On 12 September 1940, less than three months after the fall of France, four teenage boys and a small dog named Robot made one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the last century. The group were walking through the sloping woods above Lascaux Manor, near the town of Montignac, which lies on the Vézère River, Dordogne. They were investigating a local legend about an old tunnel, said to connect Lascaux Manor to the ruined Château de Montignac on the other side of the river. Robot was running on ahead of the boys and was attracted to a deep hole in the ground. Covered with overgrowth, it had been exposed by the falling of a tree.
Accounts vary as to what happened next. According to some versions, the little dog fell into the hole and had to be rescued; others claim the boys used their penknives to enlarge the hole, cutting away earth and removing stones; others suggest that the boys first equipped themselves with picks, shovels and lighting before returning to investigate further. Whichever version is correct, they enlarged the hole and at length they were able to slide through feet-first, one by one, along a semi-vertical shaft embedded with stalagmites, finally reaching a dark underground chamber. There, in the flickering glow of their oil-lamp, they saw prehistoric paintings of horses, cattle and herds of deer, brilliantly multicoloured in reds, blacks, browns and ochres, unseen by human eyes for at least 18,000 years.
Despite the unhappy times, news of the discovery spread rapidly. Villagers flocked to the caves and they soon drew visitors from further afield. Among these was the Catholic priest and archaeologist Abbé Henri Breuil, who was able to attest to the great antiquity of the caves and described them as “The Sistine Chapel of Prehistory”. Another early visitor was Pablo Picasso, who on emerging from the cave, is said to have remarked in reference to modern art “We have invented nothing”.
In 1948, the site’s landowners opened the caves as a tourist attraction, and soon they were attracting a quarter of a million visitors annually. Unfortunately, by 1955 it became clear that CO2 exhaled by the large numbers of visitors was promoting the growth of algae, causing significant damage to the paintings. After a number of unsuccessful attempts to ameliorate the problem, the caves were eventually taken over by the French Ministry of Cultural Affairs and closed to the public in 1963. Only five people a day are now admitted and scholars wishing to visit the caves for research purposes face a lengthy wait for a twenty-minute slot. Ordinary visitors have to make do with Lascaux II, a facsimile of the original which opened in 1983.
The paintings are now believed to be between 18,000 to 19,000 years old – four times older than the Pyramids – and are associated with the Solutrean or early Magdalenian period. There are 915 animals depicted, mainly horses, deer, aurochs (wild cattle) and bison – animals which at that time roamed wild on the steppes of Ice Age Europe. Despite their great antiquity, the Lascaux Caves are certainly not the oldest cave paintings known; that title is currently held by the Chauvet Caves near Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, Ardèche, which are almost twice as old. Considered to be of equal artistic merit with Lascaux, the oldest paintings at Chauvet are now thought to be 36,000 years old, associated with the Aurignacian people and dating to a time when two species of human – Neanderthals and Homo sapiens – coexisted in Europe.
(This article first appeared on my blog http://www.christopherseddon.com on 12 September 2010 – the 70th anniversary of the discovery)