Ancient Wall Art Cave Paintings of Lascaux Come to Life in Field Museum Exhibit

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Byline: Amy Boerema aboerema@dailyherald.com By Amy Boerema aboerema@dailyherald.com

The discovery of what would soon become known as the world's premier example of prehistoric art occurred by accident.

In 1940, four teenage friends were exploring the woods in southern France when they came upon a deep depression caused by a fallen tree. After clearing the debris, they found a shaft leading to an underground chamber. Climbing inside, they stood in awe of their surroundings: beautiful, vibrant paintings and engravings of animals lined the cave walls, highly sophisticated artwork that had been untouched for almost 20,000 years.

News of the astonishing discovery spread quickly, and the cave paintings of Lascaux saw more than 1 million visitors between 1948 and 1963 before the French government closed the cave to the public to preserve the priceless paintings.

Now, visitors to the Field Museum in Chicago can experience the thrill of cave exploration for themselves with the new exhibit: "Scenes from the Stone Age: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux," open through Sept. 8.

The highly anticipated exhibition features full-size replicas of the paintings, including some shown for the first time. They are the most technically accurate reproductions of the cave drawings ever done, and the Field Museum is the first venue in North America for the showing, which is organized by the Conseil General de la Dordogne in France.

"We really can't capture how beautiful these pieces are," says Anna Altschwager, exhibition project manager. "Having that first chance to see this is very exciting. It's an incredible story, and it is about that shared human experience."

Visitors will walk through a cavelike gallery -- complete with simulated oil lamps and torch light -- to discover paintings such as the Great Cow Panel, Crossed Bison Panel and Swimming Stags Frieze, which have never before been reproduced. Guests will get to experience the life-size drawings up close for the first time.

"Seeing them face to face to scale is very impressive," Altschwager says.

The Hall of Bulls, North Wall, is one of the most recognizable images from Lascaux, containing 36 images of bulls, horses and stags. One bull measures 17 feet long, the largest animal depicted in cave art.

Three main animals, including the horse, bison and mammoth, are well-represented in the drawings, says Bob Martin, the A. …