French Lascaux caves ‘doing well’ 80 years after discovery

France’s famous Lascaux caves are “doing better” thanks to confinement, the conservation manager has said, on the 80th anniversary of the discovery of the sometimes-fragile heritage site.

14 September 2020
A photo of the Lascaux drawings of animals on the cave wall. French Lascaux caves ‘doing well’ 80 years after discoveryThe original Lascaux caves, which are now closed to the public due to damage, are "doing well", the conservation manager has said.
By Hannah Thompson

Saturday September 12 was the 80th anniversary of the caves’ discovery, after four young local men, Marcel Ravidat, Georges Agniel, Jacques Marsal and Simon Coencas, first came across the caves on September 12, 1940 - after working with archaeologist and teacher, Abbé Henri Breuil.

Located in the Vézère valley, near the village of Montignac in the Dordogne, the caves are now heralded as one of the most important and prized examples of Upper Paleolithic, Cro Magnon artwork in the world, with the paintings estimated to date back around 17,000 years. In 1979, Lascaux was inducted on to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list.

The caves opened to the public in 1948, but were shut in 1963 after it emerged that the high traffic - and carbon dioxide from visitors’ breath - was damaging the site.

Later, visitors would be invited to view replicas of the paintings, and the original caves were closed, to avoid damaging them further. Now, an entire industry has developed around Montignac to accommodate the thousands of tourists that flock to the replica site - a few hundred metres from the original - each year.

Despite restoration and continued conservation work, however, an alert was again raised over the conditions of the caves at least twice in the 2000s.

But now, Muriel Mauriac, who has been conservation manager at the caves for 11 years, told local newspaper France Bleu Périgord that the caves are currently in a more “balanced” state of repair. 

She explained that the black marks that had started to develop had faded in many places, and that in some areas had almost disappeared completely.

She said: “This is such an iconic cave, so exceptional, that it has been a victim of its own success. After the different microbiological crises that it has been through, we can see that it is doing better. It is still fragile, vulnerable, and a very complex ecosystem.

“But the period that we saw at the beginning of the 2000s with major development of microorganisms has now stabilised, and is even in regression in certain areas of the caves.

"Things are stable, which is reassuring. But we still have to be alert, and keep daily watch, to avoid microorganisms from developing.”

Left unchecked, these microorganisms can cause black marks and stains to appear on the walls of the caves, and cause serious damage to the cave paintings and condition of the site.

Ms Mauriac said that from a conservation perspective, confinement had actually been a good thing for the caves - despite the sharp drop in ticket sales - as visitor numbers have been much lower.

She said: “The cave had more time to rest. When the country was in lockdown, that is usually a period when we see a lot of visitors, requiring much follow-up and intervention; but [this year], the cave was able to rest more and we saw that it was balancing out remarkably in terms of the temperature of the air and rock.

“There is now an almost-perfect balance between the air-rock temperatures and the inside of the cave.”

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