Prehistoric 'Sistine Chapel' under threat from fungus

A pernicious white fungus has spread "like snow" in the caves of Lascaux in France where the fabulous rock art has been described as the "Sistine Chapel of prehistory".

The fungus is believed to have been introduced after contractors began to install a new air conditioning system that was meant to preserve the precious 17,000-year-old cave paintings from the heat and humidity generated by their many visitors.

The historical importance of Lascaux is immeasurable and any damage to its art would have serious repercussions given the cave's status as an evolutionary icon for the development of human art and consciousness.

The figures are so modernist in design that when Picasso emerged from the cave soon after it was first discovered in 1940 he exclaimed: "We have invented nothing."

Some experts who have seen the damage claimed that the French authorities had deliberately played down the scale of the problem because of their embarrassment at allowing it to happen to a World Heritage Site.

At one time, the fungus covered the floors of the entire cave system near Perigueux in the Dordogne in central France, although the curator of Lascaux insisted yesterday that the infestation had now been brought under control.

"The fungus appeared very suddenly. All the floor was covered as if in snow, but only the floor, not the paintings on the walls," said Dr Jean-Michel Geneste, director of the French government's National Centre for Prehistory. "We think that now there is no risk to the paintings. A few years ago we thought there would be a risk to them because of this fungus."

However, other visitors to the caves are not convinced that the fight against the fungus, which first appeared in 2001 just months after a new air-conditioning system was installed, has been won.

"They tell us the cave's condition is stable. But that's what they say about Ariel Sharon," said one anonymous expert quoted in a special report by Time magazine.

The magazine also claims that French officials last month admitted for the first time that the fungus had spread from the floor to the wall paintings.

One photograph published by Time shows the fungus apparently attacking a prehistoric horse painted on one of the walls of the cave's main gallery.

Teams of scientists are working in shifts to carefully remove visible filaments of the fungus - a species identified as Fusarium solani - by meticulously plucking them from the wall of the cave by hand, the magazine says.

"One knowledgeable visitor to the cave last month not only saw Fusarium on the paintings, but noticed a greyish tinge to formerly black surfaces where growths had been removed," the magazine says.

The archaeologist Paul Bahn, an expert on cave art, said: "This is extremely worrying. If the fungus is reaching the paintings, it's potentially catastrophic."

But Dr Geneste denied that there had been any damage to the painted figures of prehistoric bulls, horses and reindeer which are depicted running across the cave's walls and ceilings.

"The paintings are really fresh. There is no damage to the paintings, although there was a danger if the fungus was allowed to develop over many years," Dr Geneste said yesterday.

The fungus first appeared in 2001 and its sudden growth coincided with work to install a new active method of conditioning the internal atmosphere of the cave using fans to draw air through the underground cavern.

To accommodate the machinery, the contractors removed a roof over the entrance but a torrential downpour caused rainwater and mud to be washed into the cave, possibly introducing fungal spores in the process.

"The construction site was run like someone redoing a bathroom. The entrance to the cave was like a swamp and there was construction waste all over the place. It was like an apocalyptic vision," Rosalie Godin, a local art restorer, told Time.

Eventually the fans were taken out and the cave's curators were faced with the difficult job of trying to fight the fungus with antibiotic chemicals applied to the walls and quicklime spread on the floor, neither of which proved a success.

In the end Dr Geneste said that the best method turned out to be the mechanical removal of fungal filaments by hand, with the help of a special vacuum cleaner.

The device directs a high-pressure spray at the fungus which is then immediately sucked into sealed bottles that are removed from the cave.

After the cave was discovered, many thousands of visitors came to see its paintings each day but the increase in temperature and humidity took its toll, leading to the cave's first closure in 1962.

In 1983 a facsimile cave, known as "Lascaux 2", opened nearby to accommodate the public. Meanwhile, scientists and scholars studying the original cave were limited to five a day, five times a week.

However, the complete closure of Lascaux to all outsiders has led some cave experts to criticise the apparent secrecy over the type of conservation work being carried out inside the cavern.

Dr Geneste said that he had asked for an independent report on the conservation work to be published to dispel accusations of a cover-up. "I'm asking for the authorities to put it on the internet, even though it was meant to be confidential," he said.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to vitriol, no one on attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
News
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
News
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
television
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
art
Sport
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
football
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
fashion
News
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
news
Sport
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

£65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable