May 7th, 2019: Our visit to the amazing Lascaux IV – an exact replica of a cave containing 20,000 year-old polychrome cave paintings!!!

This morning, rather than take the confusing bus connection to the village of Montignac to see Lascaux IV – an exact replication of a cave containing 20,000 year-old polychrome paintings, we decided to hire a taxi for the very scenic 45-minute drive through the rolling hills, woodlands, farms and villages of the Périgord Noir (black Perigord) traditional natural region, also known as Sarladais, of the Dordogne département, from the village of Sarlat-la-Canéda to the outskirts of the village of Montignac. “The name Périgord noir — black Périgord — is derived from the dark colour of its evergreen oak forests (Quercus ilex) and also from the dark, fertile soil in the Sarladais — and not, as often asserted, from the black truffle.” (from Wikipedia)

The Périgord Noir region, or Sarladais, of the Dordogne département, of southwest France

“The Périgord Noir is well known for its abundance in prehistoric caves and abris (rock shelter) like LascauxRouffignac or Cro Magnon — all situated relatively close to Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil. Famous are troglodytic cliff dwellings like Roque Saint-Christophe near the archeological site of Le Moustier. Archeological studies have been conducted in the Périgord noir since the 19th century and underline the importance of the Vézère valley for prehistory. Just in the vicinity of Les Eyzies 147 sites are clustered, with ages reaching 40,000 years and more. This is the reason, why the new Musée national de Préhistoire was established there. Several prehistoric sites in the Périgord noir have rendered their names for archeological cultures like MousterianMicoquianPérigordian and Magdalenian.” (from Wikipedia)

Cro-Magnon artists painting in Font-de-Gaume, by Charles R. Knight. Prehistoric people living in the Dordogne Valley first settled in the mouth of Font-de-Gaume around 25,000 BC. The cave mouth was inhabited at least sporadically for the next several thousand years. However, after the original prehistoric inhabitants left, the cave was forgotten until the nineteenth century when local people again began to visit the cave. The paintings date from around 17,000 BC, during the Magdalenian period. Many of the cave’s paintings have been discovered in recent decades. The cave’s most famous painting, a frieze of five bison, was discovered accidentally in 1966 while scientists were cleaning the cave.
La Roque-Gageac, a strip of stone structures wedged between limestone cliffs and the Dordogne River. An ancient cave dwelling, a ‘troglodyte village,’ is above the buildings. “Situated at the foot of a towering limestone cliff along the banks of the Dordogne, La Roque-Gageac offers visitors a labyrinth of cobbled streets, a troglodyte fort and a Romanesque church that dominates the valley. Listed as one the most beautiful villages in France, it is arguably one of the most photogenic in South-West France” (from https://www.visit-dordogne-valley.co.uk/)

According to our pre-purchased timed tickets to the cave replica of Lascaux IV, we met our hyper-interesting and well-informed and friendly “mediator” in the museum lobby and went up through and out above the museum, to descend by elevator to the exact replica of the cave discovered in 1940 by four teenage boys who were out wondering in the woods above the village of Montignac, and their dog – one of the most significant archeological finds in modern history!

The four teenagers from the nearby village of Montignac, who together discovered the grotto of Lascaux while searching for their dog, Robot, on the wooded hill above Montignac, in 1940

“From the discovery in 1940 until its opening in December 2016, The International Center for Cave Art, Lascaux IV, in Montignac, you can discover the history of one of the most important prehistoric sites on earth!” (from https://www.lascaux.fr/en) Watch this short video about the museum and the cave replica here.

“The architecture of the International Center is an integral part of the visitor experience: the semi-underground building, built at the foot of the Lascaux hill, blends in perfectly with the local landscape. Its gigantic glass facade welcomes the public and invites them to let themselves be guided in a universe resolutely turned towards technological prowess.

The inviting exterior of the The International Center for Cave Art, Lascaux IV, in Montignac
A cutaway diagram of the museum and cave replica layout

First of all, because of its shape: no wall is straight, a tangle of rooms with atypical shapes draws the public into the heart of this 8,000 m2 building. A fault crossing it full length lets visitors imagine a notch in the hill or a prehistoric stratum reminiscent of the passing of time …The different spaces invite visitors throughout their journey to live an immersive and personalized experience.

The interior of The International Center for Cave Art, Lascaux IV – a daylit hallway leading from one interactive exhibit hall to another. “A fault crossing it full length lets visitors imagine a notch in the hill or a prehistoric stratum reminiscent of the passing of time …The different spaces invite visitors throughout their journey to live an immersive and personalized experience” (from https://www.lascaux.fr/en)

Prepare to live the Lascaux IV experience! The mediators will accompany you from the reception of the site to the cave reproduced in its entirety. You will then be able to discover with them the Atelier de Lascaux in which you will come back to certain striking details of the cave paintings and in particular the famous Scene of the Well where you can admire the unique human reproduction of the Sistine Chapel of Prehistory!” (from https://www.lascaux.fr/en)

“If you’re sceptical about visiting a reproduction, don’t be: the latest in laser technology and 3D printing was used to reproduce the exact wall contours, engravings (absent in Lascaux II, the previous reproduction) and the nearly 600 paintings down to the very millimetre. It feels remarkably like a real cave – it’s damp, dark and chilly, and the whole experience can be legitimately spine-tingling.

After the cave visit, you’re turned loose for the self-guided tour, which utilises a personal tablet to help visitors explore the excellent Lascaux Studio. Here you’ll find life-size renderings of all the major scenes in the cave, providing context with regard to painting and engraving techniques, superimposed images and more. Don’t miss the Shaft (the least accessible part of the cave), where an extremely rare representation of a human, with a bird’s head, is depicted. A multimedia show, 3D film and the interactive Galerie de l’Imagination, examining the relationship between cave art and modern art, round out the exhibit.” (source: lonelyplanet.com)

“The Atelier de Lascaux in which you will come back to certain striking details of the cave paintings and in particular the famous Scene of the Well where you can admire the unique human reproduction of the Sistine Chapel of Prehistory!” (from https://www.lascaux.fr/en)

The building was designed by our good friends from the University of Texas School of Architecture, Elaine Molinor and Craig Dykers, who together formed the award-winning architecture firm, Snøhetta, in 1989, when they won the huge, anonymous international competition to design the Great Alexandria Library, in Egypt, a library that was first established by Alexander the Great over 3200 years ago. Now their firm has grown to include 240 people from 32 countries – they are also known for designing the only building on the World Trade Center Memorial site – the National September 11th Memorial Museum Pavilion.

Approach to the rooftop terrace of Lascaux IV. An accessible roof is a trademark of Snøhetta‘s designs

No photographs are allowed in the cave replica, as taking them would disturb the visitor experience. The cave replica reproduced the original cave’s exact humidity, darkness, quietude and of course, the polychrome paintings – which took 3 full years to reproduce! Soon after our visit began we were plunged into “total darkness” by the mediator – an experience which not many people have had it their lifetimes. The replicas of the polychrome paintings were astounding, and along with the replicas, the team reproduced every nook and cranny, crack and crevice of the old cave.

A perfectly-replicated polychrome painting of a horse, from the “The Atelier de Lascaux in which you will come back to certain striking details of the cave paintings”

Lascaux IV – Between heritage and new technologies, a sensory journey closer to our ancestors, more than 20,000 years ago …Lascaux reveals all its art, and much more …
For the first time, Lascaux reveals itself entirely. A complete and unpublished facsimile retraces the discovery of the famous decorated cave. But the adventure does not end there: 7 exhibition areas question the place occupied by Lascaux in world cave art and its relationship with contemporary creation. Lascaux International Center of Cave Art (also called Lascaux IV) marks the beginning of a new adventure combining the emotion of an ancestral art and technological prowess.
The complete and unpublished facsimile offered on this site is the culmination of three years of work for the Ateliers des Fac-Similés du Périgord, located in the heart of the Dordogne.” (from vimeo.com)

Another polychrome painting replica from The Atelier de Lascaux

Although photography was not allowed in the cave replica itself, we could take as many photographs as we pleased in one of the 7 additional exhibition areas inside the museum. The first exhibition area, where you part from your mediator and thank them for a fantastic tour, is full of replica remnants suspended from the ceiling and lighted from below. these remnants are every bit as detailed and colorful as the full cave replica, you are just seeing the cave in selected fragments instead.

Another polychrome painting replica from The Atelier de Lascaux
Another polychrome painting replica from The Atelier de Lascaux

We spent a long time exploring the 7 additional exhibits as they were fascinating, mostly interactive and engaging. Next we had our lunch in the café and then explored the outside of our friends’ marvelous building. One trademark of their work is that you the roof is often part of the experience. As with the Great Alexandria Library in Egypt, the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet in Oslo and Lascaux IV, the building “invites” you to come on up and explore the roof – for it is truly an extension of the grounds.

“A fault crossing it full length lets visitors imagine a notch in the hill or a prehistoric stratum reminiscent of the passing of time” (from https://www.lascaux.fr/en)

The grounds around the building were exceptionally well-thought-out as well, with reflecting pools, native prairies and native plant gardens in abundance. The roof also had plants growing in beds all over it and offered excellent views of the nearby village of Montignac, the surrounding woodlands, the hill behind us where the entrance to the original cave was found by the teenage boys in 1940, and farms.

Stairways leading up to the rooftop gardens on either end of the welcoming facade invite you to walk up and explore the building from a unique perspective, as well as take in views of the countryside, the village of Montignac and the hill behind the building, where the boys found the original cave entrance amongst the trees in 1940

After our taxi ride back to Sarlat-la-Canéda, we had another fabulous meal featuring local Périgord Noir cuisine. Before turning in for the night we continued our explorations of this wonderful village and were pleasantly surprised to find even more new architectural discoveries!

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