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.

News
news

Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'

News
people

Britain First criticised for using actress's memory to draw attention to their 'hate-filled home page'

Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge
arts + entsJK Rowling to publish new story set in wizard's world for Halloween
News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
people

Thought you'd seen it all after the Jeremy Paxman interview?

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch
tv

Greatest mystery about the hit BBC1 show is how it continues to be made at all, writes Grace Dent

News
Queen Elizabeth II sends the first royal tweet under her own name to declare the opening of the new Information Age Galleries at the Science Museum, South Kensington, London
people
Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into conflicts
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'
film

"History is violent," says the US Army tank commander Don "Wardaddy" Collier

News
The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, at the Academy Awards in 2014
peopleGuitarist faces protests over plan to build mansions in Malibu
News
news
News
peopleFox presenter gives her less than favourable view of women in politics
News
George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin married in Venice yesterday
peopleAmal and George Clooney 'planning third celebration in England'
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley at the premiere of Laggie at Toronto Film Festival 2014
theatreActress 'to make Broadway debut'
Property
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
property
Sport
Erik Lamela celebrates his goal
football

Argentinian scored 'rabona' wonder goal for Tottenham in Europa League – see it here

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

Business Focused Business Analyst - Finance and Procurement System Implementation

£350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Reading are...

Commercial Property Solicitor - Bristol

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: A VERY HIGH QUALITY FIRM - A high q...

Head of ad sales international - Broadcast

competitive + bonus + benefits: Sauce Recruitment: Are you the king or Queen o...

Note Taker - Scribe

£10 per hour: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you an experienced note taker...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker