As World War II raged through Europe, Marcel Ravidat took his dog for a stroll along the river near his home in the countryside town of Montignac, France. Everything seemed normal until Marcel realized that Robot had fallen down a hole. He shouted for his four-legged friend and eventually heard a muffled reply from deep down inside the ground. It was then, when Marcel went down to find Robot, that he also found something that would prove to be one of the most significant finds in the history of art. The pair had quite literally stumbled across the one of the earliest known examples of man-made art – the Lascaux cave paintings.
Uncovering the Lascaux Cave
Initially, Marcel thought that he’d found the legendary secret tunnel that nearby villagers claimed led to a long-lost buried treasure trove. Instead, the narrow, 50-foot shaft led to an enormous cave deep below the surface.
Thanks to the dim light from a small oil lamp he had with him, Marcel was able to make out a number of animal figures dotted around the ceiling of the cave. He didn’t know it at the time, but these paintings were over 17,000 years old and he was most likely the first person to have laid eyes on them for a similar amount of time.
With the oil in his lamp running out, he and Robot scrambled back out of the caves and went to share the news with his friends Jacques, Georges and Simon. The boys later said that they were mesmerised by the ‘cavalcade of larger than life animals’ which appeared to dance along the walls.
Keeping it Quiet
The friends kept the discovery secret for a while and soon charged other children from the village a small admission fee to take a peek. Eventually, however, they managed to convince a local historian that they had genuinely found these paintings below the surface. He advised them to prevent anyone going down to the cave, so as to avoid any damage or vandalism to the artworks.
The boys took this advice seriously and Jacques, at the age of just 14, persuaded his parents to allow him to set up camp by the entrance to keep watch of the cave 24/7 in order to ward off any unwanted visitors. He did so all through the winter of 1940-41 and would go on to be a faithful warden of the Lascaux caves, helping visitors and maintaining the site, until his death in 1989.
It was not until eight years after their discovery that the caves were officially opened to be viewed by members of the public. German forces had occupied the area when Marcel made his discovery, and it was only after the war had ended and archaeologists had been able to record every detail of the cave and the artwork within, that tourists would be able to venture into the depths of the cave themselves.
A Tourist Hot-Spot
It goes without saying, that the caves became a go-to destination for tourists as peace returned to Europe. Visitors flocked to the site in huge numbers. By 1955 over a thousand tourists would enter the caves each day! However, the truth was that the cave’s popularity would ultimately lead to their closure from the public in 1963, just fifteen years after they had opened.
The levels of carbon dioxide produced by the visitors, who came in their thousands to gawp at the ancient artworks, eventually began to lead to their deterioration. The condensation their breath produced also encouraged the growth of mould and fungus on the walls; and the powerful spotlights that had been put in the cave to make the paintings visible actually began to cause the pigments – which had to that point held up for almost 20,000 years – to fade.
The damage done during these years is still being addressed to this day thanks to the work of over 300 historians, archaeologists and scientists hired by the French Government in 2009, with the aim of establishing how to preserve the paintings at Lascaux for future generations.
An Important Discovery
One reason why the find was so significant was the sheer number and scale of the artworks that were contained in the cave. One of the bulls painted on the wall is thought to be the largest single image ever found in pre-historic cave art. What’s more, alongside the 600 painted elements there were also 1,500 carvings and engravings etched into the limestone walls.
The animals depicted on the cave walls included oxen, horses, stags and the now extinct, auroch – a long-horned cattle. However, one of the most significant elements of the paintings at Lascaux are that there are even human figures among the animals. One of the men depicted actually is shown with the head of a bird. A significant find for historians of pre-history who now believe that this indicates the practice by shamans who would dress as their deities for religious ceremonies.
The artworks also give an insight into the adventurous nature of the people who made it their home. One of the most significant details of the analysis of the pigments used to make the paintings was that they included manganese oxides. Archaeologists estimate that the nearest source of this mineral is almost 250km South of Lascaux, in the central region of the Pyrenees.
This indicates that the people who painted the caves either had access to trade routes that spread throughout the South of France, or that they had travelled this incredible distance for the sole purpose of obtaining the pigment to create their paintings. Both of these ideas demonstrate something of the sophistication of the people who inhabited the caves some 17,000 years ago.
Reopening the Caves
Preparations were made to protect the cave and its artworks in the future, as the site was announced as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1979, which guaranteed their preservation and stipulated only limited access to the original caves would be allowed from there on in.
After twenty years of closure, tourists were able to return to the area in similar numbers to experience Lascaux II – an exact replica of the two largest sections of the cave housed just 200m from the site of the original entrance discovered by Marcel and Robot.
Prior to opening on the original site, Lascaux II was first displayed in 1980 at the Grand Palais in Paris, before it was permanently relocated to a site just 200m from the original caves in 1983. It has remained open to the public ever since and now attracts over 30,000 visitors from around the globe each year.
Despite being made by the hands of modern artists, rather than the pre-historic human beings who roamed the earth many millennia ago, the facsimiles that make up Lascaux II are hard to discern from the originals.
The paintings in Lascaux II were created using what historians believe to be the same tools, methods and pigments, and executed to replicate to the nearest millimeter the size and shape of each of the artworks.
The only difference is that they are housed in climate controlled spaces, allowing people the chance to experience the Lascaux cave paintings in all their detail and majesty, while also preserving the originals which allows for the continued research into the lives of the people who made them 17,000 years ago.
Lascaux III, another version of the replicas, now tours museums around the world; while Lascaux IV was opened in 2016. This enormous complex, built into the mountainside, overlooks the site and the town of Montignac and comprises of a new multi-media museum and a number of reproductions of further tunnels and entrances to the original cave.
Lascaux IV and its high-tech touch screens are a far-cry from the caves that Robot the dog found himself lost in on that September morning in 1940. However, the site remains an enduring monument to exploration, discovery and the perennial importance of art.
Marcel and Robot after The Lascaux Cave Discovery
Marcel worked at the caves until their initial closure in 1963. At which point, he returned to work as a mechanic – the vocation he had been training for when he made his earth-shattering discovery twenty-three years earlier. He worked at a local paper-mill for the remainder of his professional life and, eventually, he died of a heart-attack in 1995 at the age of 72.
Little is known as to Robot’s fate in the years that followed – despite his supposedly significant role in the discovery of the caves. However, the American author Guy Davenport penned a short story named ‘Robot’ to honour the famous canine in 1974.
This fictionalised account of Robot’s descent into the cave highlighted the juxtaposition of the terrible conflict that raged through France on the surface, and the apparently eternal beauty that was found hidden below.
However, their discovery of the Lascaux caves in 1940 was, quite literally, a ground-breaking moment in the history of art; and one that serves as an enduring reminder of the role that art has played in human life for well over 17,000 years.