From Stone Age to High Tech

The Lascaux cave, with its 17,000-year-old paintings is a World Heritage Site, but the sheer number of visitors has taken its toll. To preserve the original paintings for future generations, the French company AFSP has produced detailed replicas of the cave walls using ELASTOSIL® M silicone rubber from WACKER.

A view inside the copy of the Lascaux cave: modern reproduction techniques create new ways of exhibiting cultural heritage.

These art works date back around 17,000 years, having survived the end of the last Ice Age, the Bronze Age, and the Greco-Roman era. It was only in the Modern Age - 1940 to be specific - that the Stone Age paintings of Lascaux were rediscovered. The cave complex is situated in southwest France, about 150 kilometers north of Toulouse, in the commune of Montignac. Concealed in the rock are some 2,000 wall paintings, covering several hundred square meters, chiefly showing animals. The skillful rendition of bulls, reindeer and horses soon became known as the “Stone Age Sistine Chapel.”

“ELASTOSIL® allows every detail of the polystyrene master mold to be transferred to the imitation stone panels.”

Hans-Rudolf Pfeffer head of Technical Marketing, Industrial Solutions
Specialists from AFSP correct the final reproduction of a cave panel using a coarse-grained stone paste.

This cultural jewel, which had endured for millennia since prehistoric times,now found itself threatened by hordes of visitors streaming through after the Lascaux cave was opened to the public in 1948. Particularly the moisture exhaled by the many visitors – up to 1,200 per day – affected the highly sensitive cave climate. The delicate biological equilibrium was thrown out of kilter – a veil of algae, mineral deposits and microorganisms began to spread over the wall paintings (see box). Consequently, in 1963 – after only 15 years – the cave complex was closed to visitors again, and an elaborate ventilation system was installed. But pressure remained high to make the Stone Age masterpieces accessible to the public once again.

Detailed Copy

The elastic silicone mold is released from the final reproduction by members of the international AFSP team.

Eventually, the French state opted to have a copy made of the entire cave complex. The detailed replicas with an area of about 900 square meters are housed in a modern exhibition at the foot of the Lascaux hills. At the 6,000-square-meter International Center for Cave Painting in Montignac-Lascaux, visitors can experience all the original cave paintings. Formally opened in December 2016 by President François Hollande, this permanent exhibition is known as Lascaux 4. It is the third replica of the original cave of Lascaux 1, which was closed to the public in 1963. UNESCO has since declared this and other caves in the Vézère valley a World HeritageSite.