Lascaux Cave Art

The Lascaux Cave is a fine example of ‘Cave Art’. In the late 1930s on a wooded hill above the village of Montignac near Lascaux, France, a huge pine tree fell, revealing a narrow opening into an underground cavern. This remained unexplored until 12 September, 1940 when four teenage boys decided to venture inside. With a lantern in tow and at the bottom of the underground chamber they saw painted on the walls images of bulls, stags and horses. This chamber is now known as the Great Hall of the Bulls. This leads into a place even more wonderful, known as the Painted Gallery, a passageway of around 90 feet long almost completely covered with paintings of wild beasts including aurochs (an extinct form of ox) measuring 1.7 metres each.

The unknown artists used paints derived from metal oxides including iron oxide and manganese oxide. In other chambers, the figures of animals were incised into the stone face of the cave, probably using a sharp piece of flint.

Many examples of cave art are presented in alcoves and recesses which can only be reached via a tortuous network of underground channels . Mostly the caves were uninhabited and hardly located at eye-level on a handy upright wall, but situated several metres off the ground requiring their creators to have daubed while either lying on their backs or clinging precariously to a rock face. At Lascaux, the artist or artists used the entire chamber for their composition and incorporated the natural curves of the walls and ceiling to give more life to their images.

There are many interpretations for these paintings, varying from symbols of magic, relationships between hunters and “spirit animals”, or used at religious or ritualistic events.  Some experts believe that to early human beings, the animal images bore a significance that was related not to species, but to gender. One theory has it that the bison or aurochs represented femaleness and the horse maleness and their relative positions in a cave, spelling out symbolic messages, perhaps about birth and reproduction.

  • There is only one human figure in the Lascaux caves, in a room known as the Shaft of the Dead Man. It features a man lying flat on the ground while above him is a huge bison; its head down; posed to gore him to death. Off to one side, a figure of a rhinoceros is seen fleeing from the bison.

After the end of WW2, the Lascaux caves became a tourist destination with about 1200 visitors escorted through the chambers every day. By 1955 the tours were altering the atmosphere and the paintings were beginning to deteriorate. By 1963, the French Ministry of Cultural Affairs decided to close the caves to tourists.

  • Since 1983 visitors have been able to explore Lascaux II, an exact replica of the Great Hall of the Bulls and the Painted Chamber.

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