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Lascaux Cave Art

Solutrean-Magdalenian: 19,000 BC
Materials & methods, meaning of art

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Cave paintings in the Hall of the Bulls at Lascaux Cave, Dordogne
Hall of the Bulls, at Lascaux Cave. One of the greatest collections of Upper Paleolithic cave painting. Copyright Wendel Collection. (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Why is Lascaux Important?

Lascaux Cave is a major site of prehistoric art, situated in the Vézère valley of the Dordogne region.

It is world famous for the quality of its animal paintings, which were created over a 6,500-year period, between 19,500 (Solutrean era) and 13,000 BC (Magdalenian era).

The cave ranks alongside Chauvet Cave (Ardèche, France), Trois Frères Cave (Ariège, France) and Altamira Cave (Cantabria, Spain), as one of the richest sites of Stone Age art in Europe.

As at Chauvet, Lascaux's art was protected by a rockfall which sealed off access to the cave around 13,000 BC.

In 1979, Lascaux was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as is universally recognized as one of the key centres of Stone Age culture in Europe.

Black painting known as the Scene of the Dead Man, in the Shaft at Lascaux Cave
'Scene of the Dead Man' in the Shaft at Lascaux, featuring a disemboweled bison; a man with a bird-shaped head and an erect phallus; and a rhino walking away (left) whilst defecating. Debate continues as to its meaning. Image by legacy.earlham.edu.

Location & Discovery

Lascaux Cave was discovered in September 1940 by 18-year-old Marcel Ravidat and three teenage friends - Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel, and Simon Coencas.

The cave is located close to the village of Montignac, in the Périgord of southwestern France, about 25 km from the main clusters of decorated caves which are found around the village of Eyzies-de-Tayac and along the River Beune.

This places Lascaux inside the zone of Franco-Cantabrian art, which is noted for its broad similarity of style.

The entrance to the cave sits at an altitude of 185 metres, overlooking the valley floor some 100 metres below.

Its galleries stretch for about 235 metres, and contain more than 2,000 images.

Scientists think that the cave was first occupied around 20,000 BC, and its earliest art was produced between 19,500 and 19,000 BC, although dating is ongoing and far from complete.

Unicorn, Hall of the Bulls, Lascaux Cave, Périgord
The famous Unicorn in the Hall of the Bulls, Lascaux. Image by JoJan. (CC BY 4.0)

Deterioration of the Cave Art

Sadly, within 15 years of its discovery, much of Lascaux's art began to deteriorate due to the huge number of daily visitors. As a result, the site was closed to the public in 1963.

Since then, environmental problems have worsened significantly. As a result, in 1983, an exact replica of the "Great Hall of the Bulls" and the "Axial Gallery" - known as "Lascaux II" - was opened by the French Ministry of Culture a few hundred metres from the original cave.

Since December 2016, Lascaux II has been superceded by "Lascaux IV", a more accurate and comprehensive replica, in a new museum built inside the hill overlooking Montignac.

Great Black Cow, the Nave, Lascaux Cave, Dordogne
Great Black Cow, in the Nave, Lascaux. Image by Don Hitchcock. Source: 'Lascaux Revealed' Exhibition.

Lascaux's Cave Art

Lascaux contains more than two thousand images. Of these, roughly 600 are cave paintings (or drawings), and 1,500 are rock engravings.

According to the French Ministry of Culture, there are 600 images of identified animals (plus 300 unidentified) and 1 human figure - the man with a bird's head in the Shaft Scene.

The remainder are abstract signs and symbols.

Of the animals, pictures of horses are by far the most common (60 percent), followed by equal numbers of stags and aurochs, after which come bison and ibex.

The few carnivores depicted, like felines and bears, are found only in the remotest corners of the cave.

In addition, there is one bird, one rhinoceros, but barely a single picture of a reindeer or mammoth, even though they were the principal food source of the time.

The cave also contains twelve basic categories of abstract signs and symbols.

They include: lines (straight, parallel, branching, v-shaped, nested convergent), claviform signs, pentagonals, quadrangular shapes, and dots. The more elaborate signs are found only at a few locations in the cave.

Some of the more complex markings are similar to the abstract art found at the Gabillou Cave in the Dordogne, Le Placard Cave in the Charente, and Cosquer Cave near Marseilles.

