The discovery of what would soon become known as the world’s premier example of prehistoric art occurred by accident.
In 1940, four teenage friends were exploring the woods in southern France when they came upon a deep depression caused by a fallen tree. After clearing the debris, they found a shaft leading to an underground chamber. Climbing inside, they stood in awe of their surroundings: beautiful, vibrant paintings and engravings of animals lined the cave walls, highly sophisticated artwork that had been untouched for almost 20,000 years.
News of the astonishing discovery spread quickly, and the cave paintings of Lascaux saw more than 1 million visitors between 1948 and 1963 before the French government closed the cave to the public to preserve the priceless paintings.
Now, visitors to the Field Museum in Chicago can experience the thrill of cave exploration for themselves with the new exhibit: “Scenes from the Stone Age: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux,” open through Sept. 8.
The highly anticipated exhibition features full-size replicas of the paintings, including some shown for the first time. They are the most technically accurate reproductions of the cave drawings ever done, and the Field Museum is the first venue in North America for the showing, which is organized by the Conseil General de la Dordogne in France.
“We really can’t capture how beautiful these pieces are,” says Anna Altschwager, exhibition project manager. “Having that first chance to see this is very exciting. It’s an incredible story, and it is about that shared human experience.”
Visitors will walk through a cavelike gallery — complete with simulated oil lamps and torch light — to discover paintings such as the Great Cow Panel, Crossed Bison Panel and Swimming Stags Frieze, which have never before been reproduced. Guests will get to experience the life-size drawings up close for the first time.
“Seeing them face to face to scale is very impressive,” Altschwager says.
The Hall of Bulls, North Wall, is one of the most recognizable images from Lascaux, containing 36 images of bulls, horses and stags. One bull measures 17 feet long, the largest animal depicted in cave art.
Three main animals, including the horse, bison and mammoth, are well-represented in the drawings, says Bob Martin, the A. Watson Armour III curator of biological anthropology. Of the hundreds of paintings of animals, there’s only one illustration of a human, and it appears to be a shaman, he says.
The paintings show a sophistication well ahead of its time. For example, artists used perspective to provide a sense of depth.
“One bison is in front of another,” Martin says. “These guys were way ahead of modern artists. It took us a long time to rediscover perspective in paintings.”
The exhibit also features rare Stone Age artifacts and a lifelike Stone Age family created by world-renowned sculptor Elisabeth Daynes. The four family members are dressed in clothing and ornaments made of materials available 200 centuries ago.
This may be one of the biggest misconceptions about the Stone Age people, as they actually dressed and lived more like us than we may think, museum leaders say. People fished, lived in wood frame structures, sewed their own clothes and made jewelry, tools and weapons.
They don’t necessarily resemble the modern depiction of “cave men” — like the Flintstones or Encino Man, Altschwager says. “Rather, they were sophisticated hunters and gatherers who lived in a structured society with a more refined culture than we thought,” she says.
And they found ways to communicate across hundreds of miles. Similar drawings found in caves in northern Spain suggest communication among the artists, Martin says. The drawings clearly served a ritual purpose, and the caves were considered a sacred place, museum leaders say.
In the Lascaux caves, the use of symbols was prevalent, though their meanings are unknown.
“We may never know,” Altschwager says, “but they were definitely being used to code and share information. It wasn’t just a crazy artist who went into a cave and painted cows. This was used over multiple generations.”
The Lascaux cave was closed after signs of deterioration appeared, caused by carbon dioxide from visitors’ breath. In 1983, Lascaux II, a partial replica of two of the cave halls, opened near the original site.
The traveling exhibition, known as “Lascaux III,” includes new scenes and more accurate replicas. It opened in October 2012 in Bordeaux, France.Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.