Lascaux in a box

16th August 2005, Comments 0 comments

Artisans are readying a replica of the renowned prehistoric cave at Lascaux for a road trip that will bring for the first time France's most-treasured relic of Palaeolithic art to a worldwide audience. By Frederic Jeammes

The grotto's famous 'Shaft of the Dead Man'

Technicians are now working on a high-tech replica of the Lascaux galleries, located in the Dordogne region of southwest France, complete with its celebrated frescoes of bison and other animals.

When it's finished, around the end of 2007, the lightweight replica -- designed as panels that can be taken apart for transport in a shipping container -- will be sent in 2008 to first Paris, of course.

It will then leave France for such venues as Japan, the United States, and Australia, according to Renaud Sanson, who has been copying the cave's art for more than 20 years.

The cave opens

The story of the cave's discovery is familiar in France: the cave, where early man lived 15,000 years ago, was rediscovered, completely by accident, by four teenagers and a dog named Robot in 1940.

Lascaux is actually one of 130 Palaeolithic caves in the south of France, an area particularly rich in Palaeolithic art. Lascaux is the best known, however, because of the sheer magnificence of its art.

The frescoes in the galleries -- some arranged like a comic strip to show the sequence of a hunt -- include the 'Great Black Bull', a black cow, aurochs, five stags, bison, and the 'Shaft of the Dead Man', a rare depiction of a human by cave artists.

The cave closes

Visiting Lascaux II can be hard on the neck

But the original caves have been closed since 1963 to prevent further degradation of the art caused by mushrooms and micro-organisms -- a result of humidity produced by the breathing some 1,200 daily visitors. (After the closure, the paintings were restored and are monitored daily.)

Today's visitors actually see "Lascaux II", a roughly same-size reproduction of the original's two most interesting galleries. Lascaux II opened to the public in 1983 just 200m away from the original, on the bank of the Vezere River.

*quote1*In Lascaux II -- although it accurately reflects the interest and magnificence of the original art -- in fact, its copies were made from hurried sketches roughed out in half-an-hour in the gloomy interior.

The dimensions of the cave replica are also off by some 20cm (eight inches), not enough to be remarked on by the average visitor but an important difference to historians of Palaeolithic art, who are also only let view the original under exceptional circumstances and with explicit permission from the French government.

The cave hits the road

The original, less high-tech, artisans

But the new travelling version will be a perfect replica, with an even more painstakingly faithful reproduction of the art. 

Sanson is one of the artisans responsible for both Lascaux II and the new replica.

"You see Lascaux better in the workshop than you do at the site," commented Sanson.

Sanson, 58, a former theatre decorator, wants to "bring Lascaux out from prehistory and restore its timeless, human, dimensions".

Sanson has already created new, super-accurate replicas since the opening of Lascaux II.

In the Z.K. Productions workshop, which Sanson created in 1997 and opened to the public this summer, the reproduction of the cave was done by laser-beam measurements.

There are lots of these at Lascaux

High-pressure water-jets followed those digital read-outs to carve the walls, ceilings and floors out of blocks of polystyrene. Those blocks then become a mould, with the finished product surfaced with granulated stone that simulates the original texture.

The art is then reproduced by photographic projections that take the roughness of the surface into account.

"We can reproduce the tiniest details, the most microscopic degradation," said Sanson, adding that such copies would eventually allow scientists and the general public to see the art of other caves "which will inevitably be forced to close".

For more in English, visit:

If you want to visit Lascaux II, 40-minute guided tours are available daily during the summer and every day except Monday out of season. The site is also closed annually during January and the beginning of February; call 05 53 35 50 10 for details.

August 2005

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news, Lascaux, art history, cavemen, cave art

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