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The Lascaux caves are the most popular in the world. The Lascaux Caves in France were discovered in 1940. The paintings were created around 17,000 years ago, which makes them some of the oldest and iconic expressions of art that remain to date. The Lascaux caves are located in France’s Dordogne, in the Vézère Valley, 30 kilometers north of Sarlat in South West France. They are tourist attraction sites known for their Paleolithic age cave paintings. The original caves are close to Montignac (Lacanette 2009).
There are seven sections of the Lascaux caves namely: “the Great Hall of the Bulls, the Painted Gallery, the Lateral Passage, the Chamber of Engravings, the Main Gallery, the Chamber of Felines, and the Shaft of the Dead Man” (Lacanette 2009: 2538). Based on the multiple cover paintings on the Lascaux caves, researchers believe that for many centuries those caves have been populated by different tribes.
The most appealing of these chambers is the Hall of the Bulls, which presents the pictures of horses, bulls, and stags. The painting in the Shaft of the Dead Man also presents a particular interest due to the unusual proportion of the human figures (Lacanette 2009: 2544).
Most archeologists and scholars agree that paintings found in the cave can be dated around 15,000 BC, based on radiocarbon analysis of various artifacts and charcoal discovered in the cave. The scholars and archeologists also propose that the paintings came into being within a period of several centuries.
The Lascaux cave was discovered in 1940 by a group of boys who were looking for their lost dog. In December of the same year, the caves received statutory historic memento protection. Authorities opened the caves to the public in 1948 disregarding conservation and preservation issues. The caves received over 100,000 visitors yearly (Muriel 2011:8).
The huge number of visitors and artificial lighting caused considerable destruction to the historical site. Consequently, significant archeological data disappeared as the lackluster of the paintings decreased. Worse still, devastating algae layers of bacteria and dark calcite crystals appeared on the walls of the cave. Ultimately, the authorities banned further public visits to the caves and initiated revival efforts. This arrested the development of crystals and reversed the development of algae and bacteria (Muriel 2011:10).
The authorities carried out constant monitoring as the caves remained closed to the public. In 1979, UNESCO included Lascaux cave and various other decorated caves in the Vézère Valley into the list of World Heritages Sites. In 1983, cautiously completed replica referred to as Lascaux II began receiving visitors. Replication took ten years as Monique Peytral, a local artist, reproduced the paintings with incredible attention to detail (Sacred Destinations 2010).
Presentation of the Lascaux cave
Lascaux I is made up of a main cave, which is 66 feet in width and 16 feet in height. This is the original cave, which has 600 paintings decorated on its wall and close to 1,500 engravings. Most of the paintings depict both live and extinct animals. Some of the animals etched on the walls are horses with minute heads, and cloven with round stomachs, which are representative of the Przewalski horses from Asia as well as horses common in Chinese paintings (Huppatz 2010), as well as deer, which are graceful beasts with excellent groups of antlersThere are also six cats in the paintings, two bison of male species and some unclear two-horned beasts.
There is a rare explanatory scene pointing to a hunting outing or a shamanistic ritual, crowned by exciting geometrical designs, which include rectangles and ragged lines. Lascaux II is 200 meters away from Lascaux I. It is found in a cement bunker, and copies the two major chambers of the original Lascaux Caves. There are two hundred replica paintings occupying over 128 feet in length (Huppatz 2010: 137).
Inspiration of the Cave Paintings
One of the interesting questions that are raised by scientists revolves around the need for humans to paint images or etch figures of either humans or animals on the walls of the caves. For instance, studies suggest that the Dead Man scene in Lascaux, was aimed at preventing the image from taking the soul of its creator.
The absence of recorded information makes it hard to determine the primary objective of the cave paintings. The quality of the cave paintings is high and the concerted efforts applied to such work, including the extent of applying scaffolding to get to the apex of the walls, may be an indication that the caves were holy sites fit for rituals. According to Mauriac, there are three primary theories revolving around the pre-historic paintings on the walls of the caves (Muriel, 2011: 14).
