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Explore Lescaux caves with your mouse

Delicate but beefy paintings

Lescaux site. Paintings in the cave are about 15,000 to 17,000 years old.
Lescaux site. Paintings in the cave are about 15,000 to 17,000 years old.

It happened on Thursday, September 12, 1940. As the story goes, the “floor formed a succession of terraced basins, full of water. The uncertain light of their lamp barely pierced the darkness,” and it wasn’t until they reached the first narrowing of the passage, at P the entrance to a keyhole-shaped gallery, that ; the four teenagers made out the paintings on ! the walls. Their names were Marcel Ravidat, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel, and Simon Coencas. “Large red cows, yellow horses, bulls, ; and black stags, all in uncoordinated movement, seemed as if they had been awakened from a night several millennia old.” A teenage jaunt on a hill overlooking the village of Montignac became the most startling archaeological discovery of the 20th Century.

The western edges of the Massif Central and the northern slopes of the Pyrenees host an exceptional concentration of Paleolithic caves — about 130 in all. In the middle of the woods, above the Lascaux manor, a hole had opened up following the fall of a big pine tree several years before. After enlarging the hole, the kids slipped through the narrow crevice, then tumbled down a big pile of rocks, which hid the original entrance to the cave. From the foot of this formation, they ventured into a larger space that is now called the Great Hall of the Bulls. The next day the exploration continued. Scientists ventured into the opening. They found other galleries and images, including the bird-headed man from the Shaft of the Dead Man.

Navigating the Cave of Lascaux website (www.culture.gouv.fr/culture/arcnat/lascaux/en/) must be something like exploring the cave itself. The site has all kinds of tricks, turns, and obscure, hidden content. The mouse, in fact, functions like a flashlight, randomly scanning across the screen, illuminating links and indistinct figures — strange, symbolic, and animistic. What else should we expect from the French? The site tells a complex narrative in a wonderfully modern and abstruse way. At the same time, it’s told with pride and elegance. The story itself, like the cave paintings, is a beautiful one, and the site, wisely, lets it unfold slowly and somewhat randomly. But the browser, like a teenager eager to get to the next level, moves fast and so stumbles across the stunning images and the textual and diagrammatic content — which is cultural, scientific, archaeological, anthropological, and mythological all at once.

Carbon dating indicates that the paintings in the cave are about 15,000 to 17,000 years old. The wall decorations in the Great Hall of the Bulls are the most impressive of indicates that all Paleolithic art. They extend on both sides of the vaulted walls of a rotunda. The vast fresco, covering about 60 feet, includes three groups of animals — horses, bulls, and stags — which recur in different areas of the “underground sanctuary.” The other galleries are the Painted Gallery, which is about 90 feet long; the Lateral Passage, which opens off the Great Hall of the Bulls; and the Chamber of Felines. The Shaft of the Dead Man is set a little apart, at the far end of the Chamber of Engravings.

Another exceptional cave, which is described in detail at the site, is the Cosquer Cave, located near Marseilles. Its paintings date to between 27,000 and 19,000 years ago. Horses, bison, aurochs (an extinct species of wild ox), ibex and chamois, various cervids (a family of ruminant mammals), a feline, and some unidentified land mammals “march along its humid walls.” Also, a variety of other animals — such as seals and auks (chunky-bodied seabirds) — and hand stencils, dozens of geometric symbols, and another representation of a “killed man” decorate its walls.

Frustratingly, but sensibly I’m sure, the site offers no interpretation of the cave art it so thoughtfully presents. The common explanation, you might remember from Art History 101, is that as Paleolithic cave dwellers discovered how to make stains from mud and plants, they first made hand prints on the cave walls, perhaps to mark births and deaths among their tribes. As their graphic skills developed along with their ritualistic ones, they began to paint representations on the walls of the things in the world that meant the most to them — the animals they depended on for clothing and food. Why else? Well, we can only imagine. It was 20,000 years ago. But for sure the faded pictures radiate a special power. While the bulls, cats, and stags appear to be mere outlines, sketched rapidly and with rudimentary shading, one somehow intuits their massive bulk and musculature and awesome strength. And that’s the magic of the cave paintings: they’re delicate but beefy. The simple outlines of a Chinese-ink drawing elicit more cerebral, meditative responses; the silhouettes at Lascaux pulsate with physicality and aboriginal phenomenology. Perhaps that’s because they’re painted on stone, which gives them a unique substantiality. A fleeting one, though: the French government closed the cave at Lascaux in 1963 because the moisture and carbon dioxide produced from human respiration slowly dissolves the limestone walls.

At the back of Lascaux’s Chamber of Engravings the ground falls away, giving access to the Scene of the Dead Man on the lower level — “one of the most outstanding works of cave art.” The panel’s originality, the site claims, lies in its “narrative possibilities, expressed just as much by the liveliness of the different players as by the distribution of the figures and principal themes expressed: man, bison. rhinoceros.” The scene portrays a confrontation between a man and a bison; a rhinoceros flees off into cave-wall space. The man — we can tell he’s dead because he’s fallen (though, admittedly, there’s no ground to fall on) — is just a hollow stick figure; he contains none of the potential energy of the bison. The artist imbued the animal with more life than he did himself, or his friend, or his brother, or whoever the dead man is.

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Lescaux site. Paintings in the cave are about 15,000 to 17,000 years old.
Lescaux site. Paintings in the cave are about 15,000 to 17,000 years old.

It happened on Thursday, September 12, 1940. As the story goes, the “floor formed a succession of terraced basins, full of water. The uncertain light of their lamp barely pierced the darkness,” and it wasn’t until they reached the first narrowing of the passage, at P the entrance to a keyhole-shaped gallery, that ; the four teenagers made out the paintings on ! the walls. Their names were Marcel Ravidat, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel, and Simon Coencas. “Large red cows, yellow horses, bulls, ; and black stags, all in uncoordinated movement, seemed as if they had been awakened from a night several millennia old.” A teenage jaunt on a hill overlooking the village of Montignac became the most startling archaeological discovery of the 20th Century.

The western edges of the Massif Central and the northern slopes of the Pyrenees host an exceptional concentration of Paleolithic caves — about 130 in all. In the middle of the woods, above the Lascaux manor, a hole had opened up following the fall of a big pine tree several years before. After enlarging the hole, the kids slipped through the narrow crevice, then tumbled down a big pile of rocks, which hid the original entrance to the cave. From the foot of this formation, they ventured into a larger space that is now called the Great Hall of the Bulls. The next day the exploration continued. Scientists ventured into the opening. They found other galleries and images, including the bird-headed man from the Shaft of the Dead Man.

Navigating the Cave of Lascaux website (www.culture.gouv.fr/culture/arcnat/lascaux/en/) must be something like exploring the cave itself. The site has all kinds of tricks, turns, and obscure, hidden content. The mouse, in fact, functions like a flashlight, randomly scanning across the screen, illuminating links and indistinct figures — strange, symbolic, and animistic. What else should we expect from the French? The site tells a complex narrative in a wonderfully modern and abstruse way. At the same time, it’s told with pride and elegance. The story itself, like the cave paintings, is a beautiful one, and the site, wisely, lets it unfold slowly and somewhat randomly. But the browser, like a teenager eager to get to the next level, moves fast and so stumbles across the stunning images and the textual and diagrammatic content — which is cultural, scientific, archaeological, anthropological, and mythological all at once.

Carbon dating indicates that the paintings in the cave are about 15,000 to 17,000 years old. The wall decorations in the Great Hall of the Bulls are the most impressive of indicates that all Paleolithic art. They extend on both sides of the vaulted walls of a rotunda. The vast fresco, covering about 60 feet, includes three groups of animals — horses, bulls, and stags — which recur in different areas of the “underground sanctuary.” The other galleries are the Painted Gallery, which is about 90 feet long; the Lateral Passage, which opens off the Great Hall of the Bulls; and the Chamber of Felines. The Shaft of the Dead Man is set a little apart, at the far end of the Chamber of Engravings.

Another exceptional cave, which is described in detail at the site, is the Cosquer Cave, located near Marseilles. Its paintings date to between 27,000 and 19,000 years ago. Horses, bison, aurochs (an extinct species of wild ox), ibex and chamois, various cervids (a family of ruminant mammals), a feline, and some unidentified land mammals “march along its humid walls.” Also, a variety of other animals — such as seals and auks (chunky-bodied seabirds) — and hand stencils, dozens of geometric symbols, and another representation of a “killed man” decorate its walls.

Frustratingly, but sensibly I’m sure, the site offers no interpretation of the cave art it so thoughtfully presents. The common explanation, you might remember from Art History 101, is that as Paleolithic cave dwellers discovered how to make stains from mud and plants, they first made hand prints on the cave walls, perhaps to mark births and deaths among their tribes. As their graphic skills developed along with their ritualistic ones, they began to paint representations on the walls of the things in the world that meant the most to them — the animals they depended on for clothing and food. Why else? Well, we can only imagine. It was 20,000 years ago. But for sure the faded pictures radiate a special power. While the bulls, cats, and stags appear to be mere outlines, sketched rapidly and with rudimentary shading, one somehow intuits their massive bulk and musculature and awesome strength. And that’s the magic of the cave paintings: they’re delicate but beefy. The simple outlines of a Chinese-ink drawing elicit more cerebral, meditative responses; the silhouettes at Lascaux pulsate with physicality and aboriginal phenomenology. Perhaps that’s because they’re painted on stone, which gives them a unique substantiality. A fleeting one, though: the French government closed the cave at Lascaux in 1963 because the moisture and carbon dioxide produced from human respiration slowly dissolves the limestone walls.

At the back of Lascaux’s Chamber of Engravings the ground falls away, giving access to the Scene of the Dead Man on the lower level — “one of the most outstanding works of cave art.” The panel’s originality, the site claims, lies in its “narrative possibilities, expressed just as much by the liveliness of the different players as by the distribution of the figures and principal themes expressed: man, bison. rhinoceros.” The scene portrays a confrontation between a man and a bison; a rhinoceros flees off into cave-wall space. The man — we can tell he’s dead because he’s fallen (though, admittedly, there’s no ground to fall on) — is just a hollow stick figure; he contains none of the potential energy of the bison. The artist imbued the animal with more life than he did himself, or his friend, or his brother, or whoever the dead man is.

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