Lascaux: Underground and Online

Above: Entrance to the cave in 1940 left to right Le?on Laval, Marcel Ravidat, Jacques Marsal, and Henri Breuil. Photo courtesy of the French Ministère de la Culture and the Musée Archéologie Nationale.

On 12 September 1940 a young man, Marcel Ravidat, and his dog, Robot, were out for a stroll in the country nearby the village of Montignac, in Southwest France. When Robot chased a rabbit down a hole and disappeared, Ravidat followed. The 18-year-old descended 15 meters down a narrow shaft before emerging into a spacious cavern. Ravidat quickly found Robot, grabbed him, and hurried out of the cave. Believing that this passage was a secret tunnel to the nearby Lascaux Manor, or a grotto filled with vast treasures, he returned later with several friends to further explore the caverns. However, Ravidat and his companions found no hidden passages nor secret treasures. Instead, they came upon a curious and wonderful place, unlike anything any of them had before seen.

Perhaps this sounds like the beginning of a Wonderland-esque adventure story, a fantastical legend taking place in the French countryside. Or perhaps it is the story of the rediscovery of one of France’s most notable cultural landmarks.

Chasing after his dog that day, Ravidat unwittingly exposed what we now know as the Lascaux cave system: a network of underground tunnels that had been long ago adorned in parietal paintings—rock art—drawn expertly on the walls and ceilings of the passages. Approximately 2,000 individual paintings depict more than 6,000 figures, including animals that Magdalenian cavemen would have hunted and eaten, like auroch, deer, horses, bears, ibex. The artists also rendered abstract symbols and signs. Some painted scenes are more than six feet long and show scores of animals in movement and complex interaction with humans. One such scene, known as birdman, shows an ithyphallic man lying next to a disemboweled bison. Next to him, a gentle bird rests peculiarly atop an upright stick. Attempts to interpret such complex scenes are fraught with difficulty as scholars debate the meaning or intention of prehistoric artists. Others argue that any interpretation is moot, and more so reflects the contemporary circumstances of the interpreter.

The panel of horses
PHOTOGRAPH BY French Ministère de la Culture and the Musée Archéologie Nationale
The shaft Birdman
PHOTOGRAPH BY French Ministère de la Culture and the Musée Archéologie Nationale

The caverns are organized into galleries, or different rooms and passages within the cave system. Each is named after the predominant subject matter of the artwork painted on to its walls or after its location within the cave system. The Hall of the Bulls, for example, exhibits several paintings of bulls’ heads among other species, while The Nave is appropriately named for being at the center of the cavern.

The panel of the great black bull
PHOTOGRAPH BY French Ministère de la Culture and the Musée Archéologie Nationale
The Nave
PHOTOGRAPH BY French Ministère de la Culture and the Musée Archéologie Nationale

The Lascaux artists used pulverized color pigments like ochre and hematite to paint images in black, yellow, and red. In order to reach the ceilings of the caves, researchers suggest they used some sort of scaffolding, the earliest evidence of such technology. The animals depicted in the paintings are well represented in the fossil record of the Upper Paleolithic, approximately 50,000 to 12,000 years before present (BP). Although there is some debate about the antiquity of the cave art, most researchers posit that the paintings were created over the course of several generations, around 19,000 to 17,000 years BP.

The great black cow
PHOTOGRAPH BY French Ministère de la Culture and the Musée Archéologie Nationale
The panel of the red cows
PHOTOGRAPH BY French Ministère de la Culture and the Musée Archéologie Nationale

After renovations to make the site more accessible to visitors were delayed by the second world war, Lascaux finally opened to the public in 1948. The caves quickly became a popular attraction throughout France and brought in tourists from all over Europe to witness the prehistoric artworks. At its peak, 1,200 visitors were passing through Lascaux each day. Opening the caves to the public caused a fervor of excitement in prehistoric studies and instigated a rush of scholarship on paleolithic parietal paintings.

However, the popularity of the cave system also had damaging consequences. Twelve-hundred visitors per day, every day, were respirating in an unventilated cave that was previously unexposed to such levels of moisture and carbon dioxide, while constant access into the caverns effected air circulation patterns. Fluctuating temperatures and increased moisture allowed lichens, fungi, and crystals to grow on the cave walls and ceiling. Molds began to form in the passages and remain hazardous and damaging infestations in Lascaux to this day. Furthermore, light exposure from lamps and other installations caused permanent pigment deterioration to the artwork. The plague of humanity’s unchecked determination to consume began to destroy the caves, so that by 1963, authorities closed Lascaux to the public.

Following the closure of the site, few were allowed inside the cave system. Preservationists were admitted to care for the artworks and treat deterioration while the occasional researcher was granted access to collect samples and analyze the artworks. However, the public remained barred from visitation. For nearly 20 years, only a select handful of people glimpsed the painted halls of Lascaux.

In 1983—four years after Lascaux was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Sites—a partial replica of the cave system, including the famed Great Hall of the Bulls and the Painted Gallery, was exhibited at the Grand Palais in Paris. The display later moved to a structure just a few hundred yards from the original site and opened to the public as a permanent exhibit. Lascaux II, as it became known, was created using the same techniques and naturally-occurring materials that were utilized by the artists of the original paintings. The public could once again enjoy the pleasure of immersion in a paleolithic cave—one that was pristine, as if it were untouched by the modern hand, unseen by the modern eye after nearly two decamillenia of vacancy; one that was authentic, as if it were the real thing.

Other replicas of the caverns have been designed over the years in an attempt to bring the experience, the wonder and awe, of Lascaux to a broader audience without risking the integrity of the original site. Since 2012, Lascaux III, a traveling exhibition sponsored by the Musée d'Archéologie Nationale, featuring replicas of The Nave and The Shaft, has been touring galleries around the world, bringing Lascaux’s art to a museum hall near you! The first complete replica, dubbed Lascaux IV, was opened in 2016 as part of the Centre International de l'Art Pariétal. Constructed into the side of a mountain overlooking the town of Montignac, Lascaux IV uses digital imaging technology to enhance visitor experience as they the artificial halls. Perhaps the most frequently visited iteration of the famous cave site, however, is not exhibited in a museum gallery nor built into the side of a mountain (it doesn’t even have its own numerical modifier). It’s digital.

Although the virtual exhibition of Lascaux cave system was published by the Ministry of Culture more than a decade ago, the online tour—featuring approximately 3 minutes of digitally-rendered 3D film—has been making its rounds across social media, as those still stuck at home due to pandemic restrictions crave ever more cultural media. Lascaux’s digital adaptation flies the viewer through all nine galleries, highlighting several of the cavern’s most notable paintings. The tour is accompanied by an esoteric sound clip, repeating each time the video transitions into a new section of the cave. The video’s movement between the galleries, by the way, is not for the easily unsteadied. Rapid transitions, quick, soaring movements, and the unsettled feeling of rollercoasting through the underground passages is enough to induce some disequilibrium. Videographic editing aside, the virtual Lascaux experience is perhaps the most impressive replication of the prehistoric venue for one reason: the experience can take place from the comfort of one’s own couch.

Lascaux is frequently cited in Archaeology 101 courses as a case study for authenticity in cultural heritage. I learned about it in Eric Cline’s Introduction to Archaeology class at the George Washington University and I taught it as his Teaching Assistant four years later. On one hand, the reproductions that are available to the public are not the original, nor will the real Lascaux be accessible to general audiences any time soon, most likely forever. There can be an obvious sense of disconnection, knowing that one’s experience is a product of the fabrication of an original. In other words, replication can be convincing to the senses, but it cannot altogether sway knowledge of artificiality. However, as Dinah Casson, one of the lead designers of Lascaux IV, remarked “you see this, or you see nothing.” Replication is an important strategy for preserving the integrity and scientific value of the real Lascaux cave system, and one that allows people to continue to experience, with some abstraction, the paleolithic artworks that have impressed visitors to the site for more than a half century. The artwork, reproduced specifically for cultural tourism, is nonetheless impressive.

The quandary provokes further questions: Is a modeled experience “authentic?” Can a virtual experience be just as fulfilling as the real thing? What does authentic even mean regarding cultural tourism? Is it successful replication of an original, or does it have to do with facilitating visitor enthusiasm and satisfaction? Difficult questions beget difficult answers.

When Marcel Ravidat (and Robot) came upon Lascaux 80 years ago, hardly could he have imagined the impact upon the fields of archaeological science and cultural preservation his happenstance encounter would have. Nor could he have known that this underground cave in rural southwest France could within a century be streamed into the homes of people living across the globe.

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Samuel D. Pfister

Samuel D. Pfister is the Collections Manager at the Badè Museum of Archaeology at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California and has always had a passion for history and museums. He graduated from the George Washington University with a BA in Anthropology & History in 2018 and again in 2020 with a MA in Anthropology. You can find Samuel on Twitter @pfister_samuel or at samueldpfister.com