France is known for its art, both relatively modern and pre-historic. Most everyone has heard of Lascaux, where in 1940 a group of boys and their dog discovered a treasure trove of Cro-Magnon art on the walls of a cave system long untouched. The images of prehistoric animals were huge, and the colors still vibrant after 17,000 years. It became an international sensation and a window into the distant past to a people whose sense of perspective and artistic beauty was far greater than as “cave men” they had been given credit for. Over time, well over 300 cave art sites have been found in France and Spain, their art ranging from simple geometric forms and hand-prints to very skilled renderings of animals. Lascaux cave was open to the public for 15 years before it became apparent that the body heat and mere breath of visitors was causing chemical reactions with the pigments of the drawings. In addition, spores carried in on visitors’ shoes were introducing damaging life forms to the cave. It has been closed since 1963, but fungal infections began to appear on some of the artwork in the early 2000s.
The world of cave art expanded enormously with the discovery in 1994 of Grotte Chauvet-Pont d’Arc, or the Chauvet Cave. Located in the Ardeche region of southern France, the cave was closed by a rockslide 20,000 years ago, sealing in artwork believed to date back 36,000 years. The age as well as the perfection of preservation has put Chauvet amongst the finest examples of cave art in France, or anywhere. In order for this priceless rarity to be saved for the future and to avoid the fate of Lascaux, the cave has never been opened to the public. However, the French have created the next best thing—a exact duplicate. Slated to open this spring, the re-creation is accurate down to the finest detail thanks to 3D digital imaging. A facsimile of the Lascaux cave also exists, but at 8,500 square meters the Chauvet replica is ten times the size of Lascaux’s. The popularity of the Lascaux copy leads operators to think the one of Chauvet will draw 300-400,000 people per year. In construction for two and a half years, it will feature cave-appropriate humidity, temperatures, and acoustics. Lighting will also be arrayed to evoke the feeling of actually being underground. It’s not quite the same thing as being there, but it will prevent the loss of a worldwide treasure.