Running horses, leaping stags, immense seventeen feet long bulls, which thunder across the plains – on the walls of remote dark caves there is an explosion of color and movement. These are the paintings found in the complex of caves in Lascaux in south west France. The astonishing mastery of technique displayed by the pre-historic (fifteen to seventeen thousand years old) painters has forced us to re-evaluate the way we looked at our ancestors.
The struggle for survival for early humans might have been harsh, but these painters were more than brutish savages. They had an intimate knowledge of the animals that shared their world, a sense of wonder and appreciation of beauty. They had the souls of artists.
The caves were discovered in 1940 by four adventuring teenagers. By 1955 the number of daily visitors had exceeded 1000, with the resultant carbon dioxide visibly damaging the paintings. The caves were closed to the public in 1963 to restore the paintings once again to their original state.
In the 1979 they were added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list. The dilemma consisted of preserving these miraculous artworks from the dawn of history while making them accessible to the public. A radical solution was the creation of Lascaux II, a replica of the two main caves, the Great Hall of the Bulls, and the Painted Gallery which was opened in 1983.
Since then, visitors to the original caves have been restricted to five persons per day, five days a week with special permission. In spite of these precautions, fungus is again threatening the paintings. Diverse expert opinions assign the causes of the invading patches of gray and black mould to climate change, defective temperature control system, electric lighting, or carbon dioxide exhaled by visitors.
The government has approved a new treatment of the fungus. The caves have been sealed off for four months or as long as it takes to stabilize its delicate environment. It would be sad if we, with all the technology at our command, could not safeguard for even a hundred years what nature had preserved for millennia.
Is there a lesson for us somewhere in this?
The Ajanta paintings are deteriorating under pressures of too many visitors, artificial lights and myriad other factors. Could the Indian authorities liaise with those in Lascaux to work out a solution?