Starting at the beginning of the story, the caves at Lascaux in the Valley of Vezere on the Dordogne River in France were discovered by accident on September 12, 1940. Four boys and their dog Robot stumbled onto the entrance of the cave. Since that time, historians, archeologists, and others wondered about and explored some of the earliest created images during the Paleolithic period (530,000-10,000 BCE). The cave contains images of over 6000 figures of animals, humans, and abstract designs dating from c.17,000-15,000 BCE.
A tunnel, forty-nine feet long, connects the entrance of the cave to the large open space called the Hall of Bulls. Historians and archeologists believe the cave was not lived in. The entrance is too long and too narrow. Hunter-gathers of the period needed to live in a cave with an opening closer to the outside for easier access to water, food, and fresh air. Lascaux was a sacred, hidden space. The images serve as a record rather than art. With no identifiable language, these images recorded what was most important to life: food, clothing, and shelter.
The Hall of Bulls, also called the Rotunda, is 62 feet long and 25 feet wide. The ceiling is covered with images of herds of animals. The two large so-named bulls are aurochs, an extinct cattle species, several brown horses and ponies, a group of deer, and a so-named unicorn, the last animal on the left. Images of animals were added over many years, thus the overlapping of drawings, paintings, and engravings. The Hall of Bulls is sometimes referred to as the Paleolithic Sistine Chapel.
To the surprise of the discoverers, the animals are not simple stick figures, but relatively well developed and detailed images. Nine hundred animals are identifiable. Drawn in profile except for the horns, the animals are not stationary, but they appear to be walking, running, or swimming. They have a vital force. The aurochs have identifiable noses, mouths, and eyes, along with well-shaped bodies, four walking legs, and hooves. The auroch at the right side of the wall is 15 feet long.
The animals were drawn using natural pigments found in the cave or nearby. The red, yellow, and black colors were made from charcoal, hematite, geothite, manganese, and a variety of iron oxides and animal fat. In order to get the ground pigments to adhere to the wall, warm animal fat was applied first, and the color then was rubbed or blown onto the fat. Many hollow bones, wood, or reeds stained inside with color were found. The ground pigment was placed inside the hollow tube and blown onto the wall. Evidence of this technique can be observed in the horse head at the top of the wall. Also found were sockets in the wall where scaffolding would have been built to reach the ceiling.
Among the animal images are abstract symbols: the small black arch with two dots under it at the foot of the deer, the three ochre lines next to the head of the auroch on the left, and the black lines of a spear that pierces the chest of the auroch at the right. Many of these symbols represent hunting, but others cannot be explained. The abstract designs are straight lines, parallel lines, branching lines, nested convergent lines, quadrangular shapes, claviform signs, v-shaped lines, and dots.
The paintings and drawings of deer provide an interesting comparison. The top red deer is missing its head. The next red deer has an elaborate but rather crooked set of antlers. Two black dots appear between the antlers. The depiction of the deer at the lower right is most unique. The elaborate set of black antlers spring from the well-shaped head. The front legs and hooves are placed in a forward position, although the deer does not appear to be running. The deer’s black head and neck flow into the modulated browns and oranges of the body. The deer is a remarkable image. She is also pregnant, as are many other animals in the cave.
Deeper in the cave, beyond the Hall of Bulls, is a narrow passage which leads into the Axial Gallery. It is not as wide as the Hall of Bulls, but is 72 feet long with a dead end. The herds of horses, aurochs, bulls, bison, and ibexes cross the ceiling. Most notable is the Black Bull, the largest animal in the cave at 17 feet long. The features of its face are well developed, as is the entire body. It is a massive animal for a hunter to encounter. The three-pronged shape in front of the Black Bull may represent a weapon aimed to disable it.
Among the horses in the Axial Gallery, the 56 inch long Chinese Horse stands out. The horse’s mane clearly exhibits pigment blown through a tube, even to the puff marks at the edges. The black outline is masterful. The placement of ochre, which runs from a reddish-brown to yellow, effectively defines her chest, back, and rounded rump. Her stomach bulges and hangs low in pregnancy. Two arrow shapes are depicted in front of her and at her side. An abstract design, perhaps a trap or cage, appears to be ready to drop down on her. The unexpected skill of the Paleolithic artist is clearly in evidence here.
At the middle of the Hall of Bulls, a long narrow passage with animal images on the ceiling accompany the viewer to chambers called the Apse and the Nave. A hole in the floor of the Apse opens to the farthest and darkest part of the cave, accessible only by a ladder. Here is one of the most confusing images in the cave. A bison has been speared in the stomach by a hunter, and its entrails are hanging out. In front of the bison is the prone stick figure of a male hunter, with mouth open and bird-like head. This is the only human depicted in the cave, and it has none of the detail or sophistication of the animal images. A line symbol is placed on the ground next the feet of the dead human.
The two remaining images offer no understanding of the scene. A long pole with the simple image of a bird is painted next on the wall. Beyond, the partial image of the body of a rhinoceros, with a horn, walks away from the scene.
Returning to the Nave (59’ X 20’), two back-to-back bison can be recognized. The male bison’s thick hairy coat is best depicted in the bison on the left.
The Nave’s ceiling varies in height from 8.5 feet to 27 feet. The irregular wall, or a patch of natural color on the wall, often has been taken into consideration in the placement of an animal’s body. The rippling texture of this section of the wall represents the flowing water of a river. The drawing of the four black deer, heads up and noses in the air, suggest they are swimming across the water.
One explanation for the images in the cave is “sympathetic magic.” The hunters recognized that animals stay together in herds, and images of groups of the same animals appear throughout the cave. Although the law of mutual attraction, “like attracts like,” was not defined until 1906, it seems applicable here. The drawings were intended to attract animals to the cave, making hunting easier. Spears and arrows account for the hunter’s success. The cave also may have been used to prepare young hunters for their first hunts.
The study of primitive societies in the present day has reveals that reverence for the animals that were hunted is an important part of their culture. The careful depiction of the animals and abstract symbols in the caves also may be intended as praise for the animals and to show gratitude that they gave themselves up to be killed. The presence of images of pregnant females also reflects the importance of reproduction to the supply.
Lascaux opened to the public on July 14, 1948. By 1955, the cave had attracted1200 visitors every day and was discovered to be deteriorating. Carbon dioxide, heat, humidity, and the like were causing fungus, black mold, lichens, and other forms of deterioration. The cave was closed to tourism in 1963. Lascaux was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. In order to allow the public to see the remarkable work in the cave, the creation of an exact replicas the cave was begun in 1983. In December 2016, the largest and most exact copy was opened to the public.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.