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The Art of Creating Replicas of Ice Age Cave Paintings

The idea that art is an expression valued for originality is put to the test with the study and replication of caves painted during the Pleistocene.

View inside Caverne Pont d’Arc, overview of a replica of the Rhinoceros painting from the Chauvet cave (image via Wikimedia Commons)

On April 2, 2018, The Art Newspaper reported that a “historic” legal compromise had recently been reached – one that guaranteed the three discoverers of the famous Paleolithic Chauvet Cave in southern France a cash settlement as well as a percentage of tourist-charged admission. Discovered in 1994 by speleologists Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel-Deschamps, and Christian Hillaire, Chauvet Cave is easily one of the Pleistocene’s most iconic and important archaeological sites, an incredible repository of Upper Paleolithic painted art. The French government had already paid the Chauvet Cave discoverers $168,000 (roughly €137,000) apiece as a reward for their discovery, but this recent financial wrangling wasn’t about the real Chauvet Cave. This year’s payment was not about their discovery, but, rather, it was about the cave’s replica.

Chauvet Cave, itself, is about 500 meters long and littered with archaeological and paleontological remains. It’s best known, however, for its art. Chauvet’s walls are painted with animal and human images over two distinct periods, separated by roughly five thousand years – the first from 30,000-32,000 BP and the second between 26,000-27,000 BP. Lions, mammoths, rhinoceroses, and cave bears make up the majority of painted animals, in addition to a plethora of other animals. Some panels feature red dots and the stenciled outline of handprints.

“The realism of some of the Chauvet art makes us feel like we have something in common with the makers of the art,” Paleolithic archaeologist Natasha Reynolds told Hyperallergic. “We start thinking of them as artists and as real people – we can project all sorts of abilities, motives, and social lives onto them. This influences archaeologists as much as non-archaeologists.”

Entrance to the famed Lascaux cave, in Dordogne, South-Western France, that contains Upper Paleolithic paintings that are now off-limits to the public (image by Ethan Doyle White, via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44477290)

Immediately after its discovery, the French government installed a four-foot-high steel door to block the limestone opening and barred anyone except scientists, researchers, and monitors from entering the cave — even so, experts only enter in very specific circumstances. (The door guards the modern entrance to the cave. The entrance used by the Paleolithic artists is now blocked by scree.) Concerns about limiting access in order to preserve Chauvet Cave’s paintings are well-founded based on the destruction of the Paleolithic art in Lascaux Cave a half-century prior.

Discovered in 1940, Lascaux was opened to the public in 1948. It has thousands of images of human figures, animals, and abstract symbols that wend their way along the cave walls, dating to 17,000 BP. (After visiting Lascaux, Pablo Picasso is rumored to have said, “We have learned nothing in twelve-thousand years.”) Lascaux, closed in 1963 in an effort to combat the mold, fungus, and lichens that had begun to grow on the walls as visitors — sometimes 1,000 per day — exhaled carbon dioxide onto the cave paintings, creating the ideal environmental conditions for the art’s destruction, biological growths that continue to plague the cave today. In 1983, a smaller-scale copy of Lascaux became a Paleolithic replica that could serve as a tourist and educational stand-in for a famous, original archaeological site. Today, there are two replicas of the site.

Unlike other types of art, the very act of observing Lascaux’s cave paintings destroyed them. Could Chauvet offer a different sort of story? Opening Chauvet to visitors was simply out of the question because it would destroy the cave’s art. “One absolute requirement is to make sure that the cave, its walls, climate and floors are preserved,” Paleolithic archaeologist Jean Clottes explains in the book, Return to Chauvet Cave. “We must leave our successors an intact cave in which all kinds of researches are still possible.”

Entrance to Caverne du Pont d’Arc, a copy of the Chauvet Cave (image by Varaine, via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51261757)

The idea of building a reproduction of the site quickly caught on and in 2007 the local Ardèche departmental government began to partner with public and private funders to construct a €55 million replica. Between 2013-2015, five hundred artists, engineers, architects, and special-effects designers built another Chauvet based on 3D models created from 700 hours of laser scanning the original cave. (The second replica of Lascaux incorporated 3D scanning technology as well as 3D printing.) The air inside the replica is cool and moist and the temperature sits around 11°C to offer a comparable environment to Chauvet. “It feels, and even smells, like a journey into a deep hole in the earth,” Joshua Hammer reports in Smithsonian Magazine. It opened to the public in 2015 and was called Caverne du Pont d’Arc.

