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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
video
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Extras
indybest
News
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
education
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
sport
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sport
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Sport
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform