Already in 2003 the World Heritage Centre contacted the State Party following concerns expressed by individuals and specialized press on the state of conservation of the Lascaux cave, part of the World Heritage property. The authorities provided a detailed state of conservation report on 10 April 2003 which was reviewed by ICOMOS at the time.
Repeated concerns have been expressed during 2007 and 2008 by many individuals, NGOs and the International Committee for the Preservation of Lascaux over the state of conservation of the cave paintings of Lascaux, in particular the dramatic outbreaks of mould spores on the surface of the paintings resulting from bio-climatic imbalance in the cave, the scope and extent of which had reached a crisis point in 2001 and again in 2007. Articles in the press have graphically described the symptoms.
The property includes 147 Palaeolithic sites and 25 decorated caves in the Vézère Valley. The Lascaux cave is of great importance for the history of prehistoric art. The hunting scenes show some 100 animal figures, which are remarkable for their detail, rich colours and lifelike quality. After its discovery in 1940, the cave was protected under legislation for historic monuments. The private owner of the cave undertook work to excavate considerable quantities of rock and sediment from the cave to facilitate public access, and in 1957 lighting and air extraction systems were introduced.
a) Conservation history
As early as 1960, changes in the micro-climate of the cave from the impact of visitors and the services that accompanied them were beginning to have a detrimental effect on the paintings. A few years later, algae started to proliferate and carbonate precipitations appeared on the surface of the paintings. In 1963, the Ministry of Culture created a Commission for scientific studies and protection of the Lascaux cave. For conservation reasons, the Ministry of Culture instructed the owner to close the cave to the general public apart from 5 people per day for visits of up to 35 minutes and the air-regulation system was removed. After ineffective applications of antibiotics, biological contamination was alleviated with the application of formol solutions. However this treatment left in the cave hundreds of kilos of organic matter produced by the formol, which could constitute an adequate trophic substrate for the growth of mushrooms.
Once the cave was closed to the public and the first system of air regulation had been withdrawn, equipment to measure temperature and humidity was introduced to allow a new air control system to be designed to compensate for the presence of visitors. This new system was installed between 1965 and 1967. The cave came into State ownership in 1972 and in 1983, the Ministry of Culture opened for public access a facsimile of 50 % of the original cave. The same limit of visitors was maintained. However lichens appeared in the cave in 1998 in addition to algae.
In 2000-2001, a third air regulation system was installed. According to published reports this did not respect convection currents. In addition according to these publications, sterilization was not carried out either for workmen’s clothing or for the spaces crossed by the workmen charged with the installation. Almost immediately after the installation of the system, Fusarium solani (“white spots”) colonized and quickly invaded the cave, affecting the paintings. The air system was stopped and, to control the invasion, between 2001 and 2002 measures were taken, including the applications of abundant amounts of fungicides and antibiotics, and cleaning of the surfaces, which some considered to be drastic. As the results were negative, the treatment was stopped. However, more than a ton and a half of quicklime had been dispersed on the ground which was transformed into “calcita” (lime carbonate), increasing the temperature of the cave. In November 2005, an outbreak of “black spots” (including Ulocladium sp) was observed in the Apse, on the ground and on the lower part of the walls. Black spots were discovered at the left side of cow’s horn, (Nave) and in the “stag antlers” in the Apse. One year later, these spots had much developed and covered the paintings and engravings.
Conservators are now fully aware that particular ecological and microclimatic conditions in caves allow the preservation of paintings and that it is imperative not to modify these conditions. It has been observed that adapting caves and tombs to public visiting can cause the appearance of moulds, algae, mushrooms and lichens, as interruptions to the microclimatic conditions lead to the proliferation of some bacteria present in the caves, at the expense of others.
What happened in Lascaux in 2001 is an extreme example of the problem. To begin to rectify the microclimate of the cave, it is necessary to know all its biological agents, cycles and metabolic activity. However it has to be acknowledged that the interventions since 1957 in terms of structural changes, infrastructure and public access have fundamentally altered the climatic conditions of the cave so that it is now impossible to envisage reconstituting the conditions present at the time of its discovery.
b) Remedial measures
In 2002, the French Ministry of Culture set up an International Scientific Committee for Lascaux to address the issues, and it took two years to develop a “Projet global pour l’équilibre sanitaire de la Grotte de Lascaux”. This Committee has begun studies to understand what had happened in the cave and to avoid its repetition.
Although the biocide and other treatments erased the most visible manifestation of the problem, the underlying general problem persists, as the fungi have developed resistance. Also the treatments and the mechanical cleaning will not have been able to eliminate totally the dead organic material in the cave.