None of these ideomorphs have been deciphered.

Finally, there are a small number of hand stencils, as well as imprints of 'mutilated' hands left in clay.

Lascaux Cave Structure

The cave itself consists of seven main segments:

For more details of the layout of the galleries, as well as the location of the paintings and engravings, see: Lascaux Cave Layout & Paintings.

Age & Dating

How old is Lascaux's oldest cave art? When was Lascaux first occupied by humans? Answer: no one knows for sure. The fact is, despite its celebrity status, Lascaux is poorly dated compared to Chauvet.

One of the main reasons for this, is that artists at Chauvet used charcoal (an organic, thus dateable material) to create their black pigment, while Lascaux's artists used manganese dioxide - an inorganic mineral - of which the Périgord had a plentiful supply.

As a result, scientists are still debating basic chronological questions about the age of Lascaux's cave paintings, over what period they were created, and the identity of the oldest art in the complex, are still being debated.

Radiocarbon dating methods have not clarified these issues, except to push back the basic timeline from 13,000 BC (fifteen thousand years ago) to 19,500 BC (twenty-one thousand years ago).

In the early period, following Lacaux's discovery, Henri Breuil and Denis Peyrony - the two leading French archaeologists of the day - thought Lascaux was Gravettian in origin (i.e. before 20,000 BC).

Then, in keeping with dates obtained from charcoal in the "Shaft", a study led by Arlette Leroi-Gourhan and Jacques Allain, attributed all of Lascaux to the Magdalenian II (around 14,000 BC).

The French paleontologist Andre Leroi-Gourhan (1911-86), Arlette Leroi-Gourhan's husband, was of the opinion that Lascaux was decorated between the end of Solutrean culture and the beginning of Magdalenian culture (between about 16,000-14,000 BC).

According to Leroi-Gourhan, the style of the paintings was consistent with other art discovered during this period. For example, style characteristics include bison horns shown from the front; aurochs horns depicted by a simple curve, while the rear horn is more sinuous; deer antlers shown in a specific perspective, and so on.

According to the French Ministry of Culture, the oldest rock art at Lascaux belongs to the Solutrean, at the mid-point of Upper Paleolithic art, as it is more reminiscent of the works at the well-dated sites of Fourneau-du-Diable (18,000 BC) or Roc-de-Sers (17,200 BC), than of any Magdalenian cave.

Abstract signs also play a role in the dating issue. According to the scholar Jean Clottes, the Placard type style of geometrical symbols in the cave are very similar to the 'chimney' signs seen at Pech-Merle cave, whose art dates back as far as 25,000 BC.

Most recently, in 2019, new radiocarbon dates of reindeer bones indirectly date Lascaux's art to between 19,500 and 19,000 BC. The details are as follows:

Conclusion: the paleolithic cave art at Lascaux was produced over a period of about 6,500 years, from 19,500 to 13,000 BC.

No Direct Dating

It's important to note that no paintings have been dated - only cave materials - such as carbon-containing rock, or fossils, or charcoal from burnt bone or wood - have been dated.

As a result, the antiquity of Lascaux is likely to remain unverified, until new technology is able to date it directly.

That said, it seems obvious that Lascaux's cave art must have been created over several thousand years, up until the rockfall that sealed off the cave in 13,000 BC.

Thus dating methods are likely to produce dates from the entire span of (say) 19,000 to 13,000 BC.

Materials & Methods

Cave painting and engraving during the Stone Age required the organization and expenditure of significant resources, as you can see from this list of 14 steps.

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Once these tasks were in hand, the artists could begin to create their art.

How was Lascaux's Cave Art Made?

Lascaux's cave art was created using three basic graphic techniques: painting, drawing and engraving, which were frequently combined.

For instance, two methods were used to complete the Great Black Bull, in the Axial Gallery. The head and much of the body were spray-painted, while an implement (mat, pad, swab) acting like a brush was used to paint the upper part of the body and the tail. Drawing was done with the same implements, but also with edged pieces of manganese or iron oxide.

Painting or Engraving?

Which artistic method (or combination thereof) was used, depended on the state of the rock surface.

