Friday, January 20, 2012


1. The overwhelming Hall of the Bulls, the first large chamber with paintings seen by Marcel Ravidat, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel, and Simon Coencas after dropping through the Lascaux Cave entrance on September 12, 1940.


Lascaux Cave is located along the left bank of the river Vézère near the town of Montignac in southwestern France. It is a rather short cave, only 250 meters long, with a drop of about 30 meters over that distance. The cave structure consists of a series of large circular chambers connected by passages tall enough to walk through. Archeologists have given the chambers names based on the artwork within each.

2. Map of the Lascaux cave with the major artistic features identified.


The Lascaux paintings are attributed to the Paleolithic Cro-Magnon people Homo sapiens sapiens and are part of the Magdalenian culture.

3.  Animal fat was burned in this lamp to provide light in the cave.
  Artifacts recovered from Lascaux are mostly related to painting. Among these are rock scrapers for etching, pieces of naturally occurring pigments, pestles and mortars used to mix the pigments, bone tools, shells from necklaces, and a small bone oil lamp. Most artifacts found are either used in painting or providing light for painting. The lack or human bones or other artifacts indicates that the cave was not used as a living site.  People only used entered for painting and associated activities.

 4. A shell from a necklace.It was attached to the necklace along the horizontal cut near the top.

5. Bone tools.


The paintings are colored with blacks, yellows, reds and whites. These pigments were created from hematitite, manganese, charcoal, and clays. The pigments were crushed, moistened with water or spit and adhered to the walls when they dried.
6. Natural pigments used in the painting. Left to right hematitie, ochre, magnesium dioxide.

Outlines were made using fur or hand as a brush and fields of colors within the outline were applied by blowing the paint through a tube as seen in figure 7.

7. A horse with a row of dots below it. 


Lascaux contains some 2000 figures on its walls. Of these, about 600 are paintings and 1400 are engravings. These can be grouped into three groups; animals, very rare human figures, and abstract shapes. Interestingly, there are no images of landscape or vegetation anywhere in the cave.

8.  Two horses.
9. Head of an auroch.

Horses are by far the most common animal figure. Stags, cattle and bison are also very common. There are a few felines, two human figures, and one each of ibex, birds, bear, and rhinoceros. The few carnivores shown (felines, bears) are in the most remote parts of the cave. This beastiary reflects the large mammals occupying the area during the time of Lascaux. The absence of mammoths and near absence of wooly rhinoceros in Lascaux indicates that the paintings were done during a warmer interglacial period.

10.  Stag.

11. Two bison.

Abstract figures occur as dots, lines, and curves, etc. and some have been interpreted as ancient star charts.

What these diverse images represent is difficult to ascertain. Are they memorializing hunting events or serving as strategies for future hunts? Are the figures simply illustrations of animals or are they symbolic? Are the paintings secular or spiritual in nature? Might they serve more than one of these functions or some other function we cannot discern? These are difficult questions to answer and we may not be able to answer them at all. We know nothing of the mental and spiritual worlds of the painters so the “meaning” of the Lascaux may be impossible to answer with certainty. However, the art was not likely decorations of living areas, since the caves with paintings show no signs of continuing habitation. There is a very large body of research about cave art around the world. That is much too complex an issue to even discuss in a rudimentary way here and I suggest the interested reader search the internet for discussions of the various schools of thought interpreting the paintings.


Dating the Lascaux paintings themselves is frustratingly challenging. This is because most of the pigments used are metal oxides and have no carbon, thereby excluding radiocarbon dating. C14 dating of small bits of charcoal excavated from the cave floors gives dates of 15,500 to 17,2000 years old. C14 dates of bone tools from the floor gives ages ranging from 18,600 and 18,900 years old. Comparison of the Lascaux images and symbols with other better dates cave art suggests that some images may before from beginning of the Magdalenian culture around 17,000 old. Some time after the paintings were completed the cave entrance collapsed, creating a sealed stable environment that preserved the delicate artwork.

4, 5, 6:
8, 9, 10:

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