World History

Lascaux Cave

cave painting - aurochs bulls

Treasure Discovered!

The Art

Touring the Cave

Horse: a Closer Look

Lascaux Cave

Treasure Discovered!

It’s September 12, 1940. You are fourteen year old Rascal Ravidat. You and your dog Robot are walking and romping in the crisp autumn air.

Robot runs toward an uprooted tree. He noses the ground. With a yelp, he disappears!

“Robot!” you shout while dashing after him. You can hear Robot whining and barking.

You rush to the spot. There’s the hole! And somewhere down there in the darkness is Robot. His bark sounds far away. There’s no way you can reach him.

“Robot, I have to get help. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Dashing back to your house, you locate three older friends and explain the situation. Everyone urgently packs for underground exploration, adding shovels to enlarge the hole.

When you and your friends return to Robot, he barks ecstatically. You shine a powerful flashlight down the hole. Robot is about fifty feet down!

“We’re coming for you, Robot!”

Shovels dig into the edges around the hole, throwing dirt in all directions.  

The most experienced spelunker inspects the shaft. “It’s an easy climb back up. Maybe it’s the secret tunnel to Lascaux Manor. The tree grew over the hole and hid the entrance. That’s why it’s never been found.”

“The tunnel that leads to another tunnel, then treasure?” you ask excitedly.

He nods. “I’ll go down first.” He lowers himself a few feet then scrambles back up. “Yes, easy.” He disappears down the shaft.

Silence. More silence. Agonizing silence.

“Are you all right down there?” you shout.

“You fellows have to see this!”

You wriggle into the shaft, your heart pounding. Down you go into the darkness. At the bottom you squirm around and out of the shaft.

Robot is wriggling his whole self, jumping up on you and licking you. You kneel and hug him fiercely. “You’re okay, Robot. We’re here to get you out.”

You look toward your friend. His flashlight reveals the drawing of a horse on a cave wall. At the edges of the light, parts of other animals fade into the darkness.

“Whoa!” you say, switching on your flashlight. The walls are covered with a variety of animals.

After your other friends arrive, your group explores the cave. There is room after room of drawings! Walls and ceilings are covered with six thousand figures representing animals, humans, and geometric art.

After resurfacing with Robot, you and your friends rush to the authorities.

The curator of the Prehistory Museum, a sketcher, and two other men return to the shaft site with you and your friends. You lead the first guided tour of Lascaux Cave.

The authorities, stunned by the art work, declare that this is the oldest art found yet. Its value is infinitely more than the treasure chest you were seeking.

The Art

Lascaux Cave, made of limestone, is located near Montignac, France.  The art work is traditionally dated at 15,000 B.C.

Damage was extensive during the fifteen years the public was allowed access. The cave was closed and the art work restored. A series of replicas were made for the public so they could still experience the art and, in some cases, the feel of entering the cave.

The art is not the same throughout. In some places, the rock is softer than others allowing etching instead of painting. Unfortunately, the etchings have not survived well.

Most areas have been brush painted with the common colors of red, yellow, and black. Ochre and hematite were used. So was goethite, which is reddish-brown or yellowish-brown. Manganese-containing pigments delivered silver-gray results. Charcoal may have been used, but if it was, it was used sparingly.

The art on some walls may have been painted with pigment suspended in animal fat or calcium-rich cave groundwater or clay. This suspension was applied by swabbing or blotting it on the wall instead of using a brush. We haven’t seen these techniques before!

The source of the pigments has been traced to a site two hundred miles away! Surely, this is not graffiti. The art had great importance to those who drew it and those who saw it.

Touring the Cave

Let’s take a tour.

We are in the Hall of Bulls (actually they are aurochs bulls). Some figures are immense: up to sixteen and a half feet long! Does their size indicate importance? Or is it actual life size? That’s something we have not seen before.

Two rows of aurochs face each other. On the north side of the wall, two aurochs are accompanied by ten horses and a large unidentified animal with two straight lines on its forehead, affectionately called “the unicorn.”

On the south side, three large aurochs are next to three smaller ones painted red. They are accompanied by six small deer and the only bear in the cave. For some reason, the bear is drawn on the belly of an aurochs.

One of the bulls is seventeen feet long, the largest cave art yet discovered! Also, the bulls seem to be in motion. (Why only the bulls?)

Now we enter the Axial Diverticulum. Here, the bulls, horses, deer, and an ibex cover the walls. One running horse was brushed with manganese pencil. On the ceiling, animals seem to roll from one wall to the other. Among the figures are many geometric shapes: sticks, dots, and rectangles.

The Passage is too damaged to examine.

The Nave has four groups of figures accompanied by geometric shapes. The groups are the Empreinte (Footprint) panel, the Black Cow panel, the Swimming Deer panel, and the Crossed Buffalo panel.

The hind legs of the Crossed Buffalo (actually a Bison) are crossed, giving the impression that one leg is nearer the viewer than the other. Although primitive, this is the oldest example of the use of perspective!

The Feline Diverticulum seems to be an area of practice or experimentation. Named for a group of felines, engravings of wild animals can be seen in naïve style. A figure of a horse is unique because of its head-on pose.

The Apse contains more than a thousand engravings, some of which are superimposed over paintings. The Apse contains the only reindeer in the cave. This is odd because reindeer is thought to have been the main staple of the people’s diet.

The Well is the site of a mysterious scene. A man with a bird’s head and erect penis seems to lie on the ground. At his side is either a long-legged bird or a bird on a pole. To the man’s right is a buffalo facing the man and transfixed by a spear from its anus through its belly. Intestines hang out. A geometric sign runs from the spear point to the bird. To the left of the man, a rhinoceros moves away.

Horse: a Closer Look

Let’s look closely at the horse painting above.

The first thing that strikes us are the proportions of the horse. Compared to today’s horse, which is the result of thousands of years of breeding, this horse has short legs and a bulky torso.

The yellow coloring gives rounding to the hip and rib cage. Black highlights the mane, face, and legs. There is attention to detail even to the feathering over the fetlocks!

Perspective is artfully shown between near and far legs.

What I find amazing is the artistry of movement. The legs show activity, probably a trot. The tail does not hang downward as in a walk, but neither is it streaming behind as it would be in a gallop.

The characteristics of the rock is used for the path. A path always indicates travel. It inclines upward and seems to turn away from us.  This change of view is emphasized by the shorter front legs and the tiny head.

Movement is represented in art by diagonal lines. This technique is used copiously by this artist. The longest diagonal reaches from the horse’s poll to the end of the tail. All legs and the neck are diagonal, as is the mane. The horse is moving through a field of grain, perhaps wheat, represented by individual stalks, all of which are bent diagonally.

I am awestruck at the quality of this art!

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Photo credit: found on Adobe