The prehistoric cave was discovered in 1940. It is located in the Dordogne department, in southwestern France. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979.
“THE SISTINE CHAPEL OF PREHISTORY”
Lascaux is considered one of the greatest discoveries of humanity, due to the quality of its rock paintings and engravings.
The site is unique for:
- The images representing animals from the end of the Ice Age with a true artistic expression.
- The archaeological remains (stone tools, bone tools, prehistoric jewelry)
- The signs, called “abstract” and considered as a possible writing.
After the war, Lascaux was open to the public for many years. The popularity of the site is such that one million people visited the cave between 1948 and 1963. It helped to promote the region, to create local jobs.
However, Lascaux was the victim of its success:
From 1955, the first signs of deterioration are observed. The excess of carbon dioxide induced by visitors’ breathing damaged the walls and the animals’ frescoes. The “green disease” appeared: the spread of algae colonies followed by the “white disease”, a calcite veil that settles on the rocks.
The cave was closed to the public in 1963 because of the multiplication of conservation issues and human mistakes. Indeed, several measures were undertaken to preserve the site. But they were not very effective or even worse: many of the interventions to improve the situation since the 60s have had negative effects. The cure was worse than the disease. Scientists lacked knowledge about this contamination and did not imagine collateral damages from cleaning. The enthusiasm for discovery and economic interest prevailed over the protection of the site. UNESCO had even taken charge of the situation, doubting the ability of the French authorities.
“This recognition endows the heritage artefact’s home state with political and economic benefits without, however, an enforceable commensurate obligation to manage the Site in a manner consistent with the international interest.”
Graham, G.J. Ashworth, J.E. Tunbridge: A Geography of Heritage (2000), page 243.
The state of conservation has now improved thanks to the contribution of UNESCO and the better information of local community of the natural features of Lascaux. However, to allow the public to admire this masterpiece of prehistory, an identical reconstruction of Lascaux was carried out (same paintings, techniques, and pigments …): this replica is called Lascaux 2.
Another gallery opened later, Lascaux 3, with the exhibition of other previously unseen frescoes. It is a commercial success and the most visited site in the region.
Civilization has discovered one of its most extraordinary works: for 18000 years, the frescoes of Lascaux remained in the state, safe from human nuisance. But seventy years after its discovery, the famous cave of Dordogne is under treatment. Conservation issues led to the creation of an International Scientific Committee for Lascaux: its purpose is to rethink how, and to what extent, human access should be allowed in caves containing prehistoric art. Lascaux hi tech replicas demonstrates that mass tourism and environmental protection are compatible: there must be a common willingness of the authorities to protect and promote both the site, as well as persons with an in-depth knowledge to do it.
Emily Arnold McCully: The Secret Cave: Discovering Lascaux Hardcover (14 Sep 2010) Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux, ISBN-139780374366940
Graham, G.J. Ashworth, J.E. Tunbridge: A Geography of Heritage (2000) Edward Arnold Publishers Ltd.