The Crisis of Lascaux

Overview

Antibiotic compress applied to Lascaux's painted walls.
The Falling Cow over the Frieze of Ponies, Axial Gallery
photo credit RLMH


The 17,000 year old paintings inside the cave of Lascaux are in grave danger. Since 1998, when the first incursion of Lichen:
Compounds composed of a fungus in symbiotic union with an algae, typically forming a crust like, scaly or branchy growth on rocks or trees.
lichen
was found growing inside the cave, Lascaux has been attacked by a series of molds, fungi and bacteria. The installation of a
Air Recirculation System:
Installed in 1968, the air recirculation system was designed to work in passive concert with Lascaux’s natural air flow and was only needed during the wettest seasons of the year. When operational, the system mimicked the cave’s natural currents pulling the air to a cold point causing condensation to form there rather than on the walls of the cave.

After several early crises in the cave, the first scientific commission conducted careful, in-depth studies of the cave’s interior climate. The result was the design and installation of the passive convection system which served Lascaux very well from 1968 until 2000.
new air recirculation system
in 2000 complicated the situation and compromised the stability of the atmosphere inside Lascaux. One of the fungi found growing inside the cave, Fusarium Solani:
A very common and virulent mold found in agricultural environments which infects both soil and crops. It is highly resistant to treatment and often entire crop fields must be turned under and burned to eradicate the disease.
fusarium solani
, is a common mold found in the agricultural areas around Lascaux. It has been charged that workers installing the new air-conditioning system did not take care to sterilize their shoes on entering the cave thus bringing the mold inside with them each day.

By 2001, the molds colonized in the cave forming a white mass over the floors and ledges of the painted chambers. Authorities began spraying massive doses of antibiotics and fungicides in an effort to stop the rapidly spreading organisms. Within weeks the molds reappeared quickly developing a resistance to the antibiotic sprays. Realizing that the air-conditioning system was ill fitted for the cave and was indeed part of the problem, authorities shut down a major portion of the newly installed system.

In the fall of 2001, authorities poured Quicklime:
Calcium oxide (CaO), commonly known as lime, quicklime or burnt lime, is a widely used chemical compound. It is a white, caustic and alkaline crystalline solid, as well as a refractory and dehydrating agent.

In 2001, in an attempt to kill the fungus Fusarium Solani inside Lascaux, authorities poured four tons of quicklime on the cave's floor. This created a rise in the cave’s internal temperature and quickly destabilized the interior hydrometric balance of the cave. These higher temperatures dried up the air of the cave causing moisture to form on the cave's walls; the moisture washed off some of the prehistoric pigments.
quicklime
over the floor of the cave in a very aggressive and controversial move hoping to stop the advance of the molds and fungi. This measure stops the spreading but raises the internal temperature of the cave as the quicklime virtually suffocates the cave floor. Compresses soaked in a mixture of fungicides and antibiotics are then applied like bandages to the walls and ledges of the cave in a further attempt to control the growing organisms.

The fungi and molds have retreated by the summer of 2002 but bacteria are still growing in large dark spots inside the cave. Authorities then resort to a mechanical removal of the roots of the bacteria. This method is highly invasive and unending. The damage inflicted on the cave by having crews constantly inside physically removing the roots, coupled with the brown spots that remain and are highly visible, is not a viable long-term solution to save the cave.

Fungicides and antibiotics used in multiple and ineffective massive sprayings inside the cave.
Many faulty decisions have been made as to the treatment of the cave:
  • the massive spraying of the cave was not only ineffective but there are substantial consequences to saturating the cave and its paintings with high levels of moisture;

  • the decision to change the type of air cooling system inside the cave from air-recirculation (which had been in effect and working well since 1963) to forced air destabilizes the cave and quickly promotes the spread of mold;

  • the decision to pour Quicklime:
    Calcium oxide (CaO), commonly known as lime, quicklime or burnt lime, is a widely used chemical compound. It is a white, caustic and alkaline crystalline solid, as well as a refractory and dehydrating agent.

    In 2001, in an attempt to kill the fungus Fusarium Solani inside Lascaux, authorities poured four tons of quicklime on the cave's floor. This created a rise in the cave’s internal temperature and quickly destabilized the interior hydrometric balance of the cave. These higher temperatures dried up the air of the cave causing moisture to form on the cave's walls; the moisture washed off some of the prehistoric pigments.
    quicklime
    over a living cave floor leads to further destabilization and deterioration of the cave’s sensitive interior;

  • the invasive extraction of the roots of the Fungus:
    Any one of the members of the thallophyte division such as mushrooms, molds and mildews, who subsist on dead or living organic matter.
    fungus
    .

There are other problems; not only is Lascaux threatened from the interior, but also from the exterior. The
placement of the car parking lot for Lascaux II appears to sit directly on top of Lascaux. There are important concerns about how the material of the car park, the weight of the cars, the emissions of the cars, etc., are impacting the cave beneath.

To date, the French government has been ineffective in its handling of the crisis inside Lascaux. Four different departments are charged with the care of the cave with no one authority held accountable. There is overlap and a real failure by the authorities charged with the cave’s well-being to judge the situation in its severity. There is no independent international oversight. Unless change is undertaken quickly, the world stands to lose Lascaux’s irreplaceable masterpiece and its rich story of mankind’s place in time.

 

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