THE CONSERVATION OF THE NIAUX CAVE PAINTINGS
By studying paintings and engravings created during prehistoric times, we are afforded an insight in to the psyche of the Palaeolithic mind, into the psyche of our ancestors.
Rock art illuminates the sacred and ideological components of a culture which other archaeology may not. But unlike with the secure display cases of museums and the humidity-controlled art galleries of today, this unique opportunity is vulnerable - it is a delicate privilege, and both nature and mankind can cause their destruction at any time.
Caves are living creatures, sculpted by water over eons of time. The inertia of the cave - the quantity of energy required to change the conditions in the cave - is delicately balanced against the resilience of the cave - the time taken for these changes to revert to their initial state.
Water circulation shifts over time, exposing fresh walls to its eroding effects. The moment, or moments, that saw the creation of these paintings within this ephemeral context will not be static. An increase in water infiltration will affect the paintings, sometimes destroying them altogether. The lime content in the water that decorates this subterranean world can also be the agent of destruction, masking the paintings and drawings. Therefore, in an effort to control the cave's resilience, in Niaux, drainage systems - in effect artificial stalactites - have been installed above the paintings.
Horse in the deeper galleries partly
covered in "modern" graffiti
Calcite deposit on an ibex drawn
on the "cul-de-four" pediment
But the major contributor to a cave's inertia is humankind - the rock art is being jeopardized by its modern audience. Thankfully, since the early explorations in the 17th century, we now have a greater understanding of the lethal cocktail of heat, carbon dioxide and water vapour, but lessons have been learnt at a price. At the Lascaux Cave
, after the ill-conceived installation of new climatic equipment, and with uncontrolled numbers of viewers, the cave suffered a fungal infection - Fusarium solani - that threatened to destroy in months what thousands of years had left largely unscathed.
For this reason, some caves have been closed to the public completely - Chauvet Cave
is a prime example - it's wonders have been seen by less people than have stood on the top of Mt Everest. However, at Niaux a compromise has now presented itself in several ways.
The entrance now consists of a sealable access tunnel. Official guides take a limited number of groups with 20 people maximum in each into the cave for limited periods of time throughout the year. The climate of the cave is monitored on a 24 hours a day basis.
In the small French town of Tarascon-sur-Ariëge in the valley below Niaux, a virtual cave has been created at the impressive Park of Prehistory museum. With the latest technology in 3-dimensional topographic mapping and ultra-violet imagery sensing, the virtual cave shows every detail of the prehistoric art, more even than the visitors can see in the cave itself. Indeed, in the museum a virtual prehistoric world has been constructed, with re-enactments, film and museum displays. The most recent addition to the Park of Prehistory in June 2009 was the Jean Clottes
Resource Center - Centre de Ressources Jean Clottes.
→ Niaux Cave Index
→ France Rock Art Archive
→ Bradshaw Foundation
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