Prehistoric cave sculptures never seen by the public will be revealed today thanks to the most advanced, computerised techniques of laser-copying and visual display.
A museum to open near Poitiers, in western France, will span one-a-half millenniums of human image-making, from stone chisels to computers. The star of the show, at Angles-sur-L'Anglin, in the départementof Vienne, will be a 60ft-long frieze of bison, horses, cats, goats and erotic female figures, carved into the limestone of western France 15,000 years ago.
The caverns containing the frieze were discovered by French and British archaeologists in 1950 but have never been opened to the public. The Roc-aux-Sorciers (witches' rock) caves are the only site of their kind in Europe: a two-dimensional, carved equivalent of the celebrated cave paintings at Lascaux in Dordogne, 120 miles farther south, which were created 1,000 years earlier.
From today, the public will be able to visit a €2.7m (£2.1m) visitor centre where the original sculptures, and the contours of the cavern sides, have been precisely recreated to full size by computerised, laser-copying techniques. At intervals a half-hour son-et-lumière display will be projected on to the frieze, suggesting how the carvings may have been created and how they were discovered 58 years ago.
Oscar Fuentes, the director of the centre, says the intention is to go beyond the full-size replica – Lascaux II – built in 1983 to preserve the Lascaux caves from exposure to human breath and body heat.
"We want to make the frieze into a place of scientific discovery in which the visitors are doing their own discovering," he said. "We want them to reach their own conclusions and understand that their interpretation is as good as that of anyone else."
The Roc-aux-Sorciers caves were first explored by a French archaeologist, Suzanne de Saint-Mathurin, and her British assistant, Dorothy Garrod. They found one cave in which the roof had collapsed, dislodging the sculpted animals and human figures from the cavern sides. Fifty of these images are now on display at the national archaeology museum at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, west of Paris.
In another cave, thought to have been occupied in the Magdalene period, 15,000 years ago, the archaeologists found a 20-metre frieze of beautifully finished, bas-relief, wall sculptures. They include human silhouettes, horses, bison, wild cats, goats and three explicit images of the lower part of the female anatomy. The cave was never opened to the public, to preserve the works of pre-historic art and to allow exploration to continue.
The Lascaux caves, and other similar sites, are thought to have been sanctuaries, visited only for religious purposes. The Roc-aux-Sorciers cave seems to have been a dwelling place.
Geneviève Pinçon, the chief archaeologist at the site, points out that the south-facing cavern was exposed to the sun for large parts of the day in pre-historic times. France had a Siberian climate 15,000 years ago. The cavern would have had a pleasant micro-climate, ideal to live in.
"But what do all these carvings mean?" she asks. "What is the meaning of the human profile which seems to smile down on us? What is the symbolic significance of the three women, with realistically carved sexual parts, beside a sitting bison? Do they represent life and death?"
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