Pillar of stalactites near Pont d’Arc cave entrance, copy of the Chauvet Cave (image by Claude Valette, own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47569412)

Replicas, reproductions, simulacrum, and copies have a reputation as being nothing more than inauthentic knock-offs. The art critic Jonathan Jones says as much in his Guardian review of Caverne du Pont-d’Arc. “No art lover wants to see a replica Rembrandt, a fake Freud, or a simulacra of Seurat,” he sniffed. “Why then is it considered perfectly reasonable to offer fake Ice Age art as a cultural attraction?” While acknowledging, yes, viewing Paleolithic art could damage the cave panels, Jones simultaneously refuses to see Caverne du Pont-d’Arc as anything but a faux Chauvet. The replica, Jones argued, did nothing to really connect the viewer with the original art. (Jones generously allows, however, that Werner Herzog’s “beautiful film” Cave of Forgotten Dreams could be an acceptable alternative to experiencing the authenticity of Chauvet.) But this assessment of archaeological replicas assumes that the only point of a replica is to inelegantly mimic the original work of art. It also assumes that the “art” of the replica can’t, itself, evolve and change.

Red points expressed using hematite pigments in the Pont d’Arc cave, a copy of the Chauvet Cave (image by Claude Valette, via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47584258)

Both of these claims are disingenuous to the cultural cachet that replicas are beginning to accrue. It’s clear that the sensory experience of Paleolithic art underscores the aesthetic and engineering decisions about Caverne du Pont-d’Arc even more so than that of Lascaux – that it’s trying to recreate as much of the original cave as possible. A replica of Altamira Cave in Spain, a Paleolithic site like Lascaux and Chauvet, has had good tourism success, despite battling many of the same concerns about replicas and authenticity that front Chauvet and Lascaux. There are a plethora of other replicas of smaller, less iconic caves scattered across France and Spain, like Tito Bustillo Cave, that use replicas as a bridge between parts of the cave that are open to visitors and parts that would be too environmentally sensitive to view. And beyond Paleolithic caves, sites like Tutankhamen’s tomb have introduced replicas to reduce the wear and tear on original sites.

“There’s something very deeply set, I think, in humans that makes us seek out the authentic, that direct physical connection to past people,” Reynolds offers. “But there’s plenty of genuine worth to the replicas. If you can suspend your disbelief, you can gain a lot of understanding from them that you can’t get in any other way.”

Dismissing replicas completely assumes that all art and artifacts can and ought to be viewed the same way, regardless of their material and context – it presumes that one should look at a panel of lions at Chauvet cave the same way that one looks at the Mona Lisa. But this simply isn’t the case. “With Paleolithic cave paintings, the art is fundamentally, physically part of the gallery,” Paleolithic archaeologist Aitor Ruiz-Redondo explained to Hyperallergic, “we can’t just create an environment to put around it to preserve it. This art, unlike Paleolithic artifacts that are portable, is in its own environment.”

An overview of a horse panel at Caverne Pont d’Arc, a copy of the Chauvet Cave (image by Claude Valette, via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47584264)

When Jonathan Jones recounts his adolescent disappointment at Lascaux’s replica, he suggests that deception is forever at the essence of a replica. (“What a farce, to promise cave art and deliver only a simulation.”) But such an argument assumes that replicas, themselves, are static things, forever stuck with a mindset that they can only ever be poor approximations. “Rather than thinking of replicas as knock-offs,” philosopher Erich Hatala Matthes proposes, “we could conceive of them as akin to maps or models. They offer us a vantage point that is often otherwise unavailable.” Caverne du Pont-d’Arc is generations removed from the Lascaux and Altamira replicas, showing that the art and engineering of copies is quietly and successfully claiming artistic space of its own. (And even the second replica of Lascaux has technologically and artistically evolved from the first.) To that end, Caverne du Pont-d’Arc is more than just a replica of Chauvet – it is Caverne du Pont-d’Arc. It offers something the original can’t — the opportunity to see and experience an aspect of Paleolithic art from a cave that is now closed to the public.

Entrance plaque to Caverne du Pont d’Arc, a copy of the Chauvet Cave (image by Benoît Prieur, via Wikimedia Commons)

What Chauvet Cave does have is its singular history — it is the thing and the place that is connected to the passing of time. And it’s this historical connection that the discoverers of the original Chauvet are receiving financial and legal compensation for, as reported earlier this year. In order to fold the story of discovery of Chauvet into the origin story of Caverne du Pont-d’Arc, “the association of the Caverne du Pont-d’Arc will now pay the three speleologists €50,000 for the image rights and the Chauvet name,” The Art Newspaper described, “and they will receive 1.7% of the admission fees to the replica cave.” To date, Caverne du Pont-d’Arc has had over a million visitors. Awarding financial compensation and image rights to Chauvet’s the researchers who are and have been extremely invested in the region’s paleo-heritage, for the creation and use of Caverne du Pont-d’Arc, is a new step in the world of archaeological replicas, pointing, in part, to the replicas’ own cultural evolution.

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