Our visit focused primarily on the Magdalenian people who lived in this region around 17,000 -10,000 years ago. I was more familiar with the term Cro Magnon for this group of people; the two terms appear to be used interchangeably in texts that I’ve read. The Cro Magnon term refers to a specific group within this region whose fossils were found behind a hotel owned by Monsieur Magnon back in 1868. The hotel is still there, and you can look at the site where the fossils were first discovered. In a very real sense we are all Cro Magnons, Homo sapiens. They looked like us and had a very advanced culture. By the way, the term “Cro Magnon” means Mr. Magnon’s hole.
Our first stop was to Lascaux, often referred to as the Sistine Chapel of prehistory because of the incredible wall and ceiling paintings found deep in this cave. There are dozens of polychromatic paintings and etchings of horses, bison, bulls, reindeer, felines, ibex, and a strange “mythological” two-horned unicorn. The actual cave is off-limits to tourists due to mold and fungus damage to the ancient cave art due to tourist traffic. The original cave was closed to the public in 1963. In 1983 an exact replica of the two main chambers of the cave was constructed near the site. It is known as Lascaux II and is incredible. No expense was spared in this reconstruction. The only drawback is that this amazing replica is treated as if it were the original. Once inside everyone whispers and speaks in hushed voices. A mandatory guide took a great deal of time going into how the replica was built but then rushed us through the galleries. The lighting was poor and it was difficult to see many of the paintings on the walls and ceilings. Nor were we allowed to take any photos. Now, I know that they are trying to simulate/trick me into thinking that I’m in the real cave, give me the “real” cave experience without ever gong into a real cave. But we all know that it’s not real. It was beautiful to experience the beauty of the “cave,” but it’s not really a cave. It felt like they were taking the “Sistine Chapel” nickname too seriously and treating the replica like a chapel of worship. The original must be truly awesome, as in awe inspiring. But let’s face it, this is a replica. I thought the idea was to preserve the original and allow the public to enjoy the wonder of the artwork. I was a bit disappointed. There are lots of other “real” caves in the region where you can walk through dimly lit chambers and not take pictures.
Preservation of ancient sites is a huge issue, and I totally support the idea of making copies for tourists to visit freely. But the key word here is freely. Lock up the originals to the experts, but let the rest of us bozos actually see the copies. In Egypt, the Valley of the Kings tombs suffer similar over-exposure to tourist traffic. The Lascaux II approach to quality reproductions around the Valley would be very beneficial but only if people could actually get inside, ask questions, spend some time, even take pictures. I believe that it would foster a deeper respect for the tombs and garner greater support for their preservation.
All the same, I have collected some video from a nice set of replica paintings at Le Thot (I’m not sure if I was supposed to take pictures there or not, but oh well) and old video footage of the original. Enjoy.