The Battle to Save the Cave

Mold, mistreatment and an insular bureaucracy threaten France's most famous — and beautiful — cave art. A rare inside look at how the rot set in

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    And take off it did. At first Godin's team sprayed the mold with an alcohol solution of Vitalub, a common ammonium disinfectant. But the fusarium appeared unscathed: scientists later learned that it lived in diabolical symbiosis with a bacterium, Pseudomonas fluorescens, which was degrading the fungicide. So the restorers added antibiotics to the mix in which they soaked bandages to plaster the lower walls of the cave. Tons of quicklime, which kills fungus but also temporarily raised the cave's ambient temperature, was spread on the floor. Since the worst of the infection has been brought under control, the team now relies on "mechanical removal"--that is, carefully plucking the filaments from the wall by hand.


    Lascaux might have escaped history and its indignities if four boys rambling on a hillside just east of the Vezere River in southwestern France in 1940 had not decided to investigate an opening revealed by a fallen tree. Soon Abbe Henri Breuil, a pioneer in the study of Paleolithic cave art, arrived to inspect their extraordinary find. He theorized that Lascaux's broad galleries might indicate a magical or religious function for the drawings; Lascaux became known as the "Sistine Chapel of prehistory," and people clamored to see it. After the war, the La Rochefoucauld family, which owned the property, authorized work to enlarge the entrance, shunt off the water that had once cascaded through the cave and install steps and concrete flooring through much of the underground complex. As many as 1,700 visitors traipsed through Lascaux every day. But by the late 1950s, the presence of so many warm-blooded, carbon-dioxide-exhaling bodies had altered the cave's climate to the point that calcite deposits and lichen were threatening the paintings. By 1963, the threat of permanent damage was so acute that Andre Malraux, France's first and most famous Minister of Culture, ordered the cave closed.

    By the beginning of the 1970s, Lascaux had found a kind of stability. The crowds were gone, the lichens banished, and Jacques Marsal, one of the cave's boy discoverers, was in the cave almost every day, alert to even the slightest changes. Studies had determined that the cave could handle about five visitors a day for 35 minutes each, five days a week; that protocol was never exceeded for the next 30 years. Since 1983, the crowds that come to the region have had to settle for Lascaux II, a modern facsimile that gives them an inkling of the cave paintings' power. But before the fungus outbreak, anyone determined and patient enough could successfully petition the authorities for permission to visit the real thing. The only precaution was a requirement that visitors walk through a trough of formaldehyde solution--the regimen that Pallot-Frossard of the LRMH suggests may have inadvertently enabled the fusarium to flourish.


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