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6 January 2008
France racing to save Lascaux cave paintings

The French government is taking emergency action to rescue the celebrated cave paintings of the Lascaux caverns from a fungus. Archeological experts have begun applying a fungicide to halt the spread of grey and black mould in the caverns, dubbed the Sistine Chapel of prehistory. The caves, discovered in 1940 by teenagers walking a dog, contain images of bulls, deer and horses believed to be 15,000-17,000 years old.
     The French government has closed the caves located about 450 kilometres south of Paris to everyone, including scientists and historians, for three months and will replace an air circulation system that may be partly responsible for the fungus. The system, installed seven years ago, may have been poorly designed, as a similar fungal attack took place after its installation. The fungus, which grows because of moist conditions, is threatening some of the 600 drawings in yellow, red and black mineral pigments that cover the caves.
     Paul Bahn, Britain's foremost specialist in Ice Age art, said that water could be seen running down the paintings, while black spots - some as large as a hand - were spreading across the walls and some of the paintings. He said that the cave had no means of circulating its natural currents of air and that, as biologists had yet to identify the exact nature of the spots, they had been unable to prescribe a proper treatment.
     A team of specialists who assessed the site before Christmas recommended stopping all activity in the caverns and taking action to stop the fungus. They put pressure on the French government by alerting UNESCO, which classifies the caverns as a World Heritage Site, about the conditions. In his letter to the director of Unesco, Dr Bahn wrote of his "profound dismay and anxiety concerning the state of the cave". He condemned the 'fateful decision' to renew and update the cave’s electrical installations, writing: "It is well known among specialists - who are receiving information from better informed or more objective sources - that the situation in the cave remains appallingly bad, and indeed is getting worse."
     Laurence Léauté Beasley, of the International Committee for the Preservation of Lascaux, said that a critical point had been reached. Accusing French officials of closing ranks, she said: "According to their statements the cave is now recovering and the crisis is over. This could not be farther from the truth. Lascaux and its paintings are suffering from the ineptitude and lack of response of those charged with the care of the cave. It is suffering from a maze of bureaucracy. It’s like a plane without a pilot." The French Culture Ministry declined to comment.
     One of the projects to be halted by the emergency treatment is a survey that was to make a three-dimensional digital record of every painting in the caverns.

Sources: CBC News, Times Online (2 January 2008)

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