Author: Laura Foltman
[Staff host Laura Foltman is traveling with Penn alumni, friends, and faculty host Lynn Marsden-Atlass through France. The group returns to the U.S. on October 22nd. For more information about Penn Alumni Travel trips, click here.]
“C’est formidable!” Judith Forman, CW’63, G’66, stated as we exited Lascaux II. We weren’t sure what to expect with this stop on the Penn Alumni Travel tour of the provincial French countryside. Our guide, Ms. Elsa Marechal, explained that Lascaux II was a fake cave of prehistoric paintings. “Ugh!” we all thought. Here is a tourist trap on what has been an otherwise fantastic trip.
We couldn’t have been more wrong.
Lascaux, the original cave, is located near the village of Montignac in the Dordogne region of France. One day, in the 1940s, Marcel Ravidat’s dog got lost in the woods. Marcel found the dog stuck in a hole. When he rescued the dog he noticed rocks were falling and echoing below the hole. He took the dog back to the house, grabbed shovels, flashlights, and three friends, returned to the spot, and started to dig. They soon found themselves in a large shaft that lead to two large caves. The four friends began exploring, not seeing anything noteworthy until one of the boys slipped and fell on his back. When his flashlight hit the ceiling he found something extraordinary: about 2,000 figures that were painted 17,300 years ago! The boys made a pact that this would be their secret hiding place and wouldn’t tell anyone. Remember, these are teenage boys. How long do you think the secret lasted? Three days!
The cave complex was open to the public in 1948 and averaged 1,200 visitors per day: extraordinary numbers for the time. All the visitors changed the climate in the cave. Carbon dioxide, heat, humidity and other contaminants were visibly changing the paintings and lichen began growing on the walls. Thus Lascaux II, a replica of the great hall where the majority of the paintings are located, was built in 1983 so that visitors can view the caves without damaging the original paintings. The tour isn’t just a replica, it is an EXACT replica of the current cave as they update it every 3 years to reflect the state of the real cave.
Penn Alumni had a terrific tour guide named Dave Cohen who called Neanderthals a modern equivalent of Rugby players! Lifelong learning continued for our Penn alumni as they dominated the tour by asking thought-provoking questions such as:
“Why, out of the 2000 images, is there only one image of a human?”
“Are any of the depicted animals domesticated?”
“What is the chemical make-up of the paints to make them last so long (the drawings can not be carbon dated)?”
“How were Neanderthals able to understand motion and perspective?”
Lascaux is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the alumni on this trip now understand why. If you want to find out more information, including the state of the current cave and some of the famous depictions of the images, go to http://www.lascaux.culture.fr/?lng=en – /en/02_00.xml