Take a Virtual Tour of the Lascaux Cave Paintings

Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

The Las­caux Caves enjoyed a qui­et exis­tence for some 17,000 years.

Then came the sum­mer of 1940, when four teens inves­ti­gat­ed what seemed to be a fox’s den on a hill near Mon­ti­gnac, hop­ing it might lead to an under­ground pas­sage­way of local leg­end.

Once inside, they dis­cov­ered the paint­ings that have intrigued us ever since, expand­ing our under­stand­ing of pre­his­toric art and human ori­gins, and caus­ing us to spec­u­late on things we’ll nev­er have an answer to.

The boys’ teacher reached out to sev­er­al pre­his­to­ri­ans, who authen­ti­cat­ed the fig­ures, arranged for them to be pho­tographed and sketched, and col­lect­ed a num­ber of bone and flint arti­facts from the caves’ floors.

By 1948, exca­va­tions and arti­fi­cial lights ren­dered the caves acces­si­ble to vis­i­tors, who arrived in droves — as many as 1,800 in a sin­gle day.

Less than 20 years lat­er, The Collector’s Rosie Lesso writes, the caves were in cri­sis, and per­ma­nent­ly closed to tourism:

…the heat, humid­i­ty and car­bon diox­ide of all those peo­ple crammed into the dark and air­less cave was caus­ing an imbal­ance in the cave’s nat­ur­al ecosys­tem, lead­ing to the over­growth of molds and fun­gus­es that threat­ened to oblit­er­ate the 
pre­his­toric paint­ings.

The lights that had helped vis­i­tors get an eye­ful of the paint­ings caused fad­ing and dis­col­oration that threat­ened their very exis­tence.

Declar­ing this major attrac­tion off lim­its was the right move, and those who make the jour­ney to the area won’t leave entire­ly dis­ap­point­ed. Las­caux IV, a painstak­ing repli­ca that opened to the pub­lic in 2016, offers even more verisimil­i­tude than the pre­vi­ous mod­el, 1983’s Las­caux II.

A hand­ful of researchers and main­te­nance work­ers are still per­mit­ted inside the actu­al caves, now a UNESCO World Her­itage site, but human pres­ence is lim­it­ed to an annu­al total of 800 hours, and every­one must be prop­er­ly out­fit­ted with ster­ile white over­alls, plas­tic head cov­er­ings, latex gloves, dou­ble shoe cov­ers, and LED fore­head lamps with which to view the paint­ings.

The rest of us rab­ble can get a healthy vir­tu­al taste of these vis­i­tors’ expe­ri­ence thanks to the dig­i­tal Las­caux col­lec­tion that the Nation­al Arche­ol­o­gy Muse­um cre­at­ed for the Min­istry of Cul­ture.

An inter­ac­tive tour offers close-up views of the famous paint­ings, with titles to ori­ent the view­er as to the par­tic­u­lars of what and where  — for exam­ple “red cow fol­lowed by her calf” in the Hall of the Bulls.

Click the but­ton in the low­er left for a more in-depth expert descrip­tion of the ele­ment being depict­ed:

The flat red col­or used for the sil­hou­ette is of a uni­for­mi­ty that is sel­dom attained, which implies a repeat­ed ges­ture start­ing from the same point, with com­ple­men­tary angles of pro­jec­tion of pig­ments. The out­lines have been cre­at­ed with a sten­cil, and only the hindquar­ters, horns and the line of the back have been laid down with a brush…The fact that the artist used the same pig­ment for both fig­ures with­out any pic­to­r­i­al tran­si­tion between them indi­cates that the fusion of the two sil­hou­ettes was inten­tion­al, indica­tive of the con­nec­tion between the calf and its moth­er. This duo was born of the same ges­ture, and the image of the off­spring is mere­ly the graph­ic exten­sion of that of its moth­er.

The inter­ac­tive vir­tu­al tour is fur­ther com­pli­ment­ed by a trove of his­toric pho­tographs and inter­views, geo­log­i­cal con­text, con­ser­va­tion updates and anthro­po­log­i­cal inter­pre­ta­tions sug­gest­ing the paint­ings had a func­tion well beyond visu­al art.

Begin your vir­tu­al inter­ac­tive vis­it to the Las­caux Cave here.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Archae­ol­o­gists May Have Dis­cov­ered a Secret Lan­guage in Las­caux & Chau­vet Cave Paint­ings, Per­haps Reveal­ing a 20,000-Year-Old “Pro­to-Writ­ing” Sys­tem

Was a 32,000-Year-Old Cave Paint­ing the Ear­li­est Form of Cin­e­ma?

Alger­ian Cave Paint­ings Sug­gest Humans Did Mag­ic Mush­rooms 9,000 Years Ago

40,000-Year-Old Sym­bols Found in Caves World­wide May Be the Ear­li­est Writ­ten Lan­guage

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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