Around 17,000 years ago some of our ancestors almost certainly used an
improvised task light while they created the earliest known art. Lamps
that burned fat have been dated to a past many times more distant
than the building of Stonehenge, when the long-vanished Cro-Magnon
painted and engraved the ‘Sistine Chapel of the Paleolithic era’ at Lascaux
in the Vézère Valley of central France.
Three types of lamp have been found in the cave complex, discovered
in 1940: a simple, concave limestone slab described as open-circuit; a
closed-circuit lamp, with a groove carved into it to allow the fat to run
off, and a carved and decorated open-circuit style of portable lamp with
a handle. All three were fuelled with deer fat and used wicks made of
lichen, moss, grass or juniper.
Some 70 lamps were found in the Lascaux caves, many by the Abbé
André Glory who unearthed the beautifully worked, racquet-shaped lamp
known as Le Brûloir de Lascaux, in 1960. It was made of red sandstone
and measures 224mm long, with a 47mmm handle and a shallow, oval
‘cup’ 17mm deep. ‘ The lamp is finely polished and symmetrical,’ he wrote.
‘ The upper surface of the handle is decorated with two abstract signs of
chevrons fitted into each other, such as are found painted or engraved in
various parts of the cave.’
The 250m Lascaux network comprises the Great Hall of the Bulls, the
Lateral Passage, the Shaft of the Dead Man, the Chamber of Engravings,
the Painted Gallery and the Chamber of Felines. They contain nearly
2000 figures, mostly of animals, but also of hominids and some abstract
signs, mainly painted but sometimes incised. Most of the images were
created using red, yellow and black mineral pigments such as ochre, and,
occasionally, charcoal, in a suspension of animal fat or clay. They were
applied by swabbing or were blown through some sort of tube. The cave
ceiling would have been 3m high in places making it necessary to use
ladders or scaffolding. Techniques, such as the use of perspective, are
thought to have been discovered, lost and rediscovered many times over
centuries or millennia.
The flickering of lamps on ledges and floors, coupled with firelight, would
have animated the cave paintings, making the first ‘movies’ but they
would only have been visible in detail from short range.
Daylight would have penetrated the cave system’s narrow entrance by
no more than a few metres except, arguably, for a few days around the
winter equinox, until the cave entrance suffered a landslide. There is
evidence that torches were also used to help cave dwellers navigate;
fire would have produced some ambient light and calcined organic
Art of darkness
Lascaux 4, a museum complex by Norwegian architect Snøhetta, includes a new facsimile of the prehistoric cave wall paintings.
Rémy Cimadevilla, Anthony Perrot and Eva Corugedo of French lighting consultant 8’ 18” – Concepteur et Plasticiens Lumière outline
their solution to the challenge of both showing cave art in detail and replicating the darkness in which it was created