Monday, September 12, 2011

Lascaux, Staffordshire, and the Serendipity of History

Heather Cox Richardson

On September 12, 1940, a dog named Robot ran away in southwestern France. Robot’s owner, the teenaged Marcel Ravidat, along with three of his buddies—Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel, and Simon Coencas—set out to find him. They found not only the straying dog, but also 900 other animals, all painted on the walls and ceilings of a complex of caves near the village of Montignac.

These dramatic paintings of more than 2000 images in total—including abstract figures, animals, and one human figure—make up the Lascaux cave paintings. They are estimated to be more than 17,000 years old. They are the world’s most famous collection of Paleolithic art.

Extensive tourism to the site changed the environment of the caves and encouraged the growth of fungus and mold, forcing authorities to close the caves to protect them. But anyone interested can take an on-line tour of the caves at: One can only imagine the awe, and perhaps the growing fear, of the boys as they saw the giant horses, ibexes, and bison from thousands of years before thundering across the ceilings of the caves.

The serendipity of the discovery of the Lascaux caves reminds me of the 2009 discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found. In that case, Terry Herbert decided to try out his metal detector in a farm field close to his home. When it started to beep, he turned up not old beer cans, but more than 3,500 items of gold and silver, inset with precious stones, made in the 6th to 8th centuries C.E.

The treasures of Lascaux can help us to understand the first expressions of human culture, and those of Staffordshire the culture of Anglo-Saxon artistry and warfare. For a historian, though, their discovery also represents the extraordinary excitement of discovering something new and unexpected in the world around us.


Alberti's Window said...

Great post! Serendipity and circumstance follow the discovery of other cave paintings, too. The first prehistoric cave paintings ever to be discovered were found in 1879 by a young girl, Maria de Sautuola. Maria was visiting Altamira cave with her father, an amateur archaeologist, when she noticed the paintings. For over a decade, the scientific community thought that these cave paintings were a hoax. It wasn't until 1902, after other cave paintings had been found, that the Altamira paintings were considered to be authentic.

Anonymous said...

You ask what's in my back garden. Eleven years ago I moved into my house which is on the site of an abbey's mill--one of two buildings (the abbey being the other) located in my town which are named in the Domesday Book. With the consequence that over the years, as we've (and previous owners) have dug in the garden, we've come across rather large sandstone and granite blocks. Very difficult to dig up and out, I can tell you. Some of these are carvings which didn't turn out; others are just large. But one thing I can tell you--builders 1000 years ago were exactly the same as builders today--they all throw their offcuts and rubbish in the back garden. Which I find oddly comforting.