'Six months to save Lascaux'

Unesco, the world cultural body, has threatened to humiliate France by placing the Lascaux caves – known as the "Sistine Chapel of prehistory" – on its list of endangered sites of universal importance.

The Unesco world heritage committee, meeting this week in Quebec, has given the French government six months to report on the success of its efforts to save the Lascaux cave paintings in Dordogne from an ugly, and potentially destructive, invasion of grey and black fungi.

At the same time, a scientific committee appointed by the French government has conceded that an elaborate treatment with a new fungicide in January failed to stop the mould advancing through one part of the caves.

An independent pressure group of scientists and historians claims that up to half of the startlingly beautiful, 17,000-year-old images of bison, horses, wild cattle and ibex are now threatened by the fungal invasion – the second of its kind in eight years.

The heritage committee warned France this week that it will consider placing Lascaux on its list of imperilled cultural and natural sites of global significance unless progress is made by next February. The committee requested France to open Lascaux – closed to the public since 1963 – to a visit by independent experts. It also advised France to commission an "impact study" of all past, and possible future, actions in the caves since the first fungal invasion in 2001-02.

There are already 31 sites on the Unesco "List of World Heritage in Danger", including such treasures as the ancient Buddha statues of the Bamiyan valley in Afghanistan, partly destroyed by the Taliban. Only one of the existing, officially threatened sites is in western Europe – the architectural heritage of the Dresden-Elbe valley in eastern Germany, site of a planned motorway. A decision by the Unesco committee to list Lascaux as "endangered" would, therefore, be a severe embarrassment to France. Unesco would, in effect, be telling Paris that it can no longer be trusted to manage one of the world's most important historical and cultural treasures.

Officials from the French government's department of historic monuments and experts from all over the world have been quarrelling for years over the best way to preserve the Lascaux paintings. Some experts have accused the French authorities of a series of blunders, including a change in the air-conditioning system in 2000, the use of high-powered lights in the caves and allowing too many "special" visits.

An independent body, the International Committee for the Protection of Lascaux, infuriated Paris by asking Unesco to intervene last September. Laurence Léauté-Beasley, president of the committee, was jubilant yesterday. "The requirements placed upon France [by Unesco] are significant and strong," she said. "France will now have to answer to the world community for actions they have taken in the past and will take in the future. Lascaux's management must now operate in a spirit of transparency."

The French authorities initially denied that the Lascaux paintings themselves had been attacked by the second fungal invasion. They later admitted to some blotching on the paintings but no lasting damage. The independent protection committee, citing information from experts who have visited the caves, insist that some of the images have been irreparably blurred or that their colours have faded.

Mme Léauté-Beasley said: "Upwards of 50 per cent of the caves' ... art is disappearing under an incursion of black spots, some as large as human hands, triggered by the use of high intensity lights and excess human presence inside the cave."

On Thursday night, the French authorities admitted a setback. A treatment with fungicide in January appeared to have been successful at first but the black and grey blotches are now spreading once again across one part of the paintings, according to an official statement.

A committee of international experts, appointed by Paris after the first fungal attack in 2001, announced that the new treatment had been "very satisfactory" in one part of the caves, known as the "room of the bulls". The spread of fungal blotches had resumed, however, in the "right-hand part of the caverns".

Marie-Anne Sire, the head curator of Lascaux, told the French news agency AFP that the news was disappointing but progress was being made. Studies had revealed that the air which used to circulate in the caves had become immobile. This might explain the fungal outbreaks – and to offer a possible solution, she said.

The paintings were discovered by chance in September 1940. The 600 images of aurochs, wild horses, bison and ibexes are regarded as among the finest cave paintings in the world.

Visions of the past

The Lascaux paintings are in a cave on the left bank of the river Vézère, a tributary of the Dordogne. They include depictions of ibexes facing off, and a "unicorn" chasing a herd of horses. It is thought that they were painted between 15,000 and 17,000 years ago by hunter-gathering people who crushed minerals to create red, ochre, brown and black paints.

The paintings were discovered accidentally by four teenagers in September 1940. After a visit to the caves, the Cubist artist Pablo Picasso declared: "We have invented nothing." The caverns were closed to the public in 1963 to protect them from just the kind of fungal infections that have appeared over the past eight years. In 1983, a complete life-sized facsimile of the caves and paintings – Lascaux Two – was opened nearby for visitors.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Starting the day with a three-egg omelette could make people more charitable, according to new research
science
News
Top Gun actor Val Kilmer lost his small claims court battle in Van Nuys with the landlord of his Malibu mansion to get back his deposit after wallpapering over the kitchen cabinets
people
News
Comedian Ted Robbins collapsed on stage during a performance of Phoenix Nights Live at Manchester Arena (Rex)
people
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
newsPatrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
News
Robert Fraser, aka Groovy Bob
peopleA new show honours Robert Fraser, one of the era's forgotten players
Life and Style
Torsten Sherwood's Noook is a simple construction toy for creating mini-architecture
tech
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
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

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links