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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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Now, in yet another troubling twist, the reproductions are becoming so faded that scientists are debating a major restoration project for the fake cave.

The bigger concern, of course, is the real cave. In January of this year, authorities took the extraordinary step of closing it for three months even to scientists and preservationists. A single individual was allowed to enter the cave for 20 minutes once a week to monitor climatic conditions.

Now only a few scientific experts are allowed to work inside the cave and just for a few days a month. French officials say it could remain closed to the wider scientific community for two or three more years.

The keeper of the cave is Sire, a 48-year-old restoration expert whose previous specialty was restoring medieval paintings on the exteriors of churches. As cave administrator, she coordinates the work of a 25-member team of biologists, conservationists, restorers, archaeologists and other specialists.

Sitting in her small office in a thick oak forest just outside the entrance to the cave, Sire described the team's efforts to save Lascaux as nothing short of a scientific nightmare.

Scientists have inherited a history of missteps and misunderstandings of the cave's inner workings from the day its owners opened it to visitors and the problems they brought.

Over the decades, almost every attempt to eradicate problems has spawned new dangers. A formaldehyde foot wash, for instance, used for years to disinfect people entering the cave, ended up killing off friendly organisms that might have prevented fungus from growing.

Sire took over as cave administrator in 2002 during a white fungus outbreak that followed installation of an air-conditioning system designed to keep harmful microorganisms from taking root.

The fungus covered the floor of the caves and was creeping up the walls toward wild animals painted in brilliant hues of orange, yellow, brown and black, ground from the rocks and minerals of the surrounding area.

"I was shocked," she recalled. "It looked as though it had snowed."

Fearful that the fungus would gobble the paintings, experts poured quicklime powder on the floors and wrapped the walls in cotton bandages soaked in fungicide and antibiotics.

As soon as the white fungus began to disappear, scientists launched a major project to record the condition of every animal in the cave in a computer simulation. Two people worked 30 hours a week under lights to record every spot of fungus, every crack and every abnormality on each of the cave's creatures.


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