Why Was the Lascaux Cave Closed to the Public?

The miraculous prehistoric Lascaux Cave, once a hotly-tipped tourist magnet, was officially closed to the public in 1963. Here's why.

Jul 23, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

why was the lascaux cave closed to the public


The prehistoric Lascaux cave, in the Dordogne Region of Southwestern France, is world-renowned for its miraculous array of cave paintings featuring animals, people and abstract patterns that date back around 17,000 years. First discovered in 1940 by a group of teenagers and their intrepid dog, the cave was first opened to the public in 1948. It quickly gathered huge attention from tourists around the world, who flocked from far and wide to catch a fascinating glimpse of prehistoric history estimated to be from the Upper Paleolithic Period.


Such was the cave’s popularity, approximately 120,000 visitors flocked here every year. But in 1963, the Lascaux Cave closed its doors to the general public, and became a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site under close surveillance, with steel doors and security cameras. But why? Read on to find out more.


The Lascaux Cave Was Showing Rapid Signs of Deterioration

cave lascaux yellow horse
The Yellow Horse, 17,000-15,000 B.C., Lascaux, via the French Ministry of Culture, Paris


Sadly, the Lascaux Cave had begun to show significant signs of deterioration in the short few decades following its discovery. Visitor numbers had shown a sharp increase during this time, and researchers had to surmise that the damage was caused by the commercialization of the space, its artificial lighting conditions and the sheer number of visitors making their way into a cavernous underground space that had previously been shut off from the world for many thousands of years. 


Visitors Caused Microbiotic Contamination

tour of lascaux cave
Marcel, bottom right, accompanies an early tour of the cave


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At its peak during the 1960s, the Lascaux Cave paintings experienced more than 1,500 visitors every day. The amount of heat, humidity and microbes brought into the space during this time was so significant, it led the cave’s natural ecosystem to become out of balance, leading to signs of deterioration, along with green mold, white fungus, and later black fungus. This imbalance forced the Lascaux Cave to close its doors to the general public for good. The funguses were subsequently treated with fungicides and antibiotic compresses, and UNESCO placed the site on its ‘World Heritage in Danger’ list.


Today, the air temperature is tightly monitored with minimal intervention, and any form of visitation or intervention is kept to the barest minimum. So far, no new signs of damage have appeared, and the funguses have begun to retreat, but sadly, signs of damage to the pigmentation of the paintings are still visible.


Fading Caused by Artificial Lights

lascaux cave art
Lascaux Cave Art in France


Another trigger for the damage to the Lascaux Cave paintings was the stark artificial lighting installed during the 1940s, which would once have allowed visitors a clear view of the breathtaking wall paintings. But over time the paintings began to show signs of fading and discoloration, which many believe was caused by this stark and unnatural lighting. Today, the cave is tightly preserved in complete darkness, while the small number of visitors granted access – those carrying out research or maintenance work – must wear sterile whit overalls, latex gloves and shoe covers, and can only view the paintings with the tiny glimmer of an LED forehead lamp. 


An Artificial Replica Was Built

Interior of Lascaux IV
Interior of Lascaux IV


In 1983, an exact replica of the Lascaux Cave was opened to the public, titled Lascaux II, set on top of the hill near where the original cave was found. Many thousands of visitors made their way here to experience some of the magic surrounding these prehistoric artefacts without inflicting further damage onto the original wall paintings, which remain cloaked in darkness and secrecy. In 2016, a new replica, titled Lascaux IV, was opened to replace Lascaux II. The latest cave model is adjacent to the original cave and offers an even more authentic experience than Lascaux II, with changes in air pressure, along with a series of atmospheric cave scents and sounds.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.