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Insider: Killing Lascaux Volume 61 Number 3, May/June 2008
by Paul Bahn

Inept bureaucrats and creeping fungi are destroying the world's most famous cave paintings

[image] Before-and-after photos, left, show colonies of fungi and bacteria invading a painting of a bull. Right, a photograph taken in 2000 shows a painting of a deer intact, and the same painting photographed in 2007 shows black growths in the deer's body. (Anonymous) [image]

I first visited the cave of Lascaux, in southwest France, in 1977, and it was an overwhelming experience. I was staggered by the sheer beauty of the prehistoric paintings, their size, their quality, their enormous numbers. The huge aurochs bulls, the cavalcades of small horses, the delicate deer, the enigmatic "signs" all swirled around my head in the semidarkness. The same emotions recur on every visit--there are about 600 paintings and 1,500 engravings in this cave, and I always see unfamiliar figures or new details. Some people I have taken into Lascaux have burst into tears at the sight. There are few experiences that can match a visit to this sublime place, easily the most beautiful and important decorated cave ever discovered. But since the cave was found in 1940, this treasure from the last Ice Age has suffered more damage than it had in the previous 15,000 years. Today, the cave and its paintings are deteriorating faster than ever and causing many in the artistic and archaeological communities to wonder how much longer these irreplaceable works of art can survive.

[image] With increased heat and humidity, slimy growths have taken hold on Lascaux's ceiling. (Anonymous)

The International Committee for the Preservation of Lascaux--a nonprofit foundation that aims to raise public awareness and initiate public action to safeguard the cave for future generations--has asked that Lascaux be placed on the U.N.'s World Heritage Center's list of endangered sites. "By involving UNESCO," says Laurence Leaute-Beasley, "our goal is to pry open the closed circuit in which the present management is operating. We are calling for a truly independent and international scientific task force to monitor the process of Lascaux's conservation, and to report to the world the situation in total transparency." The necessary scientific competence exists, and just needs to be brought to Lascaux's "bedside" so it can do its job with no strings attached. And the future management of the cave should also be open to public scrutiny. If Lascaux is doomed to disappear, it must not be allowed to do so amid indifference and silence. The world's greatest cave art deserves far better than this.

Paul Bahn is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY.