Navigation Menu

Authored by Thomas Dowson

Lascaux Caves are a complex system of caves in southwestern France famous for Paleolithic cave paintings. The original caves are located near the village of Montignac, in the department of Dordogne. They contain some of the best-known Upper Paleolithic art.

These paintings are estimated to be 17,300 years old. They primarily consist of images of large animals, most of which are known from fossil evidence to have lived in the area at the time. In 1979, Lascaux was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list along with other prehistoric sites in the Vézère valley. Today access is highly restricted, and very few have the opportunity to visit the original caves. 

Following a few unsuccessful attempts to visit the cave of Lascaux, I am at last getting my 40 minutes of Ice Age glory. After all, Lascaux is to art what La Scala is to opera, or Glastonbury to summer music festivals.

Our group of five is met at an ordinary looking gate on the edge of a hill-side car-park, just outside the town of Montignac in the south west of France. We are led in silence to what  seems like a top security portal to some underground WW2 bunker. A couple is holding hands, they look at each other and exchange an excited giggle. Best prehistoric ice age caves.

Otherwise, the aura of reverence that surrounds our group is so obviously at odds with the decidedly unremarkable entrance we are looking at. I try to imagine the thousands of visitors that once flocked to this very spot since the cave was discovered in September 1940. The same people who came to marvel were the ones who inadvertently were responsible for the destruction of the prehistoric images. And so in 1963 access to the cave was restricted to only a handful of visitors each week, with only a short time inside the cave itself.

Today we are that handful, this is our week. Visit Lascaux Cave.

Our guide is explaining the procedure of our visit, how we will pass through three successive chambers before entering the cave itself. These will help our body acclimatise to the cave’s 13°C and our eyes adjust to the darkness.

More crucially, however, passing through the sealed chambers will prevent the air outside, teaming with destructive fungal spores, from following us in and contaminating the heavily controlled environment within the cave.

Actually moving from one chamber to the next turns out to be much less prosaic. Each soulless room is one less hurdle before we finally feast our eyes on the 17,000 year old paintings. The five metre-long bulls, the graceful stags, the rutting bison, the very same prehistoric images discovered in 1940 that changed the history of art. Get Inside Lascaux Caves.

Our prior familiarity with these images now reproduced all around the World does nothing to diminish the obvious impact they have on each of us today.

Looking … no … staring at the majestic images I think of a friend of mine, a tough Indiana Jones type of archaeologist, whose eyes welled up when he stood where I am standing now. His 40 minutes passed in a watery blur.

Sadly those weekly slots are no more. Unfortunately restricting access to the cave did not have the desperately desired effect. Continued preservation problems forced the closure of the cave in 2008 to all but a few conservationists. Indefinitely. Ice Age Caves in France Lascaux.

Visit the Ice Age Caves While You Can

While scientists debate whether or not there should be human access to the Ice Age caves in France and Spain, go and see as many as you can before they are all closed. There are still a number of Ice Age decorated caves that are still open to the public. Are Lascaux caves open to the public. 

Caves such as Font de Gaume, the last Stone Age cave with shaded polychrome paintings still open to the public, may be very different to Lascaux, but they are every bit as spectacular. Ice age caves open to the public.

At very least, visit the nearby replica of Lascaux. Lascaux II opened to the public in 1983 after over a decade of work reproducing a small part of the original cave. The accuracy of the reconstructed cave and reproduced imagery is measured in millimetres. Best cave drawings in the world. 

The experience? Well, that is just as powerful with its own sense of drama – from buying your ticket to being ushered through the reproduced cave. From October 2012 a series of partial reproductions have been used in an exhibition, now called Lascaux III, that is travelling the World in the lead up to the opening of a more complete replica, Lascaux IV – set to open in autumn 2016.

INSPIRED? PIN THIS TO YOUR TRAVEL PINTEREST BOARDS ↓

Hear about new posts on Facebook: Please click “like”!

Thomas Dowson grew up on a farm in Zimbabwe with loads of great archaeology in his back-yard. He went on to train as an archaeologist in South Africa, where he specialised in prehistoric arts.

After an academic archaeology career in South Africa and England, he founded Archaeology Travel – where he writes to inspire others to explore beyond the obvious archaeology sites. As prehistoric art is his area of expertise, he has produced the most comprehensive online guide to cave art in France with all the necessary information about visiting these sites yourself.

Follow Thomas on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, where he shares his experiences of visiting archaeological and historic sites around the World, from our earliest times to the not so distant pasts.

Photo credits: Featured by Adibu456. Entrance © Ethan Doyle White. Hall of the bulls in gallery next to entrance by Adibu456. Hall of Bulls & Font de Gaume © Thomas Dowson/Archaeology Travel

    28 Comments

  1. Fascinating – I’ve always loved Thomas’s site because he shares such amazing info. I want to go!

    • Thank you Jess … waot until the fall of next year when Lascaux IV opens … it will be spectacular :)

  2. What a great experience that must have been. Too bad Lascaux is closed to the public but I’d love to visit Font de Gaume!

