Wednesday, February 22, 2012


1. The Passageway, Lascaux Cave.

The artwork in Lascaux quickly become the most famous Paleolithic site in the world.  It was strikingly beautiful and its location in a cave was stunning and furthered its sense of the mysterious.  However the cave became a victim of its own fame and was being loved to death. Cave environmental change and associated degradation of the artwork due to heavy visitation resulted in the cave being closed to public in 1963.

2. The detrimental effects of heavy visitation caused the cave to be closed in 1963.

 In spite of this closure many people still wanted to see the artwork and the closure would have a severe economic impact on the region. Under these pressures the French government came up with a remarkable solution, one never attempted before.  The decision was made to replicate the original cave in what would become known as Lascaux II. Duplicating the cave would not be an easy task. Ultimately it would take twelve years, twenty artists, and about 500 million francs. But millions would again be able to have some kind of Lascaux experience. 

To match the original as closely as possible Lascaux II was located underground in a nearby abandoned quarry only about 250 meters from the original cave. Even the entrance to this replica matches that at the real Lascaux.

3. The entrance to Lascaux II.

Although Lascaux is a relatively short cave, not all of the two levels of the cave could be reproduced.  Efforts focused on The Great Hall of the Bulls and the Axial gallery, two of the most striking parts of the cave.  This would replicate about a third of the total cave and a large portion of the paintings, some 200 over a length of 128 feet. To enhance the cave experience, the air temperature in Lascaux II is kept at 55oF. 

4. The outer shell of the replica of the cave, Lascaux II, during construction.
 Stereophotogrammetry was used to make millimeter precise measurements of the surface of the cave walls. A metal framework was built and overlain with three layers of chicken wire.  Special cement and mortar was then applied to this surface and the stereolithographic measurements were used to sculpt the surface to match the original. 

5. The replicated Hall of the Bulls at Lascaux II.

Next came the actual replication of the artwork.  Monique Peytral, the painter, projected images of the original figures onto the walls. Peytral used the same kind of pigments as the Paleolithic artists, based on materials found in the area surrounding the cave.  She also used the same types of tools, such as feathers, chewed plant stems, animal fur, etc. Work to make Lascaux II began in 1970 and the finished replica opened to the public in 1983.  Today it receives some 300,000 annual visitors.  

6. Photographs projected onto the false cave walls allowed for the most accurate replication of the paintings.
In 2003 the General Council of the Dordonge began a project to replicate scenes from The Nave part of Lascaux, an area not in Lascaux II.  In 2008 these copies were put on exhibit and then went abroad as a traveling exhibition.  It was permanently installed in the Toth Prehistoric Park in the nearby town of Thonac.  In addition to the artwork, this park includes a video of how Lascaux II was constructed, and living examples of the animals seen in the Lascaux paintings

 The Frieze of the Stags Heads, a Lascaux painting of five stags, was duplicated for the World’s Fair in Japan in 1990.  This duplicate frieze in now on permanent exhibit in the Hall of Biology and Human Evolution at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
7. The replica of the Frieze of the Five Stags.

8. The replica of the Frieze of the Five Stags on exhibit at the American Museum.

Unfortunately, the parking lot for Lascaux II was built directly over Lascaux Cave.  There are now concerns about both pollution of the cave from the lot and how the paved surface affects natural water flow into the cave. So the parking lot will be relocated.

And in a final bit of irony, the heavy visitation at Lascaux II has resulted in some degradation of the replica so that it too is now in need of conservation.

This is the last of my posts about Lascaux.  As I said in the first post, Lascaux concentrates many problems of resource management, resource preservation, public education, and science, all issues close to my heart and which I have dealt with during my professional career.  Lascaux offers a sobering look at how sites can be loved to death, becoming victims of their own fame and success.  How the environmental and microbial problems in the original cave will resolve themselves is uncertain, although the future is hopeful.  The success of the innovative Lascaux II, both in terms of preservation of the original art and public visitation, has been adopted elsewhere where cave art is threatened by too much visitation. Replication of the cave art at Altamira was replicated in 2001.


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