Lascaux Cave Paintings (c.17,000 BCE)
Lascaux: A Summary
During the Upper Paleolithic period, which began about 40,000 BCE, Neanderthal Man was replaced by a more "modern" version of Homo sapiens. At the same time, prehistoric art took a massive leap forward, as exemplified by the cave painting of western Europe, a medium that reached its apogee in the caves of Lascaux (France) and the cave paintings of Altamira (Spain).
Discovered in 1940, close to the village of Montignac, in the Dordogne region of southwestern France, the Lascaux cave contains some of the greatest examples of Franco-Cantabrian cave art, from the Solutrean-Magdalenian era dating back to between 17,000 and 15,000 BCE. It is especially famous for its painting, including a rare example of a human figure, the largest single image ever found in a prehistoric cave (the Great Black Bull) and a quantity of mysterious abstract paintings, which have yet to be deciphered. Along with Font-de-Gaume (also in the Dordogne), Lascaux is one of the few Stone Age caves in France to have been decorated with colour painting. Its most famous chambers include the Hall of the Bulls, the Axial or Painted Gallery and the Apse. In total, Lascaux's galleries and passageways - extending about 240 metres in length - contain some 2,000 images, about 900 of which are animals, and the remainder geometric pictures of varying shapes. The sheer number of images, their size and exceptional realism, plus the spectacular Prehistoric colour scheme, is why Lascaux (like the cave at Altamira) is sometimes referred to as "The Sistine Chapel of Prehistory". Luckily, like the Chauvet Cave paintings, Lascaux's prehistoric rock art was protected by a landslide which sealed off access to the cave around 13,000 BCE. Not long after its opening in 1948, Pablo Picasso visited the cave and was amazed at the quality of the cave's ancient art, saying that man had learned nothing new since then. In 1979, Lascaux was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, together with another 147 prehistoric sites and 25 decorated caves located in the Vezere Valley of the Correze and Dordogne regions. In 1963, due to continuing environmental problems inside the cave, Lascaux was closed to the public. In 1983, an exact replica of the Great Hall of the Bulls and the Painted Gallery - created under Monique Peytral and known as "Lascaux II" - was opened a few hundred metres from the original cave, and it is this replica that visitors see today. In addition, a full range of Lascaux's parietal art can be viewed at the Centre of Prehistoric Art, located close by at Le Thot. Curiously, what is now France's oldest known prehistoric cave art - the Abri Castanet Engravings (c.35,000 BCE) - was discovered recently at a site less than 7 miles from Lascaux.
To understand how Lascaux's cave painting fits into the evolution of Stone Age culture, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline. Alternatively, to compare Lascaux with the earliest caves, see: El Castillo Cave Paintings (39,000 BCE). To compare Lascaux with Australian art, see Bradshaw Paintings (Kimberley), Ubirr Rock Art (Arnhem Land), Kimberley Rock Art (Western Australia), and Burrup Peninsula Rock Art (Pilbara). These styles of painting and engraving continued during the European Solutrean and Magdalenian eras, although their earliest forms are believed to have first emerged around 30,000 BCE.
The Lascaux cave complex was discovered in 1940 by teenagers Marcel Ravidat, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel, and Simon Coencasin, and eight years later, it was opened to the public. By 1955, much of the cave's parietal art was beginning to deteriorate due to the amount of carbon dioxide exhaled by the 1200 daily visitors, and other environmental problems. Lichens and crystals began to appear on the walls. As a result, in 1963 the site was closed to the public. Since then, more threats to the integrity of Lascaux's cave paintings have been caused by microbial and fungal growths. This worsened during the 2000s, prompting the French Ministry of Culture to organize an international symposium in Paris in 2009 ("Lascaux and Preservation Issues in Subterranean Environments") to debate and resolve the problem.
