The Cave of Lascaux – Scenes from the Stone Age

March 22, 2013 at 11:36 am (Uncategorized) (, )


As promised, this is a post all about the latest special exhibit at The Field Museum, the Cave paintings of Lascaux.  Lascaux is a place in southwestern France that holds some of the oldest, most well-known depictions of Upper Paleolithic art.  These paintings are somewhere around 17,300 years old and most of the paintings are of animals that we know lived around the cave at the time they were painted, although in some cases there are no fossils  that have ever been found anywhere near where the animals were painted.  We don’t know exactly who painted these or why, though there are some theories (religious or spiritual ceremonies, accounts of hunting seasons, trance-dancing, etc.)  The cave lay hidden for thousands of years until a giant storm created a sinkhole that led to its chambers.  A group of teenage French boys were walking around and stumbled across it, quickly realizing the value of their find.  Two of them actually camped out for months at the entrance to the cave to ensure only legitimate scientists and researchers could gain entrance, and then they were guides once the cave was opened to the public.

These paintings make many people envision some Neanderthal with a club standing in the cave in which he lived, painting away.  This isn’t exactly accurate – first of all, the people who painted these were Homo sapiens and secondly, they didn’t live in caves (fires sure would create a smoky environment).  The cave was likely instead used for special purposes and not someplace that anyone lived in all the time.  Also, this isn’t just  a small cave you can walk into and see the back of, it’s actually pretty huge and has many chambers that snake around underground.  There are different animals in the different various chambers but the Field Museum exhibit focuses on one area in particular – the Great Hall of the Bulls.

Yup, this is there.

I mentioned the cave being open to the public but it’s not a place people can tour any longer.  The damage created by humans quickly began to erode the paintings (along with the installation of an air conditioning system – duh) and less than 25 years after it was discovered, it was closed back down.  Only researchers with the highest of security clearances can go down there now, and even then it’s a quick visit during specific times of the year.  But since so many people were fascinated by this find, the French created Lascaux II, which is a replica of the original basically across the street.  If you know anyone who says they’ve been to Lascaux, this is likely where they went.

Now for the Field Exhibit – this was created by French councils and officials and is an even closer and more accurate representation of the original cave than Lascaux II is.  It was created using super crazy technology that I won’t pretend to understand but basically every bit of paint and even the cave bumps and lines have been exactly reproduced.  The exhibit has a huge gallery you walk through where you can see the display of the artwork and there are also representations of the humans at the time that look so real it’s freaky.  It’s also freaky to think that when these were painted, it was done by oil lamps and sometimes the entire piece of work was never entirely seen by the artist because the space in the cave was so small.  The exhibit also has some cool technology that shows what sort of damaging gases your body puts out in the air (to mimic what happened to the original cave), as well as human remains from someone who lived in the time period the paintings were done (courtesy of our own museum).  There are also stone tools on display, diagrams and interactives that show how the paintings were done, theories of the themes and elements in the artwork and a lot more.  In case you haven’t picked up on it by now, I thought it was pretty cool.

As I said, this is the closest representation to the actual cave that exists and The Field Museum is the very first place it’s on display.  It also highlights artwork that’s never previously been made available to the public, so it’s an awesome thing to have in our museum for a while.  It’ll be with us until sometime in September so be sure to check it out if you can!

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