Exploring the Lascaux caves – how digital tech is bringing prehistoric art to life

A new museum opens in France next week that combines physical replicas of the Lascaux cave system with augmented reality – the latest cultural project to use digital innovation to help protect fragile archaeological finds

The Paleolithic animal paintings contained within the Lascaux system of caves near Montignac in south-west France were discovered nearly 80 years ago. Famously, it was a teenager, Marcel Ravidat, who on September 12 1940 is said to have discovered the ‘Bull Room’ cave while chasing his pet dog. He then returned to explore the site with three friends (versions of the story differ).

© Casson Mann

A few years later, in 1948, much of the 200-metre stretch of ‘rooms’ and ‘tunnels’ was opened to the public, but due to damage caused by the changes in the cave environment, exacerbated by humidity levels and heat generated by visitor numbers, it was closed in 1963.

In the intervening decades, the Lascaux experience has been recreated via a 39-metre replica showing 90% of the paintings that opened as Lascaux II in 1983, and as part of a major show in Montignac (Lascaux III), which was developed into an international touring exhibition in 2012. The original cave system, now closed to public access for over 50 years, was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

Next week, the results of the Lascaux IV project will finally be unveiled to the public at the opening of the Centre International de l’Art Pariétal de Montignac-Lascaux (The International Centre for Cave Art), a vast site cut into the landscape that houses a full-scale replica of the cave system augmented with the latest digital technologies.

© Snøhetta

Architecture and design group Snøhetta worked with SRA Architects on the built environment, with the centre’s exhibition design created by London studio, Casson Mann. Some 25 specialists from the Perigord Facsimile Workshop were also brought in to reproduce the paintings.

© Casson Mann

While the images of animals have been painstakingly recreated, the “acoustic and environmental conditions” have also been replicated in the new site, say Casson Mann. Further ‘interpretive’ galleries situate the work within his prehistoric context and house interactive exhibitions.

Visitors are also provided with a nifty “explorer’s torch”, say the designers – “a bespoke multimedia guide that interacts with exhibits, offering augmented experiences and deeper levels of information.”

© Département 24 D Nidos

In one of the main galleries within the site, visitors can discover more about why the paintings have survived – and why the cave that houses them is now closed – plus more on how the people who created the paintings would have worked.

© Département 24 D Nidos

“Wearing their 3D stereoscopic glasses visitors are taken on a digital voyage through the cave – to its final corners that are impossible ever to see for real,” say Casson Mann. “They are also taken around the world, visiting other painted caves from Australia to Spain, from Mongolia to Canada, enabling them to witness extraordinary similarities and huge differences.”

© Département 24 D Nidos

While the fragility of the Lascaux system was already apparent in the 1950s, the recent work in recreating as full an experience of the caves as possible is another example of how facsimiles can contribute to public understand of historical and cultural sites.

As with the work of groups such as Factum Arte – who made a detailed reconstruction of Tutankhamen’s tomb – the tradition of conservation and of producing ‘copies’ of great works is rapidly being updated for the 21st-century (see our story from July this year, ‘Should museums be recreating the past?’).

The results to date are encouraging. The original site or object – too valuable to be exposed to further tourism and/or the elements – is secured, while we can enjoy as near-perfect a recreation of the real thing as possible.

The Centre International de l’Art Pariétal de Montignac-Lascaux opens on December 15. See projet-lascaux.com

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