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Caving In

The world’s premier example of prehistoric art, the cave paintings of Lascaux, get recreated at The Field Museum.

This image from the cave shows the immense size of the Lascaux paintings.

Restoration artists use natural pigments similar to those used by the original artist to ensure accuracy and precision.

This black cow, found in Lascaux’s main gallery, illustrates the way the cave was not simply painted once and left, but painted and repainted over generations. 

If you’ve never heard of the cave paintings of Lascaux until now, the reason might be that the famous cave, inconspicuously located near a village five hours south of Paris, has been closed to the public since 1963. Concern over the deteriorating effects of mold and carbon dioxide buildup led the French Ministry of Culture to grant access to only scientists and scholars.

C’est la vie? Tell that to a Chicagoan. This month, the traveling exhibition Scenes from the Stone Age: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux makes its first North American appearance at The Field Museum. Thanks to the latest digital scanning technology, this much-anticipated show includes the most technically accurate reproductions ever made of the Paleolithic paintings.

Considering the cave’s exclusiveness, it is probably fitting that its initial discovery was made purely accidentally on one autumn day in 1940 when four teenage boys were exploring in the woods near the village of Montignac and came across a deep depression by a fallen tree. It led to an underground chamber, whose walls and ceilings were lined with beautifully detailed paintings and engravings of animals. As Jacques Marsal, one of the discoverers, later recalled, “Each animal seemed to be moving.”

Today, visitors to Scenes from the Stone Age can walk through the cavelike gallery and experience the paintings in a way much akin to how Marsal and his friends did. With simulated torch lights providing illumination, it takes patience and an attentive eye to note all the details of the artwork, whose charm lies in its complexity. The Lascaux artists utilized color, line and even the cave’s natural relief to give the paintings perspective and movement. “When you see the “Great Black Cow” on a flat page, you think, ‘Oh, it’s just a black cow,’” says Anna Altschwager, the exhibition’s project manager. “But in person, you see that the contours of the rocks match the contours of the animal’s body, and that is an entirely different experience.”

To better understand the techniques, be sure to check out the multimedia presentations and interactive stations, where you can see a virtual deconstruction of the “Great Black Cow” panel, revealing engravings, hidden animals and symbols. Other paintings, such as the “Swimming Stags Frieze,” “Crossed Bison Panel” and “Shaft Scene,” were reproduced for the first time to be shown in this exhibition.

The best part? The hands-on features and mix of science and art add up to an experience enjoyable for both children and adults. Step in and feel yourself transported—in space as well as time.

March 20–Sept. 8. The Field Museum, 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive, 312.922.9410, fieldmuseum.org