Today, only a tiny handful of people (mostly scientists) are permitted inside Lascaux for a few days each year in order to help prevent the magnificent paintings, drawings and engravings from joining their creators, and vanishing entirely. One task that has been successful is the restoration of the original entrance to allow sunlight to enter the cave. In 1999, a handful of researchers witnessed this event for the first time in 15,000 years. It is now established that the cave interior closest to the entrance - including the Hall of the Bulls and the Painted Gallery - would have been bright enough to work by for about one hour, for several days each year.
Chronological questions about the age of Lascaux's cave paintings, over what period they were created, and the identity of the oldest art in the complex, are still being debated. The Paleolithic scholar Andre Leroi-Gourhan believes that Lascaux was decorated between the end of Solutrean art and the beginning of Magdalenian art (c.15,000-13,000 BCE). According to Leroi-Gourhan, the style of Lascaux's paintings was consistent with other art discovered during this period. Specific characteristics of the style include bison horns shown in front-view; front horns of bovines depicted by a simple curve while the rear horn is more sinuous; deer antlers depicted in a specific perspective, and so on. Other experts, however, as well as a radiocarbon test result of 17,000 BCE, obtained in 1998 from a fragment of a spearhead found in the Apse, places the art at the junction between the Solutrean era and the pre-Magdalenian Badegoulian era. This view is further supported by the 'Placard type' style of geometrical signs in the cave. According to paleolithic scholar Jean Clottes, they are very similar to the 'chimney' signs found in the Pech-Merle cave paintings (Lot, France), whose art dates back as far as 25,000 BCE. In other words, the cave painting at Lascaux is most likely to date back to about 15,000-17,000 BCE, with the earliest art being created no later than 17,000 BCE. Furthermore, the unity of style found in the drawings and engravings at Lascaux, indicates that most were created during a relatively short period of time, perhaps less than two millennia. (Note: For a comparison with Gravettian imagery, see Cosquer Cave cave paintings.)
The entrance leads directly into the main chamber called the Hall of the Bulls. This leads to the slightly smaller Axial Gallery (or Painted Gallery) (a dead end), or the Passageway, both of which are heavily decorated with various types of art, including paintings and engravings. The Passageway leads to the Nave and the Apse (both adorned with images), and then the Mondmilch (Moonmilk) Gallery, with its crumbly undecorated rock surface and, finally, the painted Chamber of the Felines.
The Hall of the Bulls - probably the world's most famous underground gallery of Paleolithic art - is 19 metres (62 feet) in length and varies in width from 5.5 metres (18 feet) at the entrance to 7.5 metres (25 feet) at its widest point. As one enters the main area (the Rotunda) the first image one encounters is a horse's head and neck with a fuzzy mane. The second is the mysterious Unicorn. Other notable pictures found in the Hall of the Bulls include the Frieze of the Black Horses (a long line of aurochs and horses), the Frieze of the Small Stags, heads of some six bulls, a headless horse and a bear. There are two exits from the Hall of the Bulls: one leads to the Axial Gallery, a dead end; the other to the main Passageway.
This rectilinear gallery is over 22 metres (72 feet) long and leads to a dead end. Its unique feature is its opening, which art critics justifiably regard as the apogee of Palaeolithic parietal art. All the classic prehistoric animals are pictorialized here in a swirl of major works of art: the Great Black Bull, the three Chinese Horses, The Falling Cow, the Fleeing Horse, as well as more aurochs, more bulls, bison, ibexes, and horses. The largest work is the 17-foot long Great Black Bull, whose monumental size is enhanced by the way the black hide is depicted against the pale background and by the absence of any other comparably sized figures nearby. Nearly all the bull's anatomy is represented, except for the front left hoof. The entire animal has been spray-painted. Thereafter, the Axial Gallery becomes a rather narrow pathway with a low ceiling. Many of the paintings have been drawn using the folds and contours of the walls to enhance depth and perspective. At the end of the Gallery, in a section known as the Meander, is the Upside-down Horse.
