As curator at the Musee d'Angouleme in western France, a great deal of my working life revolves around the incredibly rich prehistoric sites that are so abundant in the surrounding countryside. I had prepared many local exhibits about Ice Age art of the Dordogne region, but I never expected to find myself in New York City, re-creating one of France's ancient cave walls at the American Museum of Natural History.
Some 17,000 years ago, a group of Ice Age people decorated the walls of Lascaux cave with images of aurochs (wild cattle), bison, ibex, deer, and other large mammals. Following discovery of the cave in 1940, many thousands of tourists visited Lascaux. Their presence introduced moisture and bacteria, changing the delicate balance of the cave's atmosphere. A destructive film of algae and calcite began to cover the paintings, and in 1963 the cave had to be closed to visitors.
To assuage the public's disappointment, in 1984 the French government opened a facsimile of the cave, known as Lascaux II, in an abandoned quarry near the original. The concrete walls are similar in configuration to those of the real Lascaux. A devoted copyist-painter, Monique Petral, used the same pigments as did the Ice Age artists (manganese, charcoal, and iron oxides) and worked for five years to reproduce the artworks in exacting detail. Although it features only a part of the Chamber of Bulls and the Axial Gallery, Lascaux II is visited by about 300,000 tourists each year.
Some years ago, Jean-Philippe Rigaud, the director of antiquities for the Aquitaine region--which includes Lascaux--was asked by the city of Bordeaux to commission a partial replica of the cave, to be displayed at an exhibit in Japan and then returned to that city's Musee d'Aquitaine. It had to be light, sturdy, easy to transport, and faithful to the original. Rigaud chose a frieze that had not been reproduced at Lascaux II: five stags' heads, painted as though the animals were swimming across a river. The frieze is one of the few sections that stand alone, without blending into another group of animal images. Three copies were to be made: one for the Bordeaux museum, one for exhibition near the original cave in the Dordogne, and another for the American Museum of Natural History. …