Decorated Grottoes of the Vézère Valley (1979)

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France 1969. Grottoes de Niaux in the Vézère Valley.

The Vézère valley contains 147 prehistoric sites dating from the Palaeolithic and 25 decorated caves. It is particularly interesting from an ethnological and anthropological, as well as an aesthetic point of view because of its cave paintings, especially those of the Lascaux Cave, whose discovery in 1940 was of great importance for the history of prehistoric art. The hunting scenes show some 100 animal figures, which are remarkable for their detail, rich colours and lifelike quality. 
  • France 1979. Grotte de Niaux in the Vézère Valley
France 1981. Les Eyzies-de-Tayac in the Vézère Valley. Pre-cancelled stamp.
  • France 1981. Les Eyzies-de-Tayac in the Vézère Valley on a pre-cancelled stamp. 

  • France 1968. Prehistoric grottoes of Lascaux. 

France 1968. Prehistoric grottoes of Lascaux.

Lascaux is an an underground cave in southwestern France whose walls and ceilings are decorated with Paleolithic art. The cave, formed by water percolating through limestone during the Tertiary period, consists of one large cavern and several smaller chambers. Around 15,000 bc, Stone Age artists adorned the interior surfaces of the cave with approximately 1500 engravings and 600 paintings in shades of yellow, red, brown, and black.

The great majority of the paintings depict animals, including aurochs (a now extinct species of wild ox), horses, red deer, and ibex. Dots and geometric motifs of uncertain significance accompany many of these animal figures. In a large chamber known as the Hall of the Bulls, paintings depict relatively small figures of deer and horses alongside four huge aurochs bulls measuring over 5 m (16 ft) long. The only painting of a human form depicts a bird-headed man, possibly a shaman, falling away from a bull he appears to have wounded with a spear. Other well-known groups of figures in the cave include the Swimming Deer, a herd of horned deer shown in profile.

The scale of the paintings suggests that the artists must have used ladders and scaffolding. Archaeologists discovered sockets for scaffolding beams in the walls of the cave. They also found charcoal, lamps, spear points, pigments, and engraving tools on the floor of the cave. Carbon-14 analysis of the charcoal and other organic materials suggests that the cave was in use from about 15,000 bc to as late as 9000 bc (see Dating Methods). Most of the artwork apparently dates from the earliest part of this period. Archaeologists believe that although Stone Age people visited the cave for rituals, they did not live there.

When the cave was discovered in 1940, the paintings were very well preserved. The stable levels of moisture and temperature within the cave provide an ideal environment for the preservation of pigments over thousands of years. After the cave was opened to the public in 1948, as many as 100,000 visitors a year came to view the famous paintings. The presence of so many people soon disturbed the delicate environment of the cave, and the paintings began to deteriorate. The colors faded and a green fungus grew over the pigments. The cave was closed to the public in 1963. A replica of the cave, known as Lascaux II, was constructed using the same pigments and methods believed to have been used by the original artists. Lascaux II opened in 1983 and now receives about 300,000 visitors a year. 

Sources and links: 

Other World Heritage Sites in France (on this site). Please refer to the UNESCO-listing, section France for further information on the individual properties.  

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Revised 09 sep 2007  
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