The Lascaux caves in the Dordogne have a funny old story. On the one hand, the paintings that brought them their fame are incredibly old. Not USA old (about 200 years), not even traditional European old (about 2000 to 4000 years) but really, really old. Carbon dating estimates that these artists unleashed their inner creativity between 15 and 17 000 years ago.
In a story straight form an Enid Blyton adventure, a gaggle of teenage boys discovered the paintings in 1940 by following their dog down a hole in the French countryside. Experts subsequently catalogued over 1000 paintings in the caves – of prehistoric horses and bulls, reindeer and humans – all vividly displayed in charcoal and ochre.
France opened the caves to the public and by 1948 over 100 000 visitors a year journeyed underground to see some of the world’s oldest art. Some things don’t change, however, and a lack of foresight meant that this tourist enterprise ran into problems. The artificial lights and the breath from the human traffic produced crystals, fungus and stains, obscuring the pictures. Seventeen thousand years of preserved perfection ruined in less than twenty.
So, what was the solution?
Incredibly, France built a life-size replica – and that’s what’s available to see today. Each day, 2000 visitors travel to the self-assured village of Lascaux in order to queue up and pay for an imitation. Not a particularly promising start for a trip – yet somehow I wasn’t disappointed.
Perhaps I imagined bulging plastic and the garish primary colours of a school playground. Maybe I expected weathered and worn images, battered down to look old but leaving little impression on me (like most fossils, I have to confess.)
But even though I knew I was looking at a twentieth century piece of work – the introductory display wouldn’t let me forget– the caves captured my imagination.
Beneath the earth, my breath turned white in the air and rearing reindeer soared overhead. I ducked to avoid the hanging shards of rock, to circumnavigate the stalactites and stalagmites that protruded into the twilight.
Inconceivable, somehow, to connect with this common thread from 17 000 years ago, to imagine another person standing here, painting this. Except, of course, that they stood somewhere else. And that’s the jolt. Although I’d definitely recommend a visit to the Lascaux Caves, it’s not quite the same when it’s not the real thing.
Visiting the Lascaux Caves
The Lascaux Caves are in the Dordogne region of France. You can fly to Périgueux-Bassillac Airport or Bordeaux and then drive to Lascaux. In summer, for some reason, you need to buy your tickets in the centre of town instead of at the visitor’s centre. Bring sturdy footwear as the floor can be wet and it’s hard to see. Also bring some warm clothes even if it’s bright sunshine outside – it’ll be cold and damp inside the caves.