The Caves of Lascaux-Rock of Ages

After surviving for 15,000  years or more, these  ancient Cave paintings have been seriously  damaged  over  the  past  60  years  by  artificial  light  and  carbon  dioxide—both byproducts of tourism. Efforts are also under way to halt the spread of a fungus, possibly caused by a climate control system installed in 2001.

Scientists called it the “green sickness”—the   atmospheric   changes   that   were destroying the world’s most famous cave paintings. It should have been no surprise, though,  considering  that  several  million tourists  had  crowded  through  Lascaux’s underground  chambers  to  gawk  at  this astonishing cache of prehistoric artwork—bulls, wild boars, stags, horses, and deer, rendered in dynamic, lifelike tableaux.

Lascaux  has  been  closed  to  the  public since  1964,  although  qualified  archaeologists  can  still  apply  to  visit.    It’s  a  paradox  that  rises again and again in archaeology. What are we  preserving  ancient  sites  for,  if  not  to look upon them?

Who  knew,  back  in  1940  when  the caves  were  first  discovered,  what  a  big deal  they  would  turn  out  to  be?  Four French  boys  stumbled  upon  these  caves by  accident,  hunting  for  their  dog  one afternoon;  they  crawled  into  a  cave  (the Dordogne  region  is  honeycombed  with such caves) and saw its walls daubed with hundreds  of  figures  in  vivid  ochers,  yellows,  browns,  and  reds.  Archaeologists soon followed, and dated the art—a mix of some  600  engravings,  detailed  line  drawings,  and  paintings—back  to  the  Stone Age, some 15,000 to 20,000 years ago.

Opened to the public in 1948, the caves became  one  of  France’s  hottest  tourist sites, just as the post–World War II travel boom  was  taking  off.  Naturally  cool,  still, and  dark,  the  caves  offered  ideal  artifact storage  conditions,  which  is  why  these drawings  were  so  well  preserved  in  the first place. But with artificial light installed, increased  air  circulation,  and—worst  of all—the  carbon  dioxide  exhaled  by  over 1,000  visitors  a  day,  the  limestone  walls began  to  corrode,  and  tiny  mosses  and lichens  bloomed.  But  even  banning  the general public wasn’t enough; soon after a climate-control system was installed, there was  a  major  outbreak  of  white  fungus  in 2001, and spots of mold were detected in late  2007,  spurring  officials  to  shut  the caves  temporarily  to  all  but  the  most essential visitors.

Nowadays,  you’ll  have  to  be  content with  the  nearby  Lascaux  II,  an  above-ground   concrete   replica   that   contains faithful copies of some 200 paintings. Even Lascaux II is carefully controlled, with only 200 visitors allowed per day; from April to October,  you  can  buy  tickets  outside  the Montignac  tourist  office  (place  Bertrand-de-Born, We’ve all seen pictures of these artworks, but seeing them in  context  is  something  else—even  in  this fake setting, the sheer number and variety of  images  is  mind-boggling.  Still,  one  big thing is missing: the sensation of connecting  with  those  prehistoric  artists  through the actual paintings themselves.