• Sheryl Gwyther

#16 Lascaux ... a writer in Cro-Magnon paradise

I'd planned my research for my other work-in-progress novel (the one set 17,000 years ago) well - with one significant archaeology site to visit. A site of utmost importance to the beginnings of pictorial art for humankind, LASCAUX, 'the Sistine Chapel of prehistory' painted by the early humans, the Cro-Magnon people.

But this trip into France's prehistoric cave country has opened up many more questions than answers for me about the paintings and carvings in the Dordogne caves. Like it has done for countless scientists over the years as well. Like... why did they create these wonderful images? How many people were involved? How many generations worked on them? Who knows? They left no carbon dating material and no records.

My enthusiasm for the art of the Co-Magnon people began 20 years ago when I was an art student. I have never forgotten the impact of seeing old colour photographs of the Lascaux Cave paintings, before they realised they must stop people going down into the limestone grottoes ... because the breath of millions of human visitors over the years since its discovery in 1944 has caused three types of fungus to begin destroying the precious art so powerfully depicted on the limestone cave walls.

That's why Lascaux II was made ... an exact replica of two sections of the real Lascaux Caves with their hundreds of polychromatic drawings and paintings of animals from the Magdalenian era (18,500-11,000 years ago). It's the cave I saw the other day - not the real one - but enough to give you the sensation of going underground.

When the guide turns on her light and it flickers across the paintings and their colours of red, brown, cream and black - well, nothing prepares you for the intense awareness of ancient human creativity. Photos were not allowed in any of these caves ... but here is one of the engravings from the Grotto of Combarelles - the cave lioness.

These paintings and engravings were not done by just anyone in the tribe - these were artists. You can tell that from the way they've chosen the perfect place to depict the bulls, the wild ponies, aurocks, bison, lioness and deer - using the texture and curves of the rock to help show the flank of a pony, or a hole in the rock for the eye of an aurock (in exactly the right place).

They used perspective when painting animals moving, thousands of years before the artist, Fillipo Brunelleschi created it in Renaissance Italy. Their work shows a flare for design and keen observation of their wild subjects.

Over the past week I've visited not just Lascaux, but the National Prehistoric Museum (brilliant - thank goodness for our guide who spoke English and loved prehistory); the Grotto Font-de-Guame; the Grottoes of Rouffignac and Combarelles, all in their original state.

I reckon I have enough material, plus sensory images and photographic images to plant my feet and head well into my work-in-progress novel about a boy called Rouan and his wild pony, Lascaux.

PS If you're wondering about the photo of a dog with his head in the ground, that's a model of Robert, the dog belonging to young Marcel Ravidat who first found the Lascaux Cave site in 1944, when his curious pooch fell down a hole in the side of a hill.