The Vézère valley is a limestone plateau in the south western area of France.
It was named because of the Vézère river, which is 211 km long and a right tributary of the Dordogne River. It’s source is in the north-western Massif Central mountains.
Paleolithic Cave Paintings
The area is famous for its systems of hidden caves which include the Lascaux, where there are close to 2000 Paleolithic paintings that have been dated from about 17,000 to 10,000 years ago.
The original caves are located near the village of Montignac, in the Dordogne département. The paintings are primarily of primitive images of large animals, and scientists have found fossilized evidence to show that most of them did live in the area at the time.
The cave was discovered on September 12, 1940 by four teenagers, Marcel Ravidat, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel, and Simon Coencas, (and Marcel’s dog, Robot).
The cave complex was opened to the public in 1948, but by 1955, the paintings had become damaged, due in large part to the 1,200 visitors per day and the carbon dioxide they produced.
In order to preserve this rare and precious find, the cave was closed to the public in 1963, and over the next several years, the paintings were restored to their original state.
Rooms in the Cave
‘Rooms’ in the cave include: ‘The Great Hall of the Bulls’, ‘the Lateral Passage’, ‘the Shaft of the Dead Man’, ‘the Chamber of Engravings’, ‘the Painted Gallery’, and ‘the Chamber of Felines’.
Interestingly, the paintings contain no images of the surrounding landscape or the vegetation of the time period, which have been found in cave paintings in North America.
Figures in the Cave
The figures themselves can be grouped into three main categories: animals, human figures and abstract, geometric symbols.
Most of the major images have been painted onto the walls using mineral pigments, and at least one scientist believes the artists put the paint – such as ground up chalk – into their mouths and then blew it between their hands onto the rock. (One theory is that perhaps they believed they were breathing life into the rock and their work.)
Some designs have also been chiseled into the stone. Sadly, a lot of the images are too faint to be able to see clearly, while others have deteriorated for a variety of other environmental and other reasons.
Over 900 of the images can be identified as animals, and of these, 605 have been very precisely identified.
In addition, there are also many geometric figures and shapes, and scientists can only guess as to their real meaning.
Of the animals, 364 have been identified as horses, 90 are of stags and cattle and bison make up about 4-5% of the majority of the rest of the animal images. images. There are also seven felines, a bird, a bear, a rhinoceros, and a human.
Another interesting fact is that there are no images of reindeer, even though that was main source of food for the artists…
The Running of the Bulls
The most famous section of the Lascaux cave is known as ‘the Great Hall of the Bulls’. Altogether there are 36 animals in this section of the cave, including more horses and stags. But without a doubt the four large black bulls painted there are the dominant figures. One of the bulls is 17 feet (5.2 m) long — and it’s the largest animal discovered so far in cave art.
Like many of the animals inside the Lascaux cave, the bulls appear to be moving.
A Replica of the Cave
Lascaux II, is a replica of two of the cave halls — the Great Hall of the Bulls and the Painted Gallery. It was opened in 1983, about 200 meters from the original.
Reproductions of other Lascaux artwork can be seen at the Centre of Prehistoric Art at Le Thot, France.
Black Mold and the Partial Destruction of the Artwork
Since 1998, a fungus – black mold – has been aggressively trying to take over the cave. The mold has been blamed on many causes – the air conditioning system, the use of high-powered lights, and, of course, too many visitors.
In January 2008, the cave was closed even to scientists for three months, and authorities worked to keep the black mold away from the paintings. During that time, only one person was allowed to enter the cave (and then it was only for 20 minutes once a week) to monitor the climatic conditions.
Today only a select few scientific experts are allowed to work inside the cave – and only for a few days a month. Sadly even the efforts to remove the mold took their toll on some of the paintings – there has been damage to some of the pigments and there are dark patches on some of the walls.
The region was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site back in 1979.