History on Display: Scenes from the Stone Age

I don’t get to Chicago’s Field Museum as often as I would like. I notice a special exhibition that looks interesting: Cleopatra, the royal courts of India, pirates. I look at how long it’s running and think, “Oh, I have plenty of time.” Then I put my head down and forget about it until it’s too late. When My Own True Love brought Scenes from the Stone Age: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux to my attention, I made sure we put it on the calendar.

I’m glad we went. The exhibit was fascinating in a deconstructionist, post-modern kind of way. But, quite frankly, it was kind of weird.

The first room had scale models of the cave system, with lines drawings of the paintings below each section. At first I couldn’t figure out what the models were. They reminded me of bones in the desert. Or teeth.

The second room discussed the construction of Lascaux II, a replica of the caves created by the French government. The technology involved was amazing. So was the scope of the project. The original caves were closed to tourists in 1963.* Lascaux II was designed to allow people to have a simulated experience of visiting the caves. It’s been an enormous success. Roughly five million people have visited the replica since it opened in 1983. Created over a period of eleven years by twenty artists using materials and techniques believed to be similar to those used by the original artists, Lascaux II is the Disneyland version of the caves, including mock-ups of prehistoric scenes and live examples of some of the animals depicted in the paintings.

Having seen the second room, the first room made more sense.

After that, the exhibit was more understandable. A review of different generations of archaeological work in the caves. A life-size mock-up of one section of the cave, created using the technology used for Lascaux II. A series of videos and hands-on displays discussing the paintings as both art and social constructs.**

Here were the things that struck me the most:

• The paintings are much larger than I pictured. It is absolutely clear that they weren’t the work of a single inspired artist working with a torch. These paintings required organization and resources. ***
• That said, we know little about the society that created them or what the paintings meant to them. We can (and have) catalogue the images, including the abstract signs that are interspersed with the more-well known animal images. We can determine what materials they used for paint. But we don’t know why or how or even when. ****
• “From the entrance to the innermost depths of the cave we see before our very eyes the great book of first mythologies, their very foundations themselves, with the creation of life as its central theme and through this the genesis of the world.” Prehistorian Norbert Aujoulat (1946-2011)

The exhibit will remain at the Field Museum through September 8. Its next stop will be Montreal. Despite the weirdness factor, Scenes from the Stone Age is worth seeing if it comes to a theater near you.


* The effect of thousands of tourists on the atmosphere of the caves caused damage to the paintings. One of the most dramatic interactive stations in the exhibit illustrates the immediate change in temperature and humidity caused by one person standing still.

** The oddest, and yet most intriguing, of these was a series of interviews with French scholars about the caves. The interviews were taped, not filmed. A video of each scholar was exhibited as the appropriate interview was being played. Not videos of them being interviewed; videos of them standing uncomfortably while English subtitles rolled under their pictures. The interviews themselves were very interesting, but it was distracting watching the interviewees squirm in front of the camera. Why? Why?

*** Forget the torches that appear in every recreation of a Cro Magnon settlement that you’ve ever seen. Apparently they had cool little stone grease lamps. This fact alone made the visit worthwhile as I far as I was concerned.

**** Archeologists estimate the paintings were done 20,000 years ago, give or take a couple of thousand years. But that is based on the age of artifacts found in the caves, not the paintings themselves. The paintings were done with mineral pigments with no organic matter so they can’t be tested with C14 methods (aka radiocarbon dating). Archeology is endlessly fascinating.

Image of the stone lamp courtesy