First, the prehistoric man may have created the paintings and etchings on the walls as decorations, with preference of figures of animals that were vital to human survival. Second, man may have made the paintings with the belief that they would create a sense of magic to help the hunters. Third, humans may have used the paintings of animals to document their hunting expeditions (Muriel 2011).
Features of the cave works and its artists
The area of the cave depicts a variety of mineralogical features including different variations of the surface with regard to the grain size, reflectance and hardness that are distributed between the Hall of the Bulls and the Axial Gallery (Huppatz 2010). These variations are also evident on the Passageway, the Apse, the Nave and the Shaft (Huppatz 2010).
The figures found in the first sector are on calcited limestone, which is both irregular and hard for engraving. As such, this sector collects numerous paintings on the walls, achieved by either pigment application or spray technique. The soft nature of the second area permitted the creation of engraved figures and paintings by spray technique.
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The variation of the two surfaces was a determining factor in conservation of the Lascaux. The beautiful display of works in the cave indicates a superior adaptation of the artists to the physical characteristics of the walls, allowing them to provide multiple works based on the minerals found on the surface. For instance, engravings were created on soft limestone, while paintings were projected on calcite surfaces (Huppatz 2010).
The people of Lascaux were culturally homogenous owing to the existence of a general perception of similar designs and demonstrations regarding styles used, such as the single archeological layer on the floor of the cave. According to Holden, the wall paintings and etchings were made using natural objects. Sharp tools, such as spears, were used to etch into the rock, while the paint colors came from berries, clay, soot and charcoal. “The tools used to apply the paint could have been made by attaching straw, leaves, moss, or hair to sticks.
They might have used hollow bones or reeds to spray the color on, similar to an airbrush technique” (Holden 2003: 234). The people of Lascaux also used mineral dyes for paintings. The mineral dyes were composed of iron in its sub elements like hematite, gore, turgite, limonite, geothite, as well as, manganese in its sub elements like manganite, braunite and black ocher (Holden 2003) .
The people of Lascaux were gifted with an artistic solid pathway as seen in the clarity and quality of completed paitings and etchiings (Holden 2003). An analysis of the composition reveals multiple irregularities sorrrounding the cave, such as the evident disparity of signs used by the Lascaux people for either male or female related signs.
Parietal signs related to the male species include “the arrows, the harpoons, the sticks and the features” while the “oval claviformes, points and forms” were related to the female species. This affirms that, contrary to misinformed views, parietal art is borne out of very complex thought. (Holden 2003: 248)
Much as the Lascaux caves are classified as World Heritage sites, they face multiple threats to their continued existence. As such, there must be concerted efforts by all stakeholders to preserve these historical sites for viewing by future generations. Such measures include constant monitoring by the relevant authorities to make sure that issues like growth of algae and bacteria do not occur again and if they do, they are cleared as quickly as possible.
Proper research must also be carried out to determine how best to keep the environment in its natural setting, even with the use of modern inventions. The installation of air conditioners in 2001 was a right step but due to lack of proper research, the air conditioners resulted in white molds which were bad for the caves. Maintenance of the caves must be a regular exercise so as to make the project more sustainable and appreciated (McCully 2010:n.p).
Holden, Constance 2003 Wanted: Solution for Cave Mold. Science 300(5617): 245- 249.
Huppatz, DJ 2010 The Cave: Writing Design History. Journal of Writing in Creative Practice 3(2): 135-148.
Lacanettea, Delphine, Stéphane Vincenta, Arthur Sarthoua, Philippe Malaurentb and Jean-Paul Caltagironea. 2009 An Eulerian/Lagrangian method for the numerical simulation of incompressible convection flows interacting with complex obstacles: Application to the natural convection in the Lascaux cave. International Journal of Heat and Mass ransfert 52(12): 2528-2542.
Mauriac, Muriel 2012 Lascaux: The history of the discovery of an outstanding decorated cave.
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McCully, Emily Arnold 2010 The Secret Cave: Discovering Lascaux. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR).