It is a country of enchantment which poets have staked out and which they alone may lay claim to. It is nearest thing to Paradise this side of Greece… I believe that the Cro-Magnon man settled here because he was extremely intelligent and had a highly developed sense of beauty.

Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi (1941), p.4
One of the Lascaux horses – or is it? The toll taken by thousands of respiring visitors on the ancient artistry meant that it has long been off-limits as a tourist attraction. But the extraordinary realism of the latest substitute offers a truly immersive experience.

Until the recent disruption, tourism was booming as never before. At the height of summer, forget the traffic jams and lines at airport security, the real metaphor for this tourist age can be found in the queue at the painted Périgord cave of Font-de-Gaume before 7.30 in the morning. You have to present yourself on a numbered seat to stand a chance, over the course of the day, of accessing the magical world of Cro-Magnon cave artists. Having passed through that looking-glass ten years ago, I can only assure the patient visitors it is an experience like no other. Visiting last summer, though, I raced past that line, heading through thick oak coppices towards what is surely one of the most remarkable archaeological enterprises in the world today: Lascaux IV.

Following my iPhone GPS, I emerged from the Vézère Valley into a vast open area with a low monolithic concrete splinter – a contemporary falaise – to one side of an immense, newly planted plaza and a yawningly large car park. The post-modern splinter is, of course, the modern answer to a Périgord cliff-face, with entry points guarded by flocks of young custodians in matching Lascaux vests.

Full immersion

Now, I can hear my nearest and dearest saying this isn’t authentic, resist, it’s virtual, and more. The great painted caves were found in September 1940 by four teenage boys (Marcel Ravidat, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agniel, and Simon Coencas) searching for a secret tunnel and the treasure it held, as France lay in the grip of Nazism. Their mongrel Robot (part setter, part terrier) dived into the hole that turned out to be the fallen entrance to a world of painted wonderment. After Robot went the four teenagers, and the rest, as they say, is history – or rather prehistory. French prehistorians, describing it as a Sistine Chapel, descended upon it at once and, with the hostilities over, by Bastille Day 1948, the gloriously vivid depictions of animals made shortly after 18,000 BC were opened to the public. Some 53,000 visited Lascaux in 1953; 850,000 had visited by 1963, when the calcite on the paintings generated by up to 70 visitors an hour made it necessary to close the place.

The entrance to Lascaux IV: a post-modern take on the cliff-faces that proved a boon to the region’s prehistoric inhabitants.

By 1963, Lascaux had established itself as much in the psyche of French culture as Notre-Dame, the Eiffel Tower, or Chartres Cathedral. Closing it meant finding a strategy to sustain its place in the history of the world. Hence exact replicas were made: Lascaux II and III. This was possible because of the extraordinary recording of the paintings by the Abbé André Glory, as much as the national belief in its importance for France. But Lascaux II was overwhelmed and soon an anomaly of sorts. The answer was to invent a place for the Digital Age, Lascaux IV, that is as close to the authentic as is possible without recourse to virtual reality. (Film-maker Werner Herzog’s audacious experiment at the closed, painted, bear cave of Chauvet with his magisterial 3D film The Cave of Forgotten Dreams of 2010 was, in retrospect, a harbinger of a full-scale 3D experiment.) The result at Lascaux is a triumph that was opened, at the cost of €60 million, by President Holland in December 2016. Presently, half a million visitors a year are drawn to the suburb of quaint Montignac and treated to a triumph of 21st-century invention.

Tickets are timed. Groups are assembled at ten-minute intervals and handed a headset to follow a young guide. (All the guides and docents are young.) Off ten of us trailed behind a pony-tailed man in his Lascaux vest. His sparkling eyes conveyed humour as he led us briefly into a room that, in a maximum of two minutes, set the environmental history and ended with Robot racing across the screen followed by the Enid Blyton-style famous… four. Out we troop, leaving Marcel Ravidat still calling to the mongrel, along a concrete corridor, and we enter the cave.

Facsimile of overlapping herbivores painted at Lascaux
An evocatively lit panel, presenting an uncannily convincing facsimile of the Lascaux artists’ rendering of herbivores.