    • Natalie, there is a big debate in archaeology/conservation circles about keeping Lascaux so inaccessible. But Font de Gaume and Pech Merle (my favourite) are as good in tbeir own way. Go!! :)

  3. Wow, what a great experience. I have seen various caves with ancient art in Southern Africa and Spain. The ones in France are still on my bucket list, but I did not know they were so restricted to visit. It is a good thing though in order to maintain the paintings. What a great story!!

    • Ha Sabine! You have already seen the best :) But then, I am biased. When you get to see the art in the caves of France you will see how very different they are to the paintings in South Africa … but just as stunning.

  4. Very interesting, I didn’t realize that even very limited visits were available. Back in the eighties I met the lady responsible for the painting of Lascaux II as we took her house on for holiday rentals and she explained how they used a kind of blow pipe technique. I visited Lascaux II later with my children (with whom I had done quite a lot of caving) and we all found it quite amazing and a convincing replica. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    • WOW Peter, what an honour. That lady is still ‘at it’ I am told. Yes, with many of the paintings they used the long bones of animals (eg the fibia or tibia to get technical) to blow the pigments on to the cave walls. Glad to learn you also found it a convincing replica – I went into the original and the replica a day apart – both were great experiences. They say the accuracy of the replica is measured in millimetres. You will have to return to see the new replica :)

  5. This cave looks amazing! I’d definitely like to visit it – I like to visit caves as often as I can, regardless of the country I am in.

    The photos are lovely – including the one with the drawing.

    • It really is an amazing cave Loredana. Enjoyed your post about castles in Romania – caves and castles is the way to go :)

  6. The caves in Lascaux are on my bucket list — how terrific for this author.

    • Wait until at least the end of next year Jennifer, then you can get to visit the new Lascaux IV – that is going to be amazing! As terrific as you can get these days :)

  7. I actually never heard of Ice Age caves… but now I will have to look into it. The pictures of the paintings look amazing !! I would love to see something like that in person.

    • Jazzy, there are still many caves you can visit – not just replicas. Obviously I recommend a visit – but they are also found in some of the best areas of France, and there are also some in Spain, so you are sure of an all round good time !! ;)

  8. We were due to visit these caves a few years ago but after a couple of poor experiences we decided agains it – what a mistake. It is something we have regreted ever since and hope to return one day to explore properly.

    • For some of the caves, getting tickets is not the easiest thing to do … unfortunately. But it is worth the hurdles, and it is so much easier today than it was a few years ago to get tickets … do try and get there again – am sure you will not regret a return!

  9. That’s too bad that a small few (likely) ruined it for so many other people. I’m glad you were able to visit the caves and in turn be able to share your experience with those of us who can’t visit them any more. I would probably be okay with seeing the replicas, at least it’s a semblance of the ancient cave art.

    • This is one of those rare cases Miranda where it was nothing a small few did to spoil it for the rest. Sadly, it was natural processes that are the problem – fungal spores and and the formation of calcite deposits on the cave walls obliterating the paintings – made worse by people going into the caves – breathing carbon dioxide and fungal spores. The replicas are great to see – I thoroughly recommend them :)

  10. As a former Ancient Civilizations teacher, I taught about these caves (and how teenage boys found them!) and so it’s so cool to see them featured on a travel blog I follow!

    • You may be surprised how many of the Ice Age caves were found by children :)

  11. Ever since learning about them in a long ago art history class, I’ve wanted to see the cave paintings in person. Sad to hear that access is now limited, but I guess I better make plans soon if I want to see any at all.

    • Am sure you have a few years at least, Sandra :) But, don’t leave it too long!

  12. I’m afraid I may never see any of these caves at all. I love Thomas writing and work. Brilliant.

    • Aaah thank you Penny :) We shall have to ensure you get to the Dordogne … give Italy a skip for a bit LOL

  13. It’s disappointing that the original caves are closed to the public, but I’m glad to learn that a reproduction for the artwork will be available to all. The Hall of Bulls is amazing. I had no idea it was that large.

  14. Yes, sometimes I and many of my archaeology colleagues wonder who certain sites are being saved for. Hopefully for a time sometime soon when conservation and preservation measures are such that we can have unlimited (if not unfetted) access again.

  15. Brilliant comments and reply to each one very understanding and educational as well.Thomas is great in dealing with every ones comments, may it be for expectations and willingness to accept limitations to certain sites and wishful thinking. All are accommodated satisfactorily and intelligently.. I am pursuing independently understanding and exploring rock art. Recently discovered over 10,000 petroglyphs for the first-time, in Delhi-Aravallis-System, during 2013-2015. All in a solo attempt and my first discovery was of an Upper Palaeolithic site opposite to Ellora Caves a world heritage site in Maharashtra of India, during 1992.

    • Glad you enjoyed the post Raghubir, yes Thomas has been a great guest poster in taking the time to answer everyone’s comments as well :)

      I had no idea that the Delhi-Aravallis-System had such a large concentration of petroglyphs too. Sounds like quite the incredible discovery – congratulations!

Post a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Share134
Tweet105
Pin1K
Flip
Share3