Sunday, November 16, 2014

Prehistoric Man in France, Part II

Prehistoric female figure

If we’d been smarter, we might have opted to stay in Sarlat, the only decent sized town (with a train station) that is close to all the decorated caves.  Most businesses, and certainly all government offices and museums close from noon to 2:00 during the off-season. On Wednesday, we had two hours to kill and so drove down to Sarlat over a two lane curvy road through a hardwood forest. It’s a medieval town with some Italianate ornamentation from the Renaissance. The streets are stone and narrow with three and four-story buildings rising above open squares. We quickly found a parking spot and wandered around while reading about the town in Joyce’s digital version of Rick Steve’s guidebook to France.

From Sarlat, it’s possible to get on bus tours to all the larger Paleolithic sites, but not in the fall.

With limited time for both our trip and the car, our second day would be only a tour at Campanelles and then on to Lascaux.

The guide at Campanelles was the same man we’d had on our tour at Cap Blanc! His English had improved slightly with all that practice

Cave at Campanelles and
visitor center
the day before and he did a decent job explaining the inscribed drawings in the narrow snake-like cave. Many artists over a very long time, had carefully observed the shape of various spots on the rocks and incorporated the natural marks and formations into drawings of animals and a few female figures. Most drawings were a single scratch and in softer rock, a single swipe with a finger.

In that cave too, were the stirrings of a written language. Symbols, most of them with unknown meanings, were everywhere, especially triangles, Vs and Xs. The guide, in a very stilted way, indicated that the V or triangle represented female anatomy, and the upside down V was the male’s. So an X was, of course, the two mated.

The archeological data indicates reindeer as the principle meat animal of the Cro-Magnon and later the Magdalenian people. Yet few reindeer are drawn or carved in the area’s overhangs and caves. I guess if you ate the same thing all the time and only occasionally got something tastier……the cow, horse, or mammoth might be the preferred choice for reverence.

This is the case in Lascaux where, 17,000 years ago, a group of people, using scaffolding (you can see the holes in the rocks to hold the poles) painted the high walls and the ceiling. What dominates the cave are enormous bulls, some in ¾ view, some with animals superimposed on them, and some with other animals roughly indicated behind, as they would be seen in a herd.

What we are permitted to see today is an amazing facsimile. People descend stairs into a darkened room with displays and explanations from a guide. Then the doors open and the cave is just beyond. Every square millimeter of the most decorated section of the original cave has been duplicated and painted with the same minerals the original artists used. The space is cool with a slight draft just like in a real cave, made more realistic because the room is actually underground. This is Lascaux II.

The real cave has been closed, and will remain closed forever. In the 1960s, after twenty years of humans traipsing through, the paintings suffered terrible degradation from mold and bacteria brought in by people. The decision was made to duplicate it as perfectly as technology would permit, and on November 19, 1984, Laxcaux II opened. The 30th anniversary celebration will take place this month.

An identical copy, Lascaux III, is a portable facsimile that is traveling the globe, bringing the amazing art and artistic sensitivity of prehistoric people to modern people around the world. And a new project is underway, Lascaux IV, another underground model, that will be the entire cave system, replicated with every painting, drawing, and carving. It will open in 2016 about a mile from the current site.

Lascaux IV was designed by laser-scanning the original cave to create the perfect model on a computer. This technology was perfected on the Chauvet Cave, discovered in 1994.  The decision was made not to allow public access at all, so that no foreign organisms would be introduced. Chauvet Cave has paintings and sculptures much older than Lascaux, dating back 30,000 years. The scientists dress in protective gear and are only allowed inside for short periods of time. That cave and its facsimile are documented in the movie, The Cave Of Forgotten Dreams.

Being in Lascaux II, one quickly forgets that it is a model. The paintings are enormous.  A giant bull dominates the ceiling on one side with a smaller one opposing. While the paintings are everywhere they do not cover every square inch of space. Clearly it was not some sort of long term grafitti project painted over centuries by random people scrawling over the work of previous artists. Certain animals are given space, perhaps a reverence, apart from other drawings. The colors are vivid and varied.

Painting the cave was a tremendous amount of work, and clearly done with a sense of space, drama, and emotional impact. Human beings don’t undertake such projects simply for fun, there must certainly have been deep religious, or at least social, reasons to do that amount of work.  The painted ceiling, the magnificence of the art, and its probable use in an animist religion, caused it to be called the Sistine Chapel of the prehistoric era.

Photography was not allowed inside, but the art can be seen at this link:



Typical limestone block house in Sarlat

Narrow stone streets of Sarlat

Italianate mansion on
the main plaza

Ancient structure, over 1000
years old, a lantern for the dead
above a cemetery, Sarlat