It is so real as to be breathtaking. As far as I could tell, every minor contour of the original has been replicated, as of course have the paintings themselves. For a mesmerising hour, we forgot ourselves and followed our guide as he took us through the galleries of peerless works of art. Questions, hypotheses, the sense of never knowing the answer to who these artists were, is a theme of the tour. One thing is assured, though: these winter painters of herbivores belong to the pantheon of Caravaggio and Picasso, to name but two. The cave temperature and half-light make the experience so close to the real thing that it is a shock to exit a big door and find oneself once more in a concrete corridor.

Gimmick?

I was not looking forward to the gimmicky next section. In retrospect, it was an invention of creative genius. Everyone is given a tablet, a kind of iPad. You access it using the digital stamp on your ticket and, hooked up to earphones, enter a large hall with each section of the painted cave detached, exploded so-to-speak, and an exhibit of its own. The tablet automatically identifies each section – the long corridor, the upside-down horse, and so forth – and explains in one concise minute the elements of the art. Then a further level on the tablet allows you to interrogate the painting and photograph it.

Children from five years old are empowered with their own tablets and their own screen information. Apart from the exhibits, there are screens for practising your Palaeolithic artistry, and others for identifying the tools involved. The hall steadily fills with groups of ten, all simply captivated by this well-paced presentation of the arcane and the glorious. Watching families melt and re-form resembles a ceilidh performed without music or spoken words. The obvious satisfaction is palpable.

Outside this darkened hall is a point to pause. Here the heroes of Lascaux are honoured: the four teenagers and the early pioneers who appreciated and secured its immense importance. They reunited in the late 1980s, old men who scarcely grasped their part in the history of modern place-making. After Lascaux, their journeys took many differing ways: Simon narrowly avoided a concentration camp (his parents perished); Marcel joined the Resistance; but their fateful first experience following Robot, as Marcel says in the film on the tablet, changed their lives.

After two hours, you emerge from the immersion. (Lascaux emails you the photographs you’ve taken.) I cannot say I saw the authentic as I did at Font-de-Gaume, but it is a kind of authentic for our era. The 170m-long splinter-like rock-face is a stunning achievement by the Norwegian architectural company Snøhetta, and their British and Norwegian architects. But it is the immersion concept that fascinated me. The replication of the authentic with the pony-tailed guide for an hour, as though I had been in the real thing, followed by the analytical empowerment of the gallery, full of exact replicas: this is a stroke of conceptual brilliance.

Visitors pass under recreation of a section of the cave, painted with horses
Great care has been taken to simulate the contours of the cave that was the paintings’ original canvas.

Its most obvious success is in cultivating in children the fulfilling pleasures of art and archaeology. Yes, I can lament the lack of archaeological and environmental content (this is assembled for a self-reverential academic audience in prodigious numbers of cases in the National Museum of Prehistory at nearby Les Eyzies-de-Tayac). Yes, I can also question the emphasis on the art as part of a 101-class spanning the canonical from cave painters to Picasso. Art, after all, is in the eye of the beholder, and a product of culture and history. Forget the buts… watching children thrill to these discoveries was something quite precious.

Archaeology and tourism

As I mentioned, Lascaux IV cost €60 million – a huge investment. The new Stonehenge visitor centre and park cost around half of this (in 2013), and the visitor numbers are three times higher than those presently at Lascaux. But Lascaux is at the heart of a rural region far from the national capital, unlike Stonehenge. This new centre is surely an economic driver, made possible by a combination of national, regional, and EU funding. Private funding is in the mix too, but modest. As tourism balloons to be one of the biggest industries in the world, creating ghastly lines at the Acropolis of Athens and the Colosseum, as well as other bucket-list places, it is time to ask how to invest in culture for our children’s future. There are those that damn the new tools as the product of Disneyfication. Lascaux IV cleverly avoids this, and ventures to thrill in the simplicity of the authentic as far as is possible. What’s more, it foresees the fact that in normal times tourism is growing at more than 5% per annum, needs trained young capacity to manage it, and, with such assets, drives regional growth away from the merciless expansion of ever-fewer, ever-larger metropolitan centres.

Then, too, the romantic story of the discovery of Lascaux at the nadir of French history, coupled with the dazzling paintings by unknown artists, is an extraordinary narrative. The Lascaux challenge for our pivotal generation of archaeologists is to attract investment to places with lesser narratives, and to feed a hunger for the past that is more than entertainment.

This is an extract of an article featured in issue 101 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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