Prehistoric Cave Art under Threat from Fungal Attack

Fresh attempts are being made by the French Ministry of Culture to protect the fabulous cave paintings at Lascaux as fungal growth again threatens to destroy these 17,000 year old art works.

The caves have been closed from today (8th January) for the next three months to all non-essential visitors as conservationists battle to prevent fungus from destroying the delicate paintings.  The Lascaux site is a multiple chambered cavern, situated in a hill overlooking the village of Montignac, in the Dordogne, south-west France.

There are many hundreds of caves in the area, some of which show signs of Neanderthal and Modern Human habitation, a few have cave paintings but of them can match the complex and beautiful art to be found on the walls at Lascaux.

Cave Painting at Lascaux

Picture Credit: French Ministry of Culture

The cave painting depicted comes from one of the main galleries in the cave – the Great Hall of the Bulls.  The painting covers some 20 metres and features aurochs (extinct cattle) as well as stags, and horses.  Typical examples of the wild animals that roamed the area 15,000 years B.C.

Now fungal spores are beginning to invade the paintings, discolouring them and causing damage.  Experts are treating the caverns, this is the second time in seven years such treatments have had to be carried out.

Like many palaeontological and archaeological discoveries this cave system was found by accident.  The site was discovered by four teenage boys in 1940.  A large hole in the ground had been created in the woods above Montignac when a pine tree fell over a few years earlier.  The lads,  Marcel Ravidat, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel and Simon Coencas decided to widen the hole and explore the dark cave underneath.  As they made their way along the thin passages to the first cavern their torch light illuminated the strange paintings on the walls.  Works of art that had not been seen by anyone else for thousands of years.  Other interpretations of the story regarding the discovery involve the boys following a dog called Robot down the hole into this glimpse of a  prehistoric world.

If the fungal attacks are not stopped then this site could be placed on the World Heritage’s “In Danger List”.  The site contains more than 2,000 paintings, engravings and other signs of human habitation with the earliest dating back to the upper Palaeolithic.

The cave system was permanently closed to the public in April 1963 when it was discovered that carbon dioxide in the exhaled breath of the visitors was affecting the micro climate of the caves and eroding the paintings and rock faces.  A tourist centre was built nearby – Lascaux II, it contains a life size mock up of the cave so that visitors can still appreciate the work of these people, it attracts over 250,000 visitors per year.

The cave system will remain closed until April 2008 in the hope that these new treatments will have prevented the spread of further fungal outbreaks.  Scientists are debating as to the cause of the mold and fungi, some blame the installation of air conditioning into the cave system whilst others state that deterioration of the paintings is a symptom of global climatic change.

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