The section of the cave that connects the Hall of the Bulls to the Apse and the Nave is called the "Passageway". However, judging by the concentration of figures on its walls - 380 figures, including 240 complete or fragmentary animals like aurochs, bison, deer, horses and ibex; 80 signs, and 60 indeterminate images - prehistoric artists saw it not simply as a connecting passage but as an important gallery in its own right. It is about 17 metres (56 feet) in length and averages about 4 metres (13 feet) in width. In Solutrean times, its ceiling varied between 4 and 5 feet in height. Notable images include: a procession of engraved horses, the horse with the turned-back foot, and the bearded horse.
At the end of the Passageway is an intersection: joining from the right is the Apse; while the continuation of the Passageway is called the Nave.
This is a semi-spherical cavern, not unlike the apse in a Romanesque basilica, hence its name. Judging by the number of ceremonial artifacts discovered here, as well as its art, the Apse is likely to have been the sacred heart of Lascaux. Roughly 4.5 metres in diameter (15 feet), its ceiling is about 1.6 to 2.7 metres in height high (5-9 feet). Almost every square inch of its limestone walls and ceiling are covered with overlapping petroglyphs in the form of engraved drawings. In all, there are more than one thousand figures: some 500 animals (mostly deer) and 600 geometric signs or other abstract markings. The Apse accounts for more than half of the decorative art in the entire cave. Curiously, the greatest density of images occurs in the deepest part of the chamber where the Apse meets the Shaft. Notable pictures include: the 6-foot wide Major Stag - the largest petroglyph at Lascaux - the remains of several large black aurochs, the Stag with Thirteen Arrows, the Panel of the Musk Ox, the Frieze of the Painted and Engraved Stags, and the Great Sorcerer.
In the floor of the Apse is a hole (now occupied by a ladder) giving access to "the Shaft of the Dead Man" a small part of an underlying cavern known as the Great Fissure. It is the deepest, most confined part of the entire cave. At the bottom of the ladder and on the adjoining wall is one of the most remarkable prehistoric pictographs yet discovered. The main scene depicts a fight between a bison and a man: the bison has been stabbed by a spear and appears to be dead. The man has a bird-like head and is stretched out as if he too is dead. Lying next to the man is a bird on a pole. Not surprisingly, given the fact that humans are almost never depicted in Stone Age paintings, and that complex narrative scenes like this one are equally rare, the pictograph has attracted fierce debate as to its precise meaning. Strangely, there are very few other pictures in the Shaft. Only eight have been found: four animals (bird, bison, horse, and rhino), and three geometric signs.
The Nave measures eighteen metres (59 feet) in length, and averages 6 metres (20 feet) in width. Its ceiling varies between 2.5 metres (8.5 feet) at the entrance and 8 metres (27 feet) at the far end. The floor has a 19 percent slope, before levelling out as it leads into the Mondmilch Gallery. Most of the pictures in the Nave are engravings due to the softness of the rock. Notable areas of decoration include: the Panel of the Imprint (noted for its accompanying symbols and signs), the Panel of Seven Ibexes, the Panel of the Great Black Cow (regarded as the most beautiful scene in the cave), the Crossed Bison (best example of Magdalenian use of perspective), and the Frieze of the Swimming Stags, depicted swimming in an imaginary stream.
Between the Nave and the Chamber of the Felines, is the Mondmilch (Moonmilk) Gallery, named after its milky-coloured stalagmite encrustation. Some 20 metres (66 feet) long and about 2 metres (6.5 feet) wide, the ceiling rises as high as 8 metres (27 feet). Its crumbly surfaces explains the complete absence of any artistic decoration.
About 30 metres (100 feet) long, the Chamber of the Felines differs from Lascaux's other galleries by its narrow dimensions and steep gradient which makes movement difficult. As a result, the spectator must crouch down to see the art, which - as the name suggests - includes a number of cats. In addition, there are a number of horses, and signs. Notable images include: the cats in the Niche of the Felines, and an engraving of two lions mating.
