September 12, 1940 Lascaux Caves

Entering via a long tunnel, the boys discovered what turned out to be a cave complex, its walls covered with depictions of animals.  Hundreds of them.  Four teenagers in Nazi occupied France, had discovered some of the oldest and finest prehistoric art, in the world.

The Battle of France began on May 10, 1940, with the German invasion of France and the Low Countries of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. By the end of May, German Panzer columns had hurled the shattered remnants of the allied armies into the sea, at a place called Dunkirk.

The speed and ferocity of the German Blitzkrieg left the French people shocked and prostrate in the wake of their surrender, that June.  All those years their government had told them, the strength of the French army combined with the Maginot Line was more than a match for the German military.

France had fallen in six weeks.

On June 18, Charles DeGaulle addressed the French nation from his exile in Great Britain, exhorting his countrymen to fight on.  Resist.  The idea caught on quickly in occupied regions.

Germany installed a Nazi-approved French government in the southern part of “La Métropole” in July, headed by WW1 hero Henri Pétain.  Resistance against this new government in Vichy was slower to form.  This was, after all a French government, and French attitudes took a decidedly anti-English turn with the July 3 British attack on the French fleet, at Mers-el-Kébir.

Before long, Vichy’s collaborationist policies hardened French attitudes against itself. The French Resistance was born.

Sometime around this period, a tree fell unseen near the French village of Montignac.  On September 12, 1940, 18-year old Marcel Ravidat was walking his black & white mongrel dog “Robot”, in the woods.  Coming upon the downed tree, the pair noticed a deep hole had opened up, where the tree had once stood.  Stories differ as to which of the two went down the hole first, but it soon became clear.  Marcel Ravidat and his dog had discovered something more than a mere hole in the ground.

The boy returned to the site with three buddies, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel, and Simon Coencas.  Entering via a long tunnel, the boys discovered what turned out to be a cave complex, its walls covered with depictions of animals.  Hundreds of them.

History is no single narrative.  It is a thousand times a thousand, each layered and intertwined with the other.  Here, four teenagers in Nazi occupied France, had discovered some of the oldest and finest prehistoric art, in the world.

Lascaux 1The Lascaux Caves are located in the Dordogne region, in Southwestern France.  Some 17,000 years ago, Upper Paleolithic artists mixed mineral pigments such as iron oxide (ochre), haematite, and goethite, suspending pigments in animal fat, clay or the calcium-rich groundwater of the caves themselves.  Shading and depth were added with charcoal.

Colors were swabbed or blotted onto surfaces.  There is no evidence of brushwork.  Sometimes, pigments were placed in a hollow tube, and blown onto the wall.  Where the cave rock is softer, images are engraved.

The colour, size, quality and quantity of the images at Lascaux, are astonishing.  Abbé Breuil, a Catholic priest and the first expert to examine its walls, called it the “Sistine chapel of prehistory”.

Lascaux 3The artist or artists who created such images, nearly 2,000 of them occupying some 37 chambers, would have been recognizable as modern humans.  Living as they did some 5,000 years before the Holocene Glacial Retreat, (yes, they had “climate change” back then), these cave-dwellers were pre-agricultural, subsisting on what they could find, or what they could kill.

More than 900 of their images are recognizable as animals. 605 of them have been precisely identified. Hundreds of images depict horses, stags, cattle, lions and bison.  Other subjects appear with less frequency.  There are seven cats, a bird, a bear, a wooly rhinoceros, and one human.

LascauxThe purpose served by these images is unclear.  Perhaps they tell stories of past hunts, or maybe they were used to call up the spirits for a successful hunt.  At least one professor of art and archaeology postulates that the dot and lattice patterns overlying many of these paintings may reflect trance visions, similar to the hallucinations produced by sensory deprivation.

36 animals occupy the “Great Hall of Bulls”, including a single black Auroch specimen measuring 17ft long, the largest such image ever discovered in cave art.  One semi-spherical chamber, the “Apse”, is covered from the floor to its 8’9″ vaulted ceiling with overlapping, entangled drawings and engravings, demonstrating that these people erected scaffolding to create such work.lascaux4b

The Lascaux caves were used by the French Resistance for weapons storage during the war, and opened to the public in 1948.  That would prove to be a mistake.

The underground environment had been stable for all those thousands of years.  Now the light, the air circulation, and the exhalations of thousands of visitors a day, were irreparably changing the cave environment.  By the 1950s, colors had noticeably begun to change and fade.  Crystals and lichens began to grow on the walls, black and white molds grew quickly throughout the cave complex.

The cave was closed to the public in 1963, the paintings restored and a monitoring system installed.  Molds, lichens and crystallized minerals bedevil the ancient cave art to this day.  Only a handful of scientific experts are now permitted access to the site, and that’s only for a few days per month.  Some of the most eminent preservation specialists on the planet continue to wrestle with the problem.

The prehistory buff can find a lot to like in the Vézère region of France.  The valley has 147 prehistoric sites, 15 of them listed as Unesco World Heritage sites.

“Lascaux II” opened in 1983, an exact replica of the Hall of the Bulls and the “Painted Gallery” areas at the original, educating and informing the public without further harm to the archetype.

Lascaux-4-3_1200
Inside the museum that houses Lascaux 4 (Mehdi Fedouach/AFP/Getty Images)

The 800 square meter mobile “Lascaux 3” began a world tour in 2012, scheduled to continue through 2020.  Most recently, the exhibit departed the Kyushu National Museum in Fukuoka, Japan, on September 3.  The €57 million ($68 million), multi-media Lascaux IV opened last December, 8,500 square meters of high-tech exhibit space where each visitor is free to explore four exhibition rooms, equipped with an electronic compagnon de visite, a tablet-like device which looks like it’s been flaked and formed out of slate, Fred Flintstone style.

Kindly permit me a personal note, on which to end.  Years ago, the Long family convened our annual “Blue Gray Ramble” at the Petersburg battlefield, in Virginia.  There’s a cut running parallel to the lines there, almost a ravine, not far from the crater.  The thing has got to be 12 feet deep, narrowing downward to a hard, dry stream bed.

Working our way down the bottom of the cut, we encountered an archaeologist’s dream of fossils:  Gastropods, scallop shells, copepods, shark’s teeth.  The denizens of a long forgotten sea, cast in stone and exposed to the light of a Civil War battlefield.

We were there that weekend to discover history, and that is what we did, albeit from a new and unexpected perspective.

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Author: capecodcurmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a husband, a father, a son and a grandfather. A history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. Five years ago, I began writing a daily "Today in History" story, as sort of a self-guided history course.  At some point, I committed to myself to write 365.  The leap year changed that to 366. At this point, I’ve written about 450. I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong as the next guy. I offer these "Today in History" stories, in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share. Rick Long

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