In September 1940, four boys and a dog set out on an adventure in Dordogne. The boys – Marcel Ravidat, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel and Simon Coencas – where intrigued by an old legend about a tunnel running under the Vezere River linking the old Castel of Montignac to the Manor of Lascaux. According to the legend, this tunnel would lead to a second tunnel and a treasure hidden deep in the woods of Montignac.
As they walked through the woods the little dog, Robot, ran ahead toward a deep depression in the ground covered with overgrowth and began sniffing the sunken hole. The depression had originally been created by an uprooted tree. The boys hurried to catch up with Robot. When they saw the deep hole, they immediately thought it might lead them to the legendary tunnel and the hidden treasure.
They enlarged the opening by removing a few stones around the edges with their penknives. Once big enough they all climbed down into the hole and once inside used their oil lantern to look around. Marsal remembers this first encounter describing what they saw as a “cavalcade of animals larger than life painted on the walls and ceiling of the cave; each animal seemed to be moving.” The ceiling was pure white, covered with calcite. And the paintings were brilliantly multicolored in reds, blacks, browns and ochres.
The discovery was sensational and once substantiated by the highest authority. News spread throughout France, Europe and the world. The cave of Lascaux became known as the Sistine Chapel of Prehistoric Art.
The cave was located on private property owned by the Count of LaRochefoucault whose family began the commercial exploitation of the cave. By 1948 daily tours brought as many as one thousand people a day through Lascaux. It was not long before the impact of so many visitors was felt.
THE CAVE TODAY:
The opening of the Lascaux cave after World War II changed the cave environment. The breathing of 1,200 visitors per day, presence of lighting and changes in air circulation have created a number of problems. In the late 1950s appearance of lichens and crystals on the walls led to closure of the caves in 1963. This led to restriction of access to the real caves to a few visitors every week and the creation of a replica cave for visitors to Lascaux.
In 2001, the authorities in charge of Lascaux changed the air conditioning system which resulted in regulation of the temperature and humidity. When the system had been established, an infestation of a white mold, began spreading rapidly across the cave ceiling and walls. The mold is considered to have been present in the cave soil and exposed by the working of tradesmen, leading to the spread of the fungus which was treated with quicklime. Since 2007, a new fungus, which has created grey and black blemishes, has begun spreading in the real cave.