Page 3 of 3   <      

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)
  Enlarge Photo    

And then the black spots started appearing, heading rapidly toward black bulls and other beasts.

"Despite the limitation of human presence, the use of lights must have hurt," Sire said. "We didn't know we were taking such a risk."

A small team of workers clad in protective suits sprayed ammonia-based solutions on the spots, and the cave was sealed in January.

When scientists reentered the cave in April, Sire said, "I was holding my breath."

Though the black spots had stopped spreading in nine of the 11 treated zones, they remain a serious danger to engravings in the smaller sections of the cave that are the most susceptible to temperature and humidity changes.

Sire said the scientific team is divided over how to proceed. Members will meet next week to determine whether to continue treating the black spots or halt further intervention.

"Microbiologists and geologists say we have to observe and understand what's happening first, that we can't disturb the cave. They don't agree with the treatment," Sire said. "Other groups say the risk is too big to watch and take no action."

The International Committee for the Preservation of Lascaux has criticized what it considers years of inept response and secrecy surrounding the work.

Sire is one of the French officials listed on the group's Web site, http://www.savelascaux.org, under the scathing headline "Who is Responsible for the Debacle inside Lascaux?"

Sire said she understands the anger.

"Because the cave is not open, the world is afraid for Lascaux," she said, adding that "we have nothing to hide."

She conceded her own frustrations: "It's a big problem -- what to do, how to choose. The questions are not easy to resolve. Lascaux is in the hands of doctors who don't have the same diagnoses.

"We have to choose between reacting or not acting," she continued. "Acting is dangerous; not acting is dangerous, too."


<          3

© 2008 The Washington Post Company