Debate Over Moldy Cave Art Is a Tale of Human Missteps

Markings show the spots where fungus, cracks and other problems threaten one of the Lascaux cave paintings, which are estimated to be 17,000 years old.
Markings show the spots where fungus, cracks and other problems threaten one of the Lascaux cave paintings, which are estimated to be 17,000 years old. (Courtesy Of Drac Aquitaine -- French Ministry Of Culture And Communication)
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By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 1, 2008

MONTIGNAC, France -- The regal black bull painted by a Stone Age artist on a cave wall in southwestern France 17,000 years ago has survived millennia of war and pestilence just a few yards above its subterranean gallery.

Today the prehistoric bovine could face annihilation by an army of encroaching black mold spots, the latest in a series of threats unwittingly brought in over the years by tourists, scientists and bureaucrats.

"Each time we try to resolve one problem, we create another," said Marie-Anne Sire, the cave administrator who coordinates the scientific teams trying to save the endangered reindeer, potbellied ponies and woolly rhinos of the Lascaux cave, which contains one of the world's most famous collections of prehistoric art.

The extraordinary creatures -- hundreds of exquisite beasts etched and painted across the undulating walls and ceilings of large underground cavities -- have become part of an international struggle to rescue prehistoric artifacts from the missteps of modern man.

Lascaux is the focus of a growing, Internet-driven global debate: Should heritage sites become laboratories reserved, in the interests of preservation, for study exclusively by scientists? Or are they such an important part of the patrimony of humanity that they should be open to the public, despite the inherent risks of damage?

"The art of Lascaux is a legacy belonging to all mankind," the U.S.-based International Committee for the Preservation of Lascaux notes on its Web site. The cave "redefined what was previously known about our creative development as human beings and our ability to construct image from abstract thought."

The whimsical horses, bears, reindeer and bison demonstrate an understanding of visual depth and movement among Cro-Magnon artists that did not emerge in modern-era art until a few centuries ago. The creatures seem to move over the walls' uneven surfaces -- a herd of reindeer fording a river, horses galloping amid cattle, ibex leaping through space.

Scientists can only speculate on the original purpose of the cave and the meaning of recurring geometric symbols found among the 600 paintings and 1,500 etchings on its walls. The most commonly accepted theory is that Lascaux and other art-filled caves in the region were sanctuaries where Stone Age people worshiped.

The cave was rediscovered in 1940 by four children who, with their dog, explored a hole opened by a fallen tree. The youngsters reported their amazing find to their schoolteacher, and experts on cave art quickly authenticated the gallery as one of the world's most extraordinary Paleolithic art sites.

In the years immediately after World War II, France's people scrambled to get by in a still severely damaged economy. The caves were on private land, and the owners, the La Rochefoucauld family, decided to open them to the public. They enlarged the entrance, built steps and replaced the original sediment with concrete flooring.

Like many historic sites, Lascaux quickly became a victim of its fame. The caves were besieged by hordes of tourists whose breath raised levels of damaging carbon dioxide, and by killer fungus, microbes and black spots.

Conditions became so perilous that French authorities closed the cave to most tourists 25 years ago. Nearby, a precise replica of the two most famous rooms in the cave was created to accommodate the tourist crowds.

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