A number of years ago, I was asked to write a book about caves. I visited many caves around the United States, including some spectacular ones in the west (Carlsbad Caverns and Ice Caves in New Mexico, Lehman Caves in Nevada's Great Basin National Park, Oregon Caves National Monument, and South Dakota's Jewel Cave and Wind Cave) as well as some further east (Kentucky's Mammoth Cave and Arkansas's Blanchard Springs Caverns). One highlight of my research was a trip through a wild cave (Cave of the Winds in Manitou Springs, Colorado).
But my most vivid memory concern a research trip to France where I was able to visit the cave of Lascaux (which is closed to everyone except scientists). I was fortunate enough to be allowed inside on a special tour with five other researchers.
I worked very hard on the book for a number of years. Sometimes, though, an editor or a publisher can change her mind. And that's what happened. Without warning or explanation, I was told that the publisher was canceling the contract for the book and would not be publishing it.
Rather than allow my hard work to go to waste, I have decided to share some of the stories from that book here.
No one knows exactly how the famous cave of Lascaux was discovered. According to one account, on September 8, 1940, 17-year-old Marcel Ravidat and three of his friends were looking for a lost treasure supposedly buried in a secret tunnel in the woods near Montignac, France. His dog Robot ran on ahead and became stuck in a hole.
As the boys pulled Robot to safety, they discovered that the hole seemed bottomless. Other accounts, however, report that the boys knew about the strange hole already. Still others suggest that Robot never had anything to do with the discovery of Lascaux. No matter how the hole was found, what happened next is not in dispute.
Marcel Ravidat and his friends were certain that they had found an entrance to the treasure-filled tunnel. Ravidat first tried to explore the site himself, but without a light, he didn't get far. On September 13, he and his friends returned, this time prepared with a homemade lantern.
Carefully, they made their way down into the cave and across a large room, about 100 feet long and 40 feet wide. It turned into a narrow passage and as they entered it, they raised their lamp higher and discovered that the walls were filled with the shapes of many animals.
The next day, the boys made another remarkable discovery. Near the back of the cave was a shaft (now called The Pit) that Ravidat decided to explore. As his three friends held a rope, Ravidat climbed sixteen feet to the bottom of The Pit. He took a few steps, quickly realizing that The Pit was a dead end. But when Ravidat turned to retrace his steps, he discovered a painting of a bison knocking down a person: the person had a bird's head and four-fingered hands.
Soon the boys decided to tell their schoolteacher, Leon Laval, about their discovery. They knew Laval was interested in archaeology and would know what to do about their fantastic find.
Monsieur Laval explored the cave and wrote the following description of his adventure:
Once I arrived in the great hall accompanied by my young heroes, I uttered cries of admiration at the magnificent sight that met my eyes.... Thus I visited the galleries and remained just as enthusiastic when confronted with the unexpected revelations which increased as I advanced. I had literally gone mad.
In a short time, word spread about the fantastic paintings of Lascaux.
Once a cave is discovered, many people wonder how it can make money for them. Lascaux, with its treasure-trove of prehistoric paintings, was no exception.
By 1948 tours of the cave were given on a daily basis, and thousands of visitors flocked to the cave to see the priceless sights. And it's no wonder: the cave was filled with 600 paintings and 1500 engravings carved onto the walls all made approximately 20,000 years ago.
The problem is that the huge number of tourists trooping through the cave caused damage in unexpected ways:
the accumulated breath (that is, carbon dioxide) of perhaps 2,000 tourists a day began to affect the cave. Its temperature rose so much that sometimes tourists fainted from the heat. Condensation formed on the walls and trickled over the paintings. In 1958, a special machine designed to circulate air was installed. But this required the removal of the natural cave floor before archaeologists could conduct a proper scientific excavation.
the shoes of tourists carried algae which were spread throughout the cave. Called "green leprosy," it began to grow on the cave walls and cover the paintings.
the high humidity, temperature, and carbon dioxide levels brought about a second disease: the "white disease." Calcite crystals began to cover some of the paintings.
Finally, in 1963 the cave was closed to the public. Researchers were able to remove the green disease with antibiotics and other chemicals. The white disease could not be tackled so easily. A new air conditioning system had to be installed, so that air was cooled down at the entrance, and carbon dioxide and seeping water could be extracted. To make sure that the green and white diseases never came back, no more than five people per day could visit the cave—and only by special permission.
Today, if you go to Lascaux, you will see a high fence surrounding the original site. Only a handful of scientists and researchers are allowed to visit Lascaux each year—as many as twenty-five people some weeks, but none at other times. Visitors who qualify must make arrangements six months or more ahead of time. They meet at the front gate at a pre-arranged time, invitation in hand. A researcher leads the group to a small house where they are briefed on the rules: there can be no photographs, no backpacks or packages, no food or beverages-- nothing, in fact, that could endanger the cave. The visit will last about 30 minutes.
A quick walk to the opening, and they are ready for the descent. Unlike the original brambly opening, a grand concrete staircase of twenty steps was built for visitors. At the bottom, they enter the cave through a large greenish door with an Egyptian design. Inside, they were once asked to dip their feet in a disinfectant solution, which removed pollen and algae from shoes. But this was found to damage good microorganisms. Now they must wear special sterile coveralls, gloves, and caps.
Then they pass through one airlock, down nineteen steps, through another airlock and down twenty-four steps. They have entered Lascaux, now a refrigerated cave cooled by a special machine. Ahead is the famous Salle des Taureaux (Bulls' Chamber). They will not be allowed to stray from the path or tour the entire cave--simply the Salle des Taureaux and a portion of the Axial Gallery, both unforgettable sights.
Although Lascaux is closed to most people, cavers have the chance to visit nearby Lascaux II, an underground museum constructed to resemble part of the original cave. Here, you can still get a feel of what Lascaux must have looked like to Marcel Ravidat and his friends.
Copyright © James M. Deem. Taken from an unpublished manuscript by James M Deem. All rights reserved.