When I first contemplated book images of the Neolithic paintings discovered in a cave in the Vézère valley near Montignac, France, I thought the location in that country was very fitting. After all, France is famous for their national love of fine art. I also pondered the fact that the Lascaux Cave Paintings managed to remain undiscovered throughout most of historical time.
On this day in 1940, four teens came upon the ancient site while chasing their dog. They all ended up at the narrow entrance into the cave. I wonder what it was like to be one of those kids on that day.
This world class, archaeological treasure was opened to the public in 1948. The breaths of thousands of tourists, electric lights, and changed air circulation caused several serious problems in the preservation of the paintings. In the 1950s, mineral crystals and lichen began to grow on the cave walls. Concerned officials decided to close the site in 1963 in order to find a solution to the problems. Thus, only five individuals each day, five days of each week are permitted to study the actual gallery, by special government permission.
In 1983, an accurate copy of the cave, Lascaux II, was opened nearby in order to accomodate the quarter of a million tourists who visit each year. Instead of spending money on a trip to the caves, we can now take virtual tours of Lascaux on YouTube and Vimeo. I like these, because I can pause the videos and contemplate the images for as long as I want. A person can also do an image search on the Web and come up with many fine examples of this art.
The paintings have an estimated age of approximately 17,300 years. Most of the images depict large animals that are known to have roamed that area in those years. There are more than 1,500 engravings and some 600 drawings.
The Vézère valley where Lascaux is located, has 147 documented prehistoric sites of archaeological interest among which there are a total of 25 caves that contain Palaeolithic era paintings.
Curiously, at Lascaux and another cave complex, Chauvet, paintings of creatures were superimposed over earlier paintings. Archaeologists can only guess at the reasons why early artists did this. Some have suggested that the size and detail of the paintings in the most remote parts of the complexes may have served as ceremonial areas for the people.
Most recently, scholars from the University of Munich think that some of the non-animal clusters of spots and dots are an ancient star chart or map of the sky. French researchers also have proposed that “key points on major figures correspond to stars in the main constellations” as they appeared in the Paleolithic era.
The most obvious example is found near the shoulder of the large bull painting near the entrance to Lascaux. There appears to be a map of the Pleiades. Interestingly, that region of the sky is a portion of the modern constellation of Taurus the Bull.
The findings at the Lascaux cavern complex have given scientists a new perspective about our human origins and the presence of art we have created for many thousands of years.
The Blue Jay of Happiness likes this anonymous quip: “The stone age was marked by man’s clever use of crude tools. The information age, to date, has been marked by man’s crude use of clever tools.”