Monday, August 25, 2008

Lascaux in Peril

Get ready to get ticked off. The Paleolithic cave paintings of Lascaux, discovered in 1940 and dating from about 15,000 BC, are in danger of deterioration from fungal outbreak, triggered by the installation of a new air-conditioning system in 2001. By the end of summer of that year, the new contamination was apparent, and the last seven years have been spent trying to bring things under control. A massive bureaucratic 'blame game' has also been underway, as French government officials repeatedly deny the extent of the damage and point fingers at each other. Reading details of the damage and the cover-up will truly make an artlover's blood boil.

The International Committee for the Preservation of Lascaux, formed by a group of concerned artists in 2005, has been working tirelessly to expose the bureaucratic tangle surrounding Lascaux and to issue calls for action. Thanks to their efforts, UNESCO's World Heritage Center is now investigating the problem, and more media coverage has appeared (see on their website a PDF of a 2006 Time magazine article and a May/June 2008 Archaeology magazine article). Lascaux may be placed on the WHC's list of endangered sites, which would lead the way for drastic intervention. ICPL's website has an online petition that you can electronically sign to show your support. Save the Caves!

Photo: deer painting from Lascaux wall, photos from 2001 (top) and 2007 (bottom). Note black fungal spots in the 2007 photo. Images from Archaeology magazine website (


Margaret said...

That's terrible! I hope they can do something about it.

Catherine Delors said...

Thanks for bringing attention to this, Sheramy! Sometimes ill-advised conservation measures further destroy what they are supposed to save.

Sheramy said...

That's true, Catherine -- and that's why there are plenty of debates about many conservation projects (e.g. Leonardo's Last Supper...). In this case, it looks like the people who commissioned the new a/c system and those who designed it knew very little about cave environments and the importance of maintaining a stable atmosphere. The old climate control system from the late 1960s was superior in that regard because it used the cave's natural air currents.

A quote from the excellent Archaeology magazine sums it up: "since the cave was found in 1940, this treasure...has suffered more damage than it had in the previous 15,000 years."