculated astronomically lies extraordinarily close to the uncalibrated oldest carbon fourteen dating: 17,190 ± 140 radiocarbon years (with the reference point being 1950) and 17300 astronomical years (in reference to the year 2000), corresponding to 15,300 BC. The difference is minimal even if the margin of error of the astronomical calculation is taken as being ± 500 years.” (7)

Confirmation that the art might have been representative of astronomy comes in the knowledge that the cave opening was orientated towards the sunset on the summer solstice. This would have naturally raised awareness of the movement of the sun over its annual cycle.

Lascaux cave entrance on the summer solstice sunset. (Photo Credits: Jacques Wolkiewiez)

The plan and section of the entrance to the cave show that before the landslide had blocked the entrance, at sunset on the summer solstice, the sun illuminated the inside of the cave. In 1999, the curator of Lascaux and others witnessed the event for the first time in over 15,000 years. The sunlight entered the cave for approximately 50 minutes and was bright enough to work by for almost an hour for a few days of the year. They also calculated that the light of the full-moon would enter the cave directly on the morning of the winter solstice. (8)

(More about Archaeoastronomy)

 

Geometric Shapes:

 

The cave also features hundreds of "signs", quadrilateral shapes and dots and other patterns which we'll surely never decipher. They suggest the first inklings of a realisation of mathematics.

Geometric rock incisions from the Paleolithic and Mesolithic period.

 

 

Mouldy Old Lascaux.

The carbon dioxide produced by the breathing of thousands of visitors (up to 1800 per day at one time) (4), the presence of lighting and changes in air circulation have created a number of problems inside Lascaux. In the late 1950s appearance of lichens and crystals on the walls led to closure of the caves in 1963. This led to restriction of access to the real caves to a few vistors every week and the creation of a replica cave for visitors to Lascaux. In 2001, the authorities in charge of Lascaux changed the air conditioning system which resulted in regulation of the temperature and humidity. When the system had been established, an infestation of Fusarium solani, a white mould, began spreading rapidly across the cave ceiling and walls. (4) The mould is considered to have been present in the cave soil and exposed by the working of tradesmen, leading to the spread of the fungus which was treated with quicklime. Since 2007, a new fungus, which has created grey and black blemishes, has begun spreading in the real cave.

After World War II, the small cave was opened to the public and, at one point, it was receiving as many as 1,800 visitors per day. But by the late 1950s, the visitors’ breath was blamed for the appearance of lichen and small crystals on the walls, prompting the government to close Lascaux to the public in 1963.

Since then, only five people per day, five days a week, have been allowed to visit the underground gallery by special permission, and tourists are steered into a replica of the cave complex nearby. The replica, known as Lascaux II, opened in 1983 and now draws more than 250,000 tourists each year.

'Recent research on Lascaux has included some investigations of the hundreds of bacteria which have formed in the cave. Because it was air conditioned for decades, and then treated biochemically to reduce mould, many pathogens have made a home in the cave, including the bacillus for Legionnaire's disease. It is unlikely that the cave will ever be opened to the public again...'.

(So what can you do about it?... Get Involved Here )

Cleaning off the white mould on the wall of Lascaux.

(Photo Credits: http://www.donsmaps.com)

 

Lascaux II.

Opened in 1983, Lascaux II was the result of eleven years' painstaking work by twenty artists and sculptors, under the supervision of Monique Peytral, using the same methods and materials as the original cave painters. This is what almost everyone gets to see today.

 

 

Mutilated Hands.

At least 20 caves in France and Spain show evidence of 'mutilated' hands. In Lascaux, accidental prints of mutilated hands left in clay and now hardened by calcite have been discovered, proving that their hands were indeed mutilated (although the cause is unknown). The Grotte de Gargas in France where 231 outlines off hands were found on the walls, of which over half were mutilated. It is tentatively suggested that because of the remaining thumbs on all the hands, frostbite might be involved. (5)

 


 

 

Photo Gallery: Lascaux.

The entrance to Lascaux caves, 1940.

 

 

(Prehistoric Cave-art)

(Other Prehistoric French Sites)

 

The 'Rough Guide' to ancient sites from around the world.

 

References:

1). http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/85
2). BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/871930.stm 
3). "The Lascaux cave: a Prehistoric sky-map...". lightmeditation. 
4). http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/09/world/europe/09cave.html?_r=2&ref=world
5). http://www.donsmaps.com/gargas.html
6). Grand, P.M. (1967). Prehistoric Art; Paleolithic Painting and Sculpture. Greenwich, Connecticut: New York Graphic Society.
7). http://www.infis.org/downloads/mr1997cenglpdf.pdf
8). http://www.archeociel.com/lascaux.htm
 

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