In the Hall of the Bulls and the Axial Gallery, for instance, the rock is covered by white calcite that is hard, coarse-grained and often highly reflective.

These characteristics make engraving difficult and thus encourage the artist to draw and paint instead.

On the other hand, in the Passageway, the Apse, the Nave and the Chamber of the Felines, corrosion of the limestone has caused the wall to disintegrate to a depth of several millimetres.

This makes it difficult to affix paint to the surface, so here, engraving is preferable. Although the artist can enhance his engraved drawing by spraying paint onto the surface through a pipe.

An examination of the wall art at the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave, shows that the techniques of engraving and drawing were completely mastered by 32,000 BC.

Spray-painting, too, was practiced since Neanderthal times - see for example the hand stencils at the Cave of Maltravieso, dating to 64,700 BC.

Indeed, the main painterly technique used at Lascaux was the spraying of pulverized colour pigments down a pipe made from wood, bone or plant materials.

Engraving, the most common wall art technique used at Lascaux, involved scratching away the outer layer of rock, which creates a difference in colour

The resulting 'engraved line' is just like a drawing. Thicker engraved lines were typically employed to add volume or relief to the outlines of animals.

How Lascaux Artists Painted Horses

When Lascaux artists came to create an image of a horse, they started on the mane, using an initial field of black pigment.

Next, they painted the hide and the neck.

Then they structured the different fields of colour by drawing the lines of the back, hindquarters and belly, as well as the front legs, the outline of the head and the tail.

This sequence and procedure is the same for every picture of a horse so far examined.

However, there may be variations in the appearance of the structuring lines - differences caused by the grain of the wall.

If the surface is too uneven, for instance, the paint is sprayed rather than applied with a tool or pad, or smeared by hand.

The line of the back and the legs of the yellow horse in the Axial Gallery were made with a stencil, while animal hair was used to make the short lines for the nostrils and the base of the tail.

In the Nave, we see another variation. The outer lines of some horses are engraved rather than painted.

How Artists Imbued Animals with Extra Vitality

Researchers have discovered that each animal species pictorialized on the walls of Lascaux illustrates a different period of the calendar, according to their mating habits.

Horses, for instance, are shown as they appear at the end of winter or the beginning of spring. Aurochs are depicted as they are in high summer, while stags are portrayed as though it was autumn.

During their respective mating periods, animals tend to be much more animated, so by depicting them at this point, artists create a much more dynamic tableau.

This is one reason why the animal art at Lascaux contrasts so favourably with that of several other sites, whose animals look more static.

Lascaux's artists also added extra vitality to the animals they depicted.

They achieved this by adding broad, rhythmic outlines around areas of soft colouring.

In addition, animals are rendered in a slightly "twisted perspective", with their heads drawn in profile but with horns or antlers drawn from the front.

The net effect is to inject the figures with more visual power and vitality.

What Paint Pigments were Used?

The colour pigments used at Lascaux (and many other Stone Age caves), were usually obtained locally. This explains why the Stone Age colour palette used by paleolithic painters is often quite limited.

Typical colours used include: black, all shades of red, plus a range of warm colours, from dark brown to straw yellow.

Only rarely were other colours employed, like the mauve pigment that appears on the 'blazon' under the image of the "Great Black Cow" in the Nave.

Nearly all pigments came from minerals, or from charcoal. At Lascaux, for example, research shows that all the painted or drawn figures were done with colours made from powdered metallic oxides of iron and manganese.

Iron rich ochre pigments (hematite, goethite, specularite), used for red and other warm colours, were widely available in the Périgord, while manganese was also common.

In fact, the various black shades used at Lascaux (and other sites in the Périgord) were only obtained from local deposits of manganese dioxide: carbon-based sources (wood/bone charcoal) were almost never used. By contrast, charcoal was widely used as a source of black pigment at Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave.

How did Lascaux Artists Paint in the Dark?

They used three types of light to illuminate their paintings and engravings. Each had its own advantages and disadvantages.

At Lascaux, all three forms of light were used. In narrow or deep parts of the cave, artists used stone lamps. But at the entrance, and in chambers with high ceilings where smoke can rise, they left behind signs of fireplaces. While evidence of torches were left on ceilings and walls throughout the cave.

What's the Meaning of Lascaux's Cave Art?

How should we interpret the paintings and engravings at Lascaux - are they simply "art for art's sake"? Absolutely not.

We can see right from the outset, that the Hall of the Bulls is a calculated composition.

The artists exploited a strip of rock to bring together two groups of bulls facing each other. And in the centre, they have united the three main animals of Lascaux - horse, bull and stag.

Is it a hunting scene? No. Lascaux artists weren't interested in telling stories of everyday life around the campfire. The meaning is more abstract, more complex.

Lascaux is a 600-animal, multi-chamber composition, which uses animal figures to express a series of messages whose meaning we can only guess at.

Its complexity seems obvious from little details. Why, for instance, are some chambers at Lascaux much more heavily decorated than others? Why are only animals painted? Why not rivers and mountains?

Why so few humans? Paleolithic art features only a tiny handful of human images, mostly half-human, half-animal. Why so few? And why doesn't Lascaux feature more common animals, like reindeer? They were a vital element in the hunter gatherer diet and lifestyle.

The cave art at Lascaux has been designed to convey some kind of story or message, but what story ends with a half-bird, half-man, lying on the ground with an erect phallus, next to an eviscerated buffalo, as a large rhinoceros walks away, defecating as it goes?

This scene of the Bird Man and Bison, displayed in the "Shaft", a deep fissure which appears to function as a particularly special place within the already deeply sacred space of Lascaux, defies conventional explanation.

The French archaeologist Abbé Henri Breuil proposed the "sympathetic magic theory".

He believed Lascaux artists created their drawings and paintings of animals in an attempt to put them under a spell and thus achieve dominance over them.

But this interpretation of Lascaux's cave art is most unconvincing, not least because there are many images that have no obvious link to hunting. Also, in some caves, such as Chauvet, many painted animals weren't hunted for food.

The most convincing interpretation of the cave art at Lascaux, surely, is that it was created as part of some spiritual ritual.

According to Leroi-Gourhan, the cave was a religious sanctuary used for initiation ceremonies.

This theory explains why some chambers at Lascaux are more heavily decorated than others: it's because certain areas (like the Apse) were particularly sacred, like a Christian altar.

The theory is also consistent with a number of footprint studies, showing that virtually all the imprints in the cave were left by adolescents: a typical category of initiates.

See: What is the Meaning of Cave Art?

The Lascaux Sculpture Conundrum
Why doesn't Lascaux Cave contain any 3-D sculpture? After all, by 20,000 BC, venus figurines were being made throughout Europe. Why not in caves?

Could it be that Lascaux (and other decorated caves) functioned as sacred sanctuaries, and that their art was designed only to enhance the special physical allure of the place?

Vézère Valley Caves

Lascaux is one of more than 30 Vézère Valley caves, in which we find some of the greatest art ever created by Ice Age hunter gatherers.

They include:

La Ferrassie (60,000 BC)
Engravings
Abri Cellier (36,000 BC)
Animal carvings
Abri Castanet (35,000 BC)
Engravings & paintings
Abri du Poisson (23,000 BC)
Relief sculpture of a salmon
Venus of Laussel (23,000 BC)
Bas-relief.
Font de Gaume (17,000 BC)
Polychrome paintings & engravings
Cap-Blanc (13,000 BC)
Chevaline frieze.
Les Combarelles (11,700 BC)
600+ engravings
Rouffignac Cave (11,000 BC)
Best known for black drawings of mammoths.

To see how Lascaux Cave fits into the evolution of Stone Age painting, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

References

(1) "The Archaeology of Lascaux Cave." Arlette Leroi-Gourhan. Scientific American. Vol. 246, No. 6 (June 1982), pp. 104-113.
(2) "Twenty years on, a new date with Lascaux. Reassessing the chronology of the cave’s Paleolithic occupations through new 14C AMS dating." PALEO Revue d'Archaeologie Prehistorique. 20-1-2019 p.130-147.
(3) "New Dates for the Oldest Cave Paintings." Zach Zorich. Archaeology Magazine (Archaeological Institute of America) July/August 2016.
(4) "Cave Art" Jean Clottes. Phaidon. ISBN 978-0-7148-5723-7.

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