Two types of art predominate in Paleolithic cave art: drawing and engraving. At Lascaux, however, it is painting that dominates - a comparably rare situation in French prehistoric caves. The main technique used by Lascaux's artists was the spraying of pulverized colour pigments down a tube made of wood, bone or plant materials - a technique which appears to have worked successfully on all surfaces throughout the subterranean complex.
The 2,000 or so images divide into two main categories: animals and symbols. The animals consist of species that Magdalenian cavemen would have hunted and eaten (like aurochs, deer, musk-oxen, horses and bison), as well as dangerous predators that they would have feared (like bears, lions, and wolves). Curiously, in view of the fact that the Magdalenian era is nicknamed the "reindeer age", as well as the large number of reindeer bones discovered in the cave, there is only one image of a reindeer in the entire complex.
Research has established that each animal species pictorialized at Lascaux represents a specific period of the calendar, according to their mating habits. Horses represent the end of winter or the beginning of spring; aurochs high summer; while stags mark the onset of autumn. During their mating period, they are extremely active and animated. From this viewpoint, the animal art at Lascaux contrasts with that of several other sites, whose animal pictures offer a much more static outline. (Compare, for instance, the pictures of mammoths among the Kapova Cave Paintings (12,500 BCE) in the Shulgan-Tash Preserve, Russia. For examples of Neolithic animal art from Anatolia, see: Gobekli Tepe, Megalithic Art.)
Lascaux's artists were also extremely adept at capturing the vitality of the animals depicted. They did this by using broad, rhythmic outlines around areas of soft colouring. Typically, animals are depicted in a slightly twisted perspective, with their heads shown in profile but with their horns or antlers painted from the front. The result is to imbue the figures with more visual power. The combined use of profile and frontal perspective is also a common feature of Mesopotamian art and Egyptian art.
The various abstract signs and symbols can be separated into twelve different groups. They include straight lines, parallel lines, branching lines, nested convergent lines, quadrangular shapes, claviform signs, v-shaped lines, and dots. Some of the more complex markings have affinities with the abstract art found at the Gabillou cave, also in the Dordogne.
Distribution of imagery is quite uneven. More than half of the cave's total art is on the walls and ceiling of the Apse, which comprises only 6 percent of the surface area. The Passageway is the next most heavily decorated area.
When discussing the artistic quality of Stone Age cave art, one must bear in mind the adverse conditions in which Stone Age painters worked, including: bad light (most paintings were created with the aid of flaming torches or primitive stone lamps fuelled by animal fat); and awkward working conditions (requiring the use of primitive scaffolding to reach high walls and ceilings). In addition, at Lascaux (as well as at least 20 caves in France and Spain), there are prehistoric hand stencils and prints of 'mutilated' hands left in clay. Experts have suggested that because thumbs remained on all the hands, the injuries may have been caused by frostbite.
Cave painting during the Stone Age would have required numerous resources. First, the artists had to select or hand-craft the tools necessary for engraving and painting; then collect the charcoal, minerals and other raw materials needed for colouration. This alone would have required a wide-ranging knowledge of the local district, and its potential. Also, special attention would have to be paid to the different chambers and rock surfaces to be decorated inside the cave. An experienced prehistoric artist would advise on what preparation was required - cleaning, scraping, or preparatory sketching - how best to apply paint to different surfaces, what combination of pigments and additives were needed, and so on. Certain equipment might be built, like scaffolding - as used in the Apse at Lascaux - while certain areas of the cave might be altered to facilitate decorative works. Lastly, the iconography of the cave would have to be determined and communicated to all artists.
The colour pigments used to decorated Lascaux, and other French caves, were all obtained from locally available minerals. This explains why the prehistoric colour palette used by Palaeolithic painters is relatively limited. It includes black, all shades of red, plus a range of warm colours, from dark brown to straw yellow. Only exceptionally were other colours created, such as the mauve colour that appears on the 'blazon' below the image of the Great Black Cow in the Nave. Nearly all pigments were obtained from minerals, earth or charcoal. At Lascaux, for instance, research shows that all the painted and drawn figures were painted with colours obtained from powdered metallic oxides of iron and manganese. Iron oxides ( iron-rich clay ochre, haematite, goethite), used for red and other warm colours, were widely available in the Dordogne, while manganese was also common. At Lascaux, curiously, the various black shades used in paintings were obtained almost exclusively from manganese: carbon-based sources (such as wood, bone charcoal) have rarely been identified so far. By contrast, carbon-based black pigments were used widely in the charcoal drawings at Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave. For similar works in Australia, see: Nawarla Gabarnmang charcoal drawing (c.26,000 BCE), Australia's oldest carbon-dated parietal art.
Investigations at Lascaux show that the artists did not use paint brushes thus, in all probability, the broad black outlines of the figures were created with mats, pads or swabs of moss or hair, or even with blobs of raw colour. Judging by the number of hollow, colour-stained bones discovered at Lascaux and elsewhere, the larger painted areas were created using a form of prehistoric "spray-painting", with paint being blown through a tube (made from bone, wood or reeds) onto the rock surface.
The three graphic techniques used by artists at Lascaux were painting, drawing and engraving. They were used independently or in combination. For example, two methods were necessary to complete the Great Black Bull, in Axial Gallery. The head and most of the body were sprayed, while an implement (mat, pad, swab) acting like a brush was used to paint the upper part and the tail. Drawing was done with the same implements, but also with edged chunks of manganese or iron oxide.
Engraving, probably the most common artistic technique used at Lascaux, involved scratching away the outer layer of rock, which generates a difference in colour. The resulting 'engraved line' looks just like a drawing. In addition, thicker engraved lines were sometimes used to give added volume and relief to the outlines of animal figures.
Are the pictographs and petroglyphs at Lascaux simply "art for art's sake"? It seems unlikely. The cave art at Lascaux has been carefully designed to convey some kind of story or message, rather than simply created because it looks beautiful. To begin with, why are only animals shown: why not trees and mountains? Why ignore certain very common animals, like reindeer? Why are certain areas of the cave more heavily decorated than others? The argument that Lascaux artists only painted things because they were beautiful, cannot answer these questions.
Another theory offered as an interpretation of the Stone Age art at Lascaux is the so-called "sympathetic magic theory". Championed by Abbe Henri Breuil, one of the leading French scholars of prehistoric art, it claims that Lascaux artists created their drawings and paintings of animals in an attempt to put them under a spell and thus achieve dominance over them. In other words, artists painted pictures of wounded bison in the hope that this type of primitive "visualization" might make the imagined scene actually happen. Unfortunately, this interpretation of Lascaux's cave art is not very convincing. First, there are many images that have no obvious link to hunting (the swimming horses, for instance, plus all the signs and symbols). Second, at Chauvet cave, in the Ardeche, very few if any of the animal pictures relate to animals that were hunted: most were predators, like lions.
Arguably the most convincing explanation for the cave paintings at Lascaux is that they were created as part of some spiritual ritual. According to analysis by the paleolithic scholar Leroi-Gourhan, Lascaux was a religious sanctuary used for initiation ceremonies. Its seclusion and isolation would make it an ideal place to conduct this type of ritualistic ceremony. Furthermore, this explanation is consistent with the fact that some chambers at Lascaux are more heavily decorated than others, implying that certain areas (like the Apse) were especially sacred. The theory is also supported by a number of footprint studies, showing that virtually all the footprints in the cave were left by adolescents: a typical category of initiates.
One thing that remains unexplained by any of these theories is why Lascaux (and most other paleolithic caves) contains no sculpture. It is worth remembering that by 17,000 BCE, venus figurines and other forms of prehistoric sculpture were being made throughout Europe. Why not in caves?
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF STONE AGE ART