'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
VIDEO
Life & Style
Father and son: Michael Williams with son Edmund
lifeAs his son’s bar mitzvah approaches, CofE-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys he’s experienced in learning about his family’s other faith
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
musicJethro Tull frontman leads ‘prog rock’ revival
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
comedy... writes Jenny Collier, the comedian whose recent show was cancelled because there were 'too many women' on the bill
News
House proud: keeping up with the Joneses now extends to children's playhouses
newsLuxury playhouses now on the market for as much as £800
News
news
Life & Style
Stir it up: the writer gets a lichen masterclass from executive chef Vivek Singh of the Cinnamon restaurants
food + drinkLichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines
Extras
indybest
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival
filmKen Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
News
The academic, Annamaria Testa, has set out on her website a list of 300 English words that she says Italians ought to stop using
newsAcademic speaks out against 'Italianglo' - the use of English words in Italian language
Life & Style
tech
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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers