Lascaux IV was officially opened on 10th December 2016 by President Hollande of France, in a day of celebrations at the new Centre International de l’Art Pariétal in Montignac. The centre housing the replica cave opens its doors fully to the public on 15th December.
The original cave was closed to the public for reasons of conservation in 1963. The first replica, Lascaux II was built nearby and opened in 1983. Lascaux III is a travelling exhibition that has been all around the world, to huge acclaim.
The security surrounding Hollande’s visit was immense, and even before reaching one of the car parks, we had to show our invitations and be identity-checked by three sets of gendarmes. Getting inside the cordon that had been thrown around the centre involved full airport-style metal detectors as well as another check to ensure that your name was on the list of the expected 2,000 visitors. Montignac was effectively closed to the public for the day, as every single one of the town’s car parks had been taken over for the opening and the road past the centre has been closed to traffic, although there was slightly less overt weaponry on display than there had been for the opening of the Museum of Prehistory in Les Eyzies a few years ago when it seemed that just about everything short of a tank had been deployed on the streets!
Once within the compound, it quickly became obvious that it is very difficult to beat the French when it comes to throwing a gigantic party in style. Several huge marquees had been hastily erected since Wednesday, when the date of the opening ceremony had been announced. One was wholly given over to hospitality, and the most stylish canapes we’ve ever encountered were constantly being served, along with exceedingly nice wine, for the next few hours. In the middle of the afternoon, the official ceremony took place, with homage being paid by the president to the vision that had led to the development of Lascaux IV, a project that started to take shape in its current form on the 16th September 2010, the 70th anniversary of the discovery of the original cave, when President Sarkozy announced state aide for the project of 50 million euros.
Two years later, Norwegian firm Snøhetta were chosen from amongst a field of 80 architects from all over the world. It took two years to obtain the planning permissions and the first stone was laid on the 24th April 2014. To bring a project of this scale to completion in just under three years is astonishing.
The immense concrete structure that houses Lascaux IV nestles at the foot of the hill that contains both the original cave and the Lascaux II replica. The building has been designed to evoke the feel of one of the many rock shelters for which the Dordogne is famous. The centre is formed of enormous concrete slabs that were slotted into place by gigantic cranes, and is impressive without descending into a brutalistic style. One of the exterior walls has been turned into a gigantic water feature, beautifully lit from below at night, with water cascading down the slab. 10,000 tons of concrete went into the walls, and it took 13 attempts to find the best type to create the cliff-like effect the architects were looking for. The building itself covers 9,000 square meters and the centre is set in 6.5 hectares of ground.
During the day, tickets were issued to anyone who wanted to visit the replica that afternoon and evening, and numerous guides worked hard to give groups of around 20 people a time the full tour, which started by being taken up onto the roof to enjoy the view of the Vézère river and the nearby town of Montignac. From there we were taken through a short film sequence explaining the climate 20,000 years ago and the animals that roamed the harsh, cold landscape. Expectation amongst our group was mounting and people were clearly eager to get ‘underground’. After a short period of orientation in an antechamber, reminiscent of the one at Lascaux II, to get the group used to lower light levels, we were ushered through into the cave. The doorway enters the replica beside the boulder slope down which the original explorers would have slithered. As with the original cave, which we were fortunate enough to visit in 1995, the first figure you encounter is the enigmatic ‘unicorn’, which is an odd name as it actually has two horns, not one! This is the only figure in the cave that is not of an actual creature, and has led to much speculation amongst specialists, but no consensus as to what it represents.
From there, the animal figures just keep coming at you as you step further into the aptly named Hall of the Bulls. One thing that never fails to strike us no matter how many times we’ve seen Lascaux II is the sheer size of the figures. The biggest bulls are at least 2 metres long, and dominate the chamber so much that it’s hard to tear your eyes away from them to concentrate on some of the smaller figures such as the beautifully drawn stags with their elaborate antlers. Everywhere you look are stunning multi-coloured paintings in black, brown, red and yellow, which give Lascaux its rare status as a ‘polychrome’ cave.
From the Hall of the Bulls, the passage narrows and you find yourself in much closer proximity to the walls and ceilings with their red and black cows, polychrome horses and a multitude of other figures and signs. It really is hard to know where to look first. The cave has been faithfully reproduced, down to millimetre accuracy on both the cave walls and their staggering paintings, but with the advent of modern techniques, the craftsmen that have brought Lascaux IV to life have been able to give the walls the same degree of life as the original, even down to the sparkle that still exists in places, bringing the cave walls and their covering of stalagmite and moonmilk to perfect life. It was remarkably easy to suspend my disbelief, even as a caver, and simply immerse myself in the experience of taking in both the paintings and the cave as a whole, and without a doubt, they were able to evoke the same emotional reaction that we’d experienced in the original cave. Just check your belief in at the door and go with the flow. The lighting levels are low, but entirely sufficient for you to see the incredible detail left behind by the artists, and even the engravings, difficult to see at the best of times, are there if you look.
At the end of the passage known as the Diverticule Axial, you pass the famous painting of the falling horse, and animal with its legs in the air, possibly caught in the act of having being driven off a cliff by Palaeolithic hunters, and go out into a short section of tunnel. Lascaux II ends at that point, but here, instead of taking you out, the tunnel takes you to the beginning of the main side passage accessed from the Hall of the Bulls. Here you’ll see the herd of swimming deer on the right hand wall and the two enormous bison in an alcove to your left. The gallery is long and high, and you should take the time to carefully examine the walls, looking for the whiter lines of the engraved horses on your left in one of the first alcoves you come to. It’s easy in Lascaux to get distracted by the larger figures, but everywhere you look, the walls hold something of interest.
The centre and its stunning replica cave cost in the region of 60 million euros and it’s hard to say anything other than the fact that it has been money well spent, making one of the world’s great caves accessible to all. The rest of the hill will be turned into a sanctuary for the original cave, mostly closed to traffic, with Lascaux II being used for teaching purposes in the future. The cave is expected to receive 400,000 visitors each year and will be the biggest attraction in the region.
You can book a visit ahead online, and each day there are a number of tickets available for purchase at the centre. Adult tickets are 16 euros and you are advised to allow two and a half hours to visit the whole site. Free parking is available nearby. Do make sure you spend some time in Montignac, too. Market days are Wednesday and Saturday and there are a host of cafes and restaurants, as well as beautiful buildings and views of the river. For anyone visiting in a campervan, the main carpark has electric hook-ups and grey water disposal, all for 5 euros a night.
A fuller account of the site and its construction can found in a special edition of the French Magazine ‘Sud Ouest‘.
The opening ceremony was a superb day, carried off in the very best French style, and we’ll be back there on Thursday for the full tourist experience. This is a site that it will be very hard to tire of. We would like to thank the Office of the President du Conseil departmental de la Dordogne for their kindness in inviting us to the opening ceremony.
Correspondents: Linda Wilson & Graham Mullan