EUGENE M. MCCARTHY, PHD
This complex of subterranean chambers is one of the most elaborately painted caverns known. Located in southwestern France it was discovered in 1940 by four teenage boys, Georges Agnel, Jacques Marsal, Marcel Ravidat and Simon Coencas.
The paintings, of which there are nearly 2,000, are about 17,000 years old, dating to the late Paleolithic. About half represent large game animals — aurochs, bison, horses, and stags — many of which seem frozen in rapid motion.
One painting at Lascaux, in the Shaft of the Wounded Man, depicts a humanlike figure (see right), which is unusual in a cave painting. This is the only representation of a human being in the entire cave. The bison, which seems about to charge, has been struck by a spear and partially disemboweled. Note the bird on a stick. In many primitive societies, birds were assigned the role of psychopomp (conductor of souls to the afterlife). All of the drawings in the Shaft are executed in manganese dioxide, a black pigment.
The various chambers of the cavern are named: the Great Hall of the Bulls, the Axial Gallery, the Painted Gallery, the Chamber of Engravings, the Lateral Passage, the Shaft of the Wounded Man, and the Chamber of Felines.
When the caverns were opened to the public, changes in the atmosphere began to damage to the paintings, and a black mold has begun to spread throughout the cave. As a result Lascaux was closed and is now open only to conservators and a few experts. However, it is now possible to take a online tour of the paintings that makes you feel almost as if you were actually in the cave.
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