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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Pallot-Frossard contends that the fungus has not caused irreversible damage to the paintings, but others disagree. Laurence Leaute-Beasley, a Franco-American who led art tours into Lascaux from 1982 to 2001 and formed the International Committee for the Preservation of Lascaux in 2004, says one knowledgeable visitor to the cave in April not only saw fusarium on the paintings but also noticed a grayish tinge to formerly black surfaces where growths had been removed. When the quicklime was removed from the cave over the course of last year, so too was what was left of the soil--which could affect the cave's climate and humidity. Desplat, the Lascaux caretaker who first discovered the outbreak, says that in the course of restoration work in the Great Hall of the Bull, a large stone flake painted with a horse's head sustained three cracks; Geneste says the cracks aren't new. Some believe that a ridge around part of the Great Hall bears the marks of the restorers' ladders, and that the lower parts of the walls have been changed through the use of a powerful water-based vacuum cleaner called a Gregomatic.

It's hard to sort out the competing claims 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. "Too often we've reacted to the symptoms of the problem," he says. "But for the last three years we've been reflecting and acting on the reasons."

Leaute-Beasley is unconvinced. "We feel that big mistakes have happened and may still be happening," she says. "The French are dealing with them like it's their backyard, but they need to feel accountable to the rest of the world. After all, who does the past belong to?"

Lascaux's keepers are no longer using chemicals to eradicate fusarium; gone are the antibiotic patches and the quicklime. Geneste sees a few tiny insect colonies as evidence that a new ecological balance is taking shape, and there is talk of reopening Lascaux next year to a carefully restricted numbers of visitors. But that won't be the test of whether Lascaux has imparted a lasting lesson of humility to its custodians. Whether that lesson sticks will be determined by future generations. It will be a terrible indictment of this one if it does not.

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