Lascaux Caves: More Fungus Among Us

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Double Bison, Lascaux Caves, c. 17,000 B.C. — Photos: French Ministry of Culture

Last year the European edition of Time ran an important cover story by my colleague James Graff alerting the world to the seriousness of the persistent fungus threatening the prehistoric cave paintings in Lascaux, France. Over the weekend the New York Times produced this update about a recurrence of the fungus.

Cow, Lascaux Caves, c. 17,000 B.C.

The Lascaux caves were discovered by four teenage boys in 1940. The caves and their 17,000 year old paintings were opened to tourists after World War II but closed again in 1963 to everyone but a trickle of visitors, mostly researchers, after lichen and small crystals started to appear on the walls. Then in 2001 the caves were hit by a severe invasion of fungus and bacteria that may have been due to an ill-conceived climate control system installed in 2001. The French have claimed to have gotten the problem under control, but the Times article is evidence that they still haven’t.

Last year’s Time story suggests that the continuing problem with Lascaux is not just fungus, it’s fog — the absence of a truly independent body to examine the problem and evaluate potential solutions. The team of microbiologists sent in recently to evaluate the caves is not the same thing. Let me steer you to this quote from the Time cover:

It’s hard to sort out the competing claims [as to what caused the fungus] because there still has been no independent judgment of what went wrong and whether it is being put right. The committee the Ministry of Culture created to perform that task is made up of most of the bureaucrats responsible for the damage, including the architect who installed the climate system, the curator who oversaw the installation project and the lab director. How such a committee can arrive at unbiased answers is “a good question,” admits Marc Gauthier, an expert on the Gallo-Roman era and the committee’s chairman. But he says the process is working.

Is it? You can learn more at the website of The International Committee for Preservation of Lascaux.

Postscript: By coincidence lately I’ve been reading the new paperback edition of The Cave Painters by Gregory Curtis. Recommended reading for anybody who’d like to know more about the kind of art that makes mere “antiquities” look like artworld newcomers.