The Archaeology of Lascaux Cave

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  • The "Archaeology of Lascaux Cave Forty years' work has revealed much about how the great Paleolithic

    paintings of Lascaux Cave were created. It has also focused attention

    on hundreds of engravings that rival the paintings in their import

    The cave site of Lascaux, with its magnificent array of some 600 paintings from the Old Stone Age, was discovered more than 40 years ago. Situated in the Dordogne region of southwestern France, the cave has been closed to all but officially sanctioned visitors for the past 20 years. The closing was part of a conservation effort, fortunately successful, aimed at halting further deterioration of these Paleolithic art treasures. Until recently, however, few people other than specialists have been aware that the mighty paintings of Lascaux are only a part of the wealth of archaeological material discovered in the cave over the past four decades.

    Among these discoveries are nearly 1,500 engravings on the cave's walls and ceilings. They were all painstakingly copied by Abbe Andre Glory, who until his untimely death in 1966 was by far the most indefatigable of the scientific investigators at Lascaux. Glory and others have also excavated the flint tools used to make the engravings, have found the stone lamps that provided light for the artists, have found the palettes that held the painters' pigments and most recently have studied the minerals that were ground into pigments. They have even been able to reconstruct the kind of scaffolding that allowed the painters and engravers to work on rock faces far out of normal reach. These findings and others now enable prehistorians to picture in some detail man's activities at Lascaux as the Old Stone Age entered its final stages some 17,000 years ago.

    The discovery of the cave in September, 1940, early in World War II, has often been attributed to the actions of some village boys after a dog had fallen into a deep hole. The facts are somewhat different. A boy from the village of Montignac, a kilometer away, did come on a hole in the ground. It was newly made by the uprooting of a pine tree, but no dog had fallen into it. He and some friends began to test the depth of the hole by dropping stones into it.

    Their curiosity further aroused, the


    by Arlette Leroi-Gourhan

    boys enlarged the opening and were able to slide down a steep tunnel of wet clay. They landed a good deal farther underground than they had expected. What they saw by the glimmer of a weak flashlight left them amazed. After they had led the local schoolmaster to the site their discovery was reported in the school paper. Specialists in prehistoric studies were told of the find, and a small ramp was dug to give easier access to the cave. The first professional archaeologist to inspect the site was Abbe Henri Breuil.

    The lower end of the ramp opens into a great chamber some 20 meters long. Its ceiling is covered with immense paintings of bulls; some of the animal figures are more than five meters long. At the far end of this "Hall of the Bulls" open two passages. One passage is straight ahead and the other branches off to the right. The ceiling of the passage straight ahead (known as the Axial Alleyway) is also covered with paintings; they depict deer, horses, wild cattle, ibexes and a bison. Access to the branch to the right (known simply as the Passage) was difficult in the early years. Visitors had at first to go on all fours, but they were soon rewarded by another series of animal paintings. A second branching to the right leads to "the Apse," beyond which lies "the Well," a five-meter depression with a curious group of paintings depicting a man, a bird perched on a staff, a rhinoceros and a charging bison with a horse's head above it. Opening to the left of the Apse is "the Nave." Here and in the long, narrow passage farther along are several more animal paintings. The pas-

    sage leads eventually through "the Cat's Hole" to "the Alleyway of the Felines," where engravings are found not onl)' of felines but also of several other kinds of animal. This final excursion completes the visitor's tour of Lascaux.

    Soon after the war ended the cave was fitted out to accommodate visitors; Lascaux was transformed into an underground museum. Then, after two decades of tourism, it became apparent that the dust, the dampness and the fungi that entered the cave along with the visitors were threatening to destroy this unique Paleolithic gallery. The closing of Lascaux to tourism in 1963 has saved the paintings. In what follows I shall briefly recount what the work of Abbe Glory and others over the past four decades has revealed about the contents of the cave.

    How can one determine the age of a prehistoric painting? This question was perhaps the most difficult one that faced the scholars at Lascaux from the first. There is no known way of dating such a painting by itself; one must begin by determining the context of the artists' work. That means looking for traces the artists left behind. To find such traces one must dig, first in order to expose the levels of soil that contain artifacts contemporaneous with the artists' work. Next one must establish the sequence of the layers, since not all the layers from top to bottom will be present in all parts of the site. Even when the stratigraphy is known, however, one has the problem of determining which levels are contemporaneous with the paintings.

    At Lascaux, fortunately, this problem did not arise. The first stratigraphic in-

    TWELVE PIGMENTS applied by the painters at Lascaux range from a pale yellow (A) to black (70A). All the pigments used at Lascaux, with the exception of those incorporating charcoal, consisted of powdered minerals. The application of a single mineral as a pigment, however, was rare; the minerals were more usually mixed together. The powder labeled 66A is unusually pure, being a mixture of hematite (70 percent), clay (20 percent), quartz (5 percent) and other substances. Powder labeled 70B, in contrast, is a black containing 40 percent calcium phosphate, 25 percent quartz and 15 percent manganese dioxide, the chief mineral for blacks.


  • A 69 75

    73 68 74

    B 66B 66A

    71 70B 70A


  • vestigations were conducted by Abbe Glory, who excavated 15 cross-section trenches in different parts of the cave. All the evidence of human activity he found proved to come from the same stratum. No further proof that this layer was contemporaneous with the paintings was needed other than the uncovering, along with the other objects in the layer, of the lamps, the stone palettes and the lumps of mineral coloring matter used by the Lascaux painters.

    The archaeological remains unearthed in these excavations indicate that although the cave never served for living purposes, those who made the paintings and engravings worked there

    for many hours at a time, often eating their meals on the spot. It also seems likely that religious rites were held in the cave. In the Well beyond the Apse are the remains of meals, the finest stone lamp found at Lascaux, ornamental seashells and bone lance heads. Among the shells was a particularly beautiful one that had been pierced for stringing as an ornament. It shows grooves worn by the cord that suspended it and bears traces of red ocher. Since the nearest seashore is 200 kilometers away, the shells must have come from at least that distance. The Well seems to have served as a kind of sanctuary.

    The stratigraphic investigations at

    Lascaux, together with analyses f pollen grains in the strata trom contemporaneous plants, show that Paleolithic man used the cave for a relatively brief period, perhaps only a few hundred years. This conclusion is consistent with the fact that the stone and bone artifacts excavated in the cave all belong to a single late Upper Paleolithic culture well known in the Dordogne and elsewhere in France: the Lower Magdalenian. It is also in accord with studies of the many Lascaux paintings and the more numerous engravings demonstrating that their style is homogeneous. Hence everything points toward the utilization of the cave for a single short

    STAG'S HEAD, its eye and ear carefully outlined, was engraved on the south wall of the area called "the Apse" at Lascaux Cave. The ani-

    mal's body was outlined but is not seen in this view. Its exaggerated antlers, also outlined in part, have in addition been painted in black.



  • period. Carbon- 14 dating of charcoal associated with the painters' lamps places that period at about 15,000 S.c.

    How did the artists do their work? Their first problem must have been the need for artificial light. In Magdalenian times the entrance to the cave was sizable and the roof stood about three meters above ground level. This means that the front of the Hall of the Bulls did receive some daylight. At the back of the hall, however, the natural light would not have been enough to work by, whereas in the Axial Alleyway and all the other galleries artificial light was an absolute necessity.

    It is thus not surprising that stone lamps have been found by the score at Lascaux. Some 130 of the total have been carefully studied. The Magdalenian artists did not have to invest much effort in making the kind of lamp most often used; these lamps were simply stones selected from the rocky hillside around the cave mouth that had natural cup-shaped depressions in them. Indeed, some of the stones have depressions so shallow that one may wonder whether they served as lamps at all. The residue of soot, charcoal and ash found in the depressions, however, along with evidence of heating, leaves no doubt about their function.

    To better understand how th