The Lascaux Painted Caves

Posted by Steve and Judie Burman – Caves and Castles

The world famous painted caves of Lascaux are often on many people’s ‘must visit’ list when they come to the Dordogne. Nowadays, it is only possible to visit Lascaux II the facsimile, but don’t be put off by this, it’s stunning!

Most people drive to Lascaux having bought their tickets in nearby Montignac. But we think the best way to get there is to walk along the farm tracks and through the woods. Perigord is 50% covered by trees – round here mostly oaks and chestnut so even in high summer the paths are cool and shady. In early summer the fields are covered in wild flowers, especially orchids with a dizzying array of butterflies fluttering around. Zigzagging through tiny hamlets nestling in the fields and the trees, you climb up and around the gentle hills that give texture to this landscape.

Arriving at the top of Lascaux hill there are stunning views over the Vezere Valley. We walk past the site of the cave discovered in September 1940 by four teenagers and their dog. It’s been shut to visitors for conservation reasons since 1963. Lascaux II nearby gives us a stunning experience of the genius of the Ice Age artists. Modern day artists and engineers created Lascaux II out of steel and concrete and inserted the shell into a handy quarry. Sculptors carved the interior accurate to within 3 or 4 millimetres of the original and then a team of artists painted the pictures using the same techniques and materials as the original artists. We can see 90% of the original paintings.

Walking down a flight of stairs, our guide shuts the doors and lights his torch so our eyes can adjust to the cave. There is a brief explanation of the geology, the discovery and the different techniques used. There is a small panel of engravings on a replica of one of the cave walls which emphasises the complexity of the art as horses and buffaloes overlie each other.

Hall of the Bulls

Hall of the Bulls

After the introductions you enter the Great Chamber – the Hall of the Bulls. The four boys finished up here after their terrifying slide down the hole first found by Robot the dog.

UnicornThe very first figure is a little horse but what really grabs you is a strange painting of the Unicorn, a name given by the Abbe Breuil, the great prehistorian who ‘validated’ Lascaux a fortnight after its discovery. This is a strange beast a mixture of bear, cave, lion, human and other animals, with two long horns. This is a good introduction to Cave Art – a riddle inside an enigma – what does it mean?

Once your eyes have adjusted, you catch your breath. There are four huge, fully life-size Aurochs (wild bulls). One is five metres long, the largest picture in Ice Age art. They dominate the space. Around and over and under them are ponies, wild cows and a hidden bear. Take your time to pick out the details. The head of one of the multi-coloured horses fell off thousands of years ago – unfortunately the painting got shovelled out in the post-war works to open the cave for tourists. In between the animals are strange ‘signs’ – some unique to Lascaux, others you can see in other caves.

Walking slowly down the gentle slope to the Axial Gallery, you look up at the ceiling. This is a much more constricted space. Red cows leap across and around the ceiling, wild ponies and a herd of red and black cows thunder past. These pictures show the extraordinary technical mastery of their artists. If you examine them close-up they seem out of scale and ‘wrong’ but from the floor they form a wonderful whirling vortex.

Look back to get the full ‘Sistine Chapel of Prehistory’ effect. Can you imagine the impact of these pictures lit by flickering reindeer tallow lamps? No doubt chanting and music to heighten the impact – and, oh my goodness, the animals are alive, their muscular bodies rippling across the rock. Wow!

In such a small space, there is so much to take in. We have saved one of the best pictures ‘til last – the Falling Horse. Galloping horses fly across the rock to the end of the gallery. Then your eyes register that all is not right because one is falling backwards, legs flailing in mid-air. The master artist has painted this last horse around the rock. It would have been impossible for him (or her) to see the complete work, but the figure has kept its scale and perspective.

Falling Horse

Falling Horse

You linger for a few more seconds, drinking in the atmosphere of this challenging, magical place before emerging into the sunlight. Sure it’s a facsimile, but people want to see it again and again. We do!

What does it all mean? Nobody knows. Lascaux is certainly a very important ritual, ceremonial site. It was in use for about 2000 years by different people who believed and saw different things. A number of the larger paintings are multi-layered. Modern technology can peel these apart adding to the art’s complexity. Very recently the ‘signs’ have been in the headlines – some are specific to Lascaux, others occur in many other caves across south western France and northern Spain. Are they the first writing?

The cave of Lascaux (and the other art sites) are telling a tale we can’t read. We try to share the experience of the Ice Age people. So, draw close, wonder and think….

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Steve and Judie Burman live in the beautiful Vezere Valley in the Dordogne region of South-West France.  Together they run Caves and Castles, specialising in prehistoric Cave Art and medieval Castles Tours.  Small groups tours (up to six people) are based at their recently converted farmhouse.  Alternatively, they offer non-residential tours for a day or longer.

Professional archaeologist, Steve and his wife Judie love to share their passion for the ‘Cradle of Humanity.’  Its history and culture are awe-inspiring.  The area is also famed for its gastronomy and wine. You won’t be disappointed!

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