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  • Mark Brafield

Cave of dreams


A few weeks ago we were on holiday in the Dordogne, and I took the opportunity to see the remarkable cave paintings at Lascaux.

The cave of Lascaux was famously discovered in September 1940 when a young Frenchman, Marcel Ravidat, was out walking with his dog, Robot, and the dog disappeared down a hole. Following the dog down the tunnel that he had unearthed, Marcel and his friends stumbled into the cave complex with its extraordinary decorations, hidden from the world for more than 17,000 years.

Over the next two decades it is estimated that more than a million people came to the cave to see the paintings, but with the result that by 1963, the climate of the cave had been crucially altered by so many visitors, causing micro-organisms to grow over the paintings and damage them irreparably.

With exceptional vision and execution, the French authorities built Lascaux II, a facsimile of the main part of the cave cast in concrete and resin, with the paintings meticulously reproduced so that visitors could continue to marvel at its wonders.

Lascaux II was hugely successful but over time a further danger became apparent. The actual cave is only around 3 metres below the surface of the ground and the facsimile was relatively nearby, leading to the fear that the weight of numbers might cause structural damage to the hillside.

Further plans were made, resulting in the opening in 2016 of Lascaux IV, the staggeringly spectacular replica of (almost) the complete cave *, this time safely at the foot of the hill and sufficiently far from the original to present no dangers.

This was not the first time I had seen the paintings, having made previous visits both to Lascaux II and Lascaux IV, but this time I was not prepared for the extraordinary beauty of the paintings and their technical sophistication. These were no journeymen, whoever they were, they were fully-fledged artists. The paintings have a dream-like intensity that lodges in the mind and haunts you for days afterwards.

Eager to understand more about the cave and its mysteries, I have just finished reading David Lewis-Williams's excellent book 'The Mind in the Cave' (Thames and Hudson, 2002). The earlier part of the book is taken up with abstruse sociological and structuralist theory, but his main argument is that the Upper Paleolithic cave paintings, of which Lascaux is only the best-known example, mark the transition of mankind from Neanderthal to Homo Sapiens.

This 'Great Transition' marked not only a huge step up in intelligence, it marked an extraordinary advance in consciousness. For the first time, Home Sapiens could think about the past and the future. He could make the connection between a two - dimensional representation of reality and the actual object in space. Not only could he dream dreams and entertain visions, he could come back from these dreaming and visionary states and discuss them with his peers. Or - crucially - try to record them in paint and charcoal.

Williams's thesis is that the paintings are not actual representations of real animals outside the cave, they are actually attempts by the shamen of the tribe to record the visions they had experienced inside the cave. For these early people, entering the darkness of the cave became a metaphor for the shaman entering the spirit world to communicate with the world beyond. The visions came to the shaman in the cave - possibly fuelled by hallucinogenic drugs, or even by the high levels of carbon-dioxide inside the deeper parts of Lascaux - after which he would attempt to 'fix' the vision where he had seen it, namely, inside the cave. In other words, the paint becomes the medium through which the vision, previously trapped inside the rock, is released, the rock surface acting as a membrane between the two worlds.

The more you look at the paintings, the more this makes sense; the animals (of which there are a limited selection - horses, bison, aurochs [an early form of oxen]) - appear to float in space, there is no horizon, no ground line, nothing in the way of landscape or other context. They may even be complete apart from their hooves, or with their hooves hanging downwards rather than walking on the face of the real earth. If the paintings have the visionary quality of dreams, that is because that is precisely what they embody.

Throughout the book, Williams reflects on Plato's allegory of the cave, how one might imagine a group of confined prisoners inside a cave, watching the shadows of life pass across the wall of the cave but in the complete and sincere belief that the shadows are, in fact, the full reality. By the end of the book, Williams reflects how the paintings reflect not only 'the mind in the cave' but, just as much 'the cave in the mind'.

* Lascaux IV reproduces about 90% of the original cave - the missing parts are mainly the Shaft and the Diverticule of the Felines, both of which are narrow and not readily accessible to visitors.


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