Going Underground

09 12 lascaux horseOn this day in 1940 four French teenagers Marcel Ravidat, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel, and Simon Coencas were out exploring the countryside near Montignac in the Dordogne. There was a rumour of a secret tunnel that led underneath a river and led from Castel of Montignac to the Manor of Lascaux where there might be hidden treasure. The boys discovered a small hole in the ground under the roots of a fallen tree. They could feel cold air blowing up through the hole and hoped they had found an entrance to the tunnel.

They tried throwing stones into the hole to try to determine how deep it was. Then they decided to explore it. The boys made the hole large enough to squeeze through and found themselves sliding down a steep 15 metre long shaft. At the bottom they found themselves in a huge cavern. Being resourceful, adventuring sort of people they had oil lamps with them which they shone around the walls and ceiling. Marshal, who at fourteen was the youngest, remembers what he saw: a cavalcade of animals larger than life painted on the walls and ceiling of the cave; each animal seemed to be moving. All the images were brightly painted in reds, blacks, browns and ochres.

09 12 megalocerus lascauxWhat the four boys had discovered were the now famous Lascaux Cave Paintings which are believed to be at least 17,000 years old. The first cave they entered is now referred to as the Great Hall of Bulls. There are 36 bulls, horses and stags painted here. Four huge black bulls dominate the walls. The largest is 17 ft (5.2 metres) long. The cave consists of a series of passageways and almost 2,000 paintings can be found there. Some are painted using different coloured earths and charcoal others are scratched into the stone. Almost half are animals. Among them are paintings of animals that are now extinct such as the aurochs, a huge ancestor of the domestic cow, and the megalocerus, a giant elk. They truly are enormous, I’ve seen a skeleton in the National Museum of Scotland. Of the other animals, most are horses, but there are also stags, bison, seven felines, a bird, a bear, a rhinoceros and a human.

The caves were opened to the public in 1948, after the war. Sometimes over a thousand visitors a day came to see the paintings. But a combination of all the carbon dioxide that they were breathing out and the water vapour created began to damage the paintings and the caves were closed again in 1963. The painting have suffered from various outbreaks of fungal growth since their discovery and preserving them is an ongoing project. You can still visit nearby Lascaux II which has replicas of some of the paintings.

The Paleolithic people who used the caves would have had lamps to illuminate their paintings. We know this because around 100 stone lamps were found around the floor of the cave. These would have been fuelled with animal fat with wicks made from moss, lichen or juniper. Some of the images seem to be drawn on top of one another, having more that one head, tail or several sets of legs. It was hard to determine why they did this. But then in 2012 an archaeologist called Marc Azéma and an artist called Florent Rivère wrote an article suggesting that when these images were viewed in the flickering light of a lantern, they may have looked as though they were moving. Remembering what young Marshal, one of the boys who discovered the cave, told of his first impressions I can well see this might be possible. Azéma spent twenty years looking at Stone Age animation techniques and has identified fifty-three figures in twelve French caves that superimpose two or more images. Twenty of them are at Lascaux. Some of them have been animated on video. Take a look, they’re fascinating.

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