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.