Ancient artists

In 1940, Robot the dog fell into a hole. Actually, according to the guide it was called Robert but I think that was his accent and the book says Robot. Anyway…Robot/Robert’s owner, 18 year old Marcel Ravidat managed to pull him out of the hole and in so doing, dislodged some rocks which he heard bouncing and echoing in the ground beneath him. He quickly raced home and returned with a knife and a torch in order to dig deeper and find out what was there.

Along with Marcel there was Georges Agniel, Simon Coencas and Jacques Marsal and they were all dazzled by what they found in the hole they’d widened.

According to the guidebook, they rushed and told their school teacher about it and he became the first curator of the caves. According to the guide, however, the boys decided to keep the cave a secret but after three days, just had to tell someone and the teacher overheard them.

Whichever is true (and I prefer the latter) the four boys certainly did the world a great service for they found the most amazing set of prehistoric cave paintings on the walls of the cave. The cave was at Lascaux and that’s where we went today.

We started off quite late, heading off to the Vezere Valley, just over an hour’s drive from the pigeonnaire. Not that it mattered. The scenery we drove through was just magnificent. Troglodite caves peek out from the massive sandstone cliff faces, small French villages nestle deep down in the valley with old, stone bridges crossing mighty rivers, deep, green woodland extends for miles on either side of the roads. Just beautiful.

We ended up at Montignac at about 12. In order to get tickets to see the Lascaux cave, you have to visit the special ticket office in Montignac where you are given a time for your tour. Ours was for 3pm and would be in English. We then went to look for somewhere nice for lunch.

It wasn’t difficult. There’s quite a few restaurants along the banks of the river with terraces nice and close to the water. This was our view.

Montignac, the Vezere River

The restaurant we chose was somewhat odd in that it seemed to be Irish themed (it had an Irish name and the menu had green four leaf clovers all over it) but served Italian food (I had tagliatelle carbonara) and the waitress was French. What was not odd was the meal. It was lovely and the view meant we had the perfect place to hang around for a bit.

After hanging around for a bit, we went for a wander around the narrow back streets of old Montignac. Lots of 14th – 16th century buildings, barely standing on cobbled streets and very narrow alleys all made our meandering very delightful.

A very narrow street in Montignac

We popped into the very newly built church, which had no name that I could find, and enjoyed the coolness. It was well above 30 today and the cold of the high ceilinged church was a delight too good to miss.

The only remarkable thing in an unremarkable church

The church wasn’t much to write home about so we didn’t spend very long admiring it and once more emerged into the blazing heat. It was time to make our way to Lascaux II – a short drive up the road and around a very steep hill.

The reason we were visiting Lascaux II is because the original cave, discovered back in 1940 by the lads and their dog Robot/Robert, has suffered from too many visitors. The cave was opened to the public not long after it was discovered but then, following the discovery of strange white growths protruding from some of the paintings, it was closed in 1967. These growths were caused by the rise in temperature created by the thousands of visitors each year.

There followed a very long period of conservation. The micro-climate of the cave was returned to its normal state and things stopped deteriorating. It was then decided to create a carbon copy of the original right next to the original. It would be called Lascaux II and would have identical paintings produced using the same methods and materials as the Cro-Magnon artists had available to them.

Lascaux II is not the entire Lascaux cave gallery but it includes some very impressive pieces. The cave it is in, has been artificially created to look exactly like the original. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a real cave in real rock, it’s just the inside has been shaped to look the same. A mammoth undertaking.

So mammoth, in fact, that it took 11 years. There is now talk of a Lascaux III but we saw no evidence of it while we were there. What we did see was simply amazing.

The images are extraordinary, particularly given the fact that they were created in near darkness (they had only small rocks with animal fat on it and a wick made from juniper) with no live models. The artists even used the shapes of the rocks to create a three dimensional feel to their work. Whoever painted these animals was a true genius.

A lot of art historians will tell you that perspective in art was discovered in the Renaissance but they’d be wrong. It was discovered around 16,000 years ago in a small cave in the Vezere Valley.

There’s no way anyone can take a photo in the cave and, besides, photos can’t really show the levels of sophistication in the creation of the paintings. However, here’s a photo of a page from the guide book just to give a glimpse of what they look like.

A bull from Lascaux

I am so glad I saw this. It is a truly incredible thing and well worth the few hours travel and few hours waiting for the 40 minute tour. Totally and completely worth it.

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1 Response to Ancient artists

  1. mum cook says:

    Wow getting hot the caves sound really great i love that sort of thing. love mum


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