For the identification of the micro organisms, a great advance has been to add DNA analyses to more traditional means. This has demonstrated that the microbial courtships are much more varied and ubiquitous than had been considered and respond to minor changes in conditions – through people, light, organic matter or to fluctuations in temperatures and humidity. It is thus essential to build up as accurate a model as possible showing how previous interventions in the cave impacted on its microclimate, and how the various bacteria or algae are transmitted, whether by air or water. This has been and is being considered by the International Scientific Committee for Lascaux. One crucial issue to be addressed is whether changing the air in the cave would help or hinder the transmission of bacterial spores, some of which are transmitted by water, such as Fusarium Solani (white spots), while others such as the newly detected mushroom, Ulocladium sp.(black spots), depends on transmission by air.
c) Meetings with the State Party and the International Committee for the Preservation of Lascaux(NGO)
In response to the concerns expressed by the International Committee for the Preservation of Lascaux (NGO), articles in the press and at the invitation by the State Party, the Director of the World Heritage Centre visited the cave in 2006.
The State Party provided a state of conservation report in February 2008 at the request of the World Heritage Centre. In response to further concerns, and in view of the impossibility of organising a normal joint World Heritage Centre/ICOMOS mission in spring 2008 as the cave was being rested for 3 months, the World Heritage Centre organised two meetings at UNESCO: the first on 29 April 2008 with representatives of the State Party and ICOMOS, and the second on 23 May 2008 with representatives of the International Committee for the Preservation of Lascaux, ICOMOS and a cave specialist from IUCN. The aim of both meetings was to explore the current state of knowledge of the problems, issues and challenges and whether a reactive monitoring mission was needed.
At the first meeting, the Delegation from the State Party was composed by eight representatives of different State Party authorities, administration and the scientific community (Ministry of Culture, President and members of the International Scientific Committee for Lascaux, Director of the Laboratoire de recherche des monuments historiques, the Regional Curator of Historic Monuments, and the administrator of the Lascaux Caves). The State Party acknowledged that further treatment may be needed for the black spots, stated that the replacement of the air regulation system was under consideration and confirmed that the cave is under permanent monitoring and that access is strictly restricted to those responsible for management and protection. ICOMOS considers that any decision relating to the air regulation system should be reviewed carefully and be based on evidence from macroclimatic recording over a complete cycle.
The State Party has agreed to develop better communications with the public and to encourage the scientific publication of research. Since 2006-2007, basic tools of communication have been put in place in the form of an internet site which supplements press releases from the Ministry of Culture.
Although not all members of the International Scientific Committee for Lascaux Cave (established by the French authorities) necessarily agree on how the evidence is to be interpreted, this is in the nature of scientific debate. The members of the International Scientific Committee are renewed regularly and the statutes of this body envisage its opening to other specialists where necessary. ICOMOS considers that it would be desirable to reinforce it with conservator-restorers and more prehistorians. The State Party indicated during the meeting that it has initiated a project of enhanced protection and “isolation for the hill of Lascaux” in order to ensure the environmental stability and move away activities which might attack the cave. The facsimile will be transferred elsewhere in the valley and supplemented with tourist infrastructures and an interpretation centre.
At the second meeting the International Committee for the Preservation of Lascaux (ICPL) was represented by five people (including scientists previously involved in the preservation of the property and the President of ICPL). They expressed their concern about the state of conservation of the cave and the scientific approach adopted. The main concern expressed in addition to the black and white spots proliferation in the “nave” and the “passage” was also the decolourization treatment being used in the cave today. They noted that this process removed layers of the cave’s wall permanently and irrevocably altering the World Heritage property. They put forward the view that overall the state of conservation is of sufficient concern to allow the property to be considered for the List of World Heritage in Danger.
The conservation of the Lascaux cave and the paintings within it is a complex issue arising over time and one that must be the subject of continuous monitoring and follow-up. Since 2006, following requests from the World Heritage Centre, the State Party has provided detailed information.
The State Party should be encouraged to support the work of the International Scientific Committee for Lascaux Cave and to reinforce it by the appointment of conservator-restorers and prehistorians, to continue to limit the number of people who enter the cave, to conclude the project of preservation and isolation of the hill, and to continue its communication efforts and publication of scientific research.
One of the purposes of the two meetings with the World Heritage Centre and the Advisory Bodies was to decide if a mission to the property is essential; the conclusion is affirmative. This mission should consider the overall state of conservation of the Lascaux cave and the wider property.