|14 July 2008
Six months to save Lascaux cave art
Experts believe that up to half of the prehistoric art in the Lascaux caves (France) is at risk. Efforts to combat a fungal invasion have been unsuccessful. Meanwhile Unesco, the world cultural body, has threatened to humiliate France by placing the Lascaux caves - known as the 'Sistine Chapel of prehistory' - on its list of endangered sites of universal importance. The Unesco world heritage committee has given the French government six months to report on the success of its efforts to save the Lascaux cave paintings in Dordogne from an ugly, and potentially destructive, invasion of grey and black fungi.
At the same time, a scientific committee appointed by the French government has conceded that an elaborate treatment with a new fungicide in January failed to stop the mould advancing through one part of the caves. An independent pressure group of scientists and historians claims that up to half of the startlingly beautiful, 17,000-year-old images of bison, horses, wild cattle and ibex are now threatened by the fungal invasion - the second of its kind in eight years.
The heritage committee requested France to open Lascaux - closed to the public since 1963 - to a visit by independent experts. It also advised France to commission an 'impact study' of all past, and possible future, actions in the caves since the first fungal invasion in 2001-02. Officials from the French government's department of historic monuments and experts from all over the world have been quarrelling for years over the best way to preserve the Lascaux paintings. Some experts have accused the French authorities of a series of blunders, including a change in the air-conditioning system in 2000, the use of high-powered lights in the caves and allowing too many 'special' visits.
An independent body, the International Committee for the Protection of Lascaux, infuriated Paris by asking Unesco to intervene last September. The French authorities initially denied that the Lascaux paintings themselves had been attacked by the second fungal invasion. They later admitted to some blotching on the paintings but no lasting damage. The independent protection committee, citing information from experts who have visited the caves, insist that some of the images have been irreparably blurred or that their colours have faded.
Recently, the French authorities admitted a setback. A treatment with fungicide in January appeared to have been successful at first but the black and grey blotches are now spreading once again across one part of the paintings, according to an official statement. Marie-Anne Sire, the head curator of Lascaux,said that the news was disappointing but progress was being made. Studies had revealed that the air which used to circulate in the caves had become immobile. This might explain the fungal outbreaks - and to offer a possible solution, she said.
Sources: Washington Post (1 July 2008), The Independent (12 July 2008)
Share this webpage: