THE LASCAUX CAVE LEGACY AND HOW IT CHANGED A LIFE
The other day, in writing about the 50th Anniversary of the Beatles debut in the United States, I mentioned that how seeing them in concert in 1966 and later working at the Woodstock Festival in 1969 were, as one would imagine, pivotal moments in my life. Which got me to thinking about another incredible moment in a life that has had more than its share of interesting events, when as a wide-eyed eleven year old I descended the stone steps, went through the two airlock chamber doors and found my self standing in the Hall Of The Bulls in the original Lascaux cave.
The accounts from various sources differ as to how many boys were in the original group, whether it was just Jacques Marsal or two, three or four boys and their little dog Robot, out for a day of real or imagined adventure, who made the discovery. They were out looking for the entrance to a legendary tunnel that supposedly ran under the Vezere River and linked the old Castle of Montignac to the Manor of Lascaux. It was believed that this tunnel would eventually lead to a treasure buried in another tunnel beneath the woods of Montignac. At any rate it was the little dog that discovered the opening on September 12th 1940, disappearing down a crack in a jumble of undergrowth and rocks that the boys eventually cleared, exposing an narrow opening into the ground. Thinking that they might have found the legendary tunnel, they squeezed fifteen meters down the narrow shaft. “The descent was terrifying,” Jacques Marsal recalled, who was just fourteen years old at the time. They found themselves standing in a dark underground chamber. Lighting a lantern they had brought with them they now shined its flickering light around the chamber on the walls. Marsal remembers what they saw as a “cavalcade of animals larger than life painted on the walls and ceiling of the cave; each animal seemed to be moving.” The ceiling, covered with calcite, was pure white. The paintings were brilliantly multicolored in reds, blacks, browns and ochers. They were standing in the same Hall Of The Bulls I would find myself standing in 21 years later. And I would look with the same sense of amazement and wonder at the animals on the walls.
My father was in the Army and in October of 1960 he had received orders that he was being transferred to France. That December we traveled across the North Atlantic on a troop transport ship, spending Christmas on the boat. After arriving in Bremerhaven, Germany, we spent New Year’s with relatives in Nürnberg, and then in the second week of January we traveled to the base in Rochefort, France were his unit was stationed. We ended up living in a small village called Fouras, between La Rochelle and Rochefort. I attended school in the American Elementary school on the base at Rochefort. And it was this school that, in the fall of 1961, organized a field trip to the Lascaux cave for our class. We made the trip in an old brown army bus, one of those ones with the uncomfortable wide vinyl covered metal framed seats. The trip back then in that slow rattly old bus took about four and a half hours. We had left early in the morning and arrived around lunchtime. We were fortunate in that Jacques Marsal conducted us through the cave and related both his personal impressions and the scientific information available at the time. And although the incredible images of the bulls, the deer and the horses forever etched themselves in my memory, it was when he led us from the Hall Of The Bulls to the right, down the Passageway to the Apsis to what is known as the Well, that my life changed forever. For there in the Well was the depiction of a bird-headed man lying prone or falling down in front of a disemboweled bison. It is the only human figure depicted in the cave. Beneath the man there is a bird upon a stick. To the left of the scene stands a woolly rhinoceros with its tail raised above three pairs of dots. I was spellbound. Here I was gazing upon not just depictions of animals as in the other areas of the cave, but upon a moment caught in time, a story preserved by an unknown prehistoric artist that now, some 13,300 years.later, spoke to me with all the feeling and emotion that had inspired its creator. And though I was just a child, I left Lascaux that day with a new sense, a deeply embedded feeling of what it really means to be human. The past had reached out and touched me and I had embraced it. On the long ride back I sat looking out the window as evening fell wondering, trying to imagine the world in which those first painters had lived. That experience of communication with the past has lived within me all these many years, and although It took me a while to turn that moment of inspiration into a way of life, for the last 28 years I have been communicating with and touching the past every day. The seed planted in an eleven year old mind grew and bloomed and became a profession.
In the years after their discovery the caves were visited by thousands of people which eventually had serious repercussions on the environment in the cave. Carbon dioxide levels rose, condensation formed on the walls and ceilings of the cave causing moisture to run down the paintings. The Green Sickness, a green growth on the walls and paintings, was one of the first signs of how human presence adversely affected the cave’s health. High temperatures and humidity, together with the high levels of carbon dioxide, brought on a second plague, The White Sickness, with a layer of calcite forming over many of the paintings. Fungus, bacteria, moisture and carbon dioxide all had a detrimental effect on the delicate balance of the cave’s environmental system, threatening to, and in some cases actually causing serious damage to the paintings. The original caves were closed to the public in 1963 by the French Minister of Culture, Andre Malraux, not too long after my visit, so I was very lucky. Today the caves are even closed to all scientists and researchers. Due to a series of incredibly stupid blunders and mismanagement over the last 40 years, the great heritage of the Lascaux paintings is in dire danger of being destroyed forever. In typical French bureaucratic tradition, no fewer than four individual agencies have been responsible for its care and management, and there has been no central co-ordination. Thus through the years misguided attempts to deal with the painting’s deterioration have only led to even more serious problems. Today the paintings are truly threatened with destruction due to bacterial infestation and mold. Up to now no good solution has been found and some permanent damage has occurred. And damage has not just been restricted to within the cave. The idiots managing the site managed to build a parking lot directly over parts of the original cave and concerns have been raised about the impact of the weight of the parking area and the cars on the cave below. A replica has been built in an abandoned quarry adjacent to the site, called Lascaux II, and although it is very good, it is not a replica of the entire cave and of course, nothing can compare to the original. Since my first visit in 1961 I have been back to Lascaux area two times and gone through the replica, on both occasions once in 1985 and most recently in 2006. There are a number of other caves in the area though that are still open to the public and, although they are not as magnificent as Lascaux, I highly recommend visiting them. That whole area of France is a prehistoric paradise. A number of years ago I tried through contacts from my work to apply to revisit the original cave, when they were still allowing researchers in for short periods of time, but I was too far down the scientific food chain to merit such permission and for the time being no one is being allowed in but its caretakers. Jacques Marsal devoted his life to Lascaux and remained as the chief guide of the cave until his death in 1989. I wonder how he would feel about the fact that if nothing sensible is done soon we will lose the treasure of Lascaux forever.
The entrance to the Lascaux cave photographed on my visit in 1985.
The entrance to the Lascaux cave, now almost not visible, photographed on my visit in 2006
The Hall Of The Bulls, where one first enters the cave after going through the two air lock doors.
Jacques Marsal conducting a tour before the cave was permanently close to the public in 1963.
The Scene At The Well, depicting a bird-headed man lying prone or falling down in front of a disemboweled bison. Seeing this in the cave in 1961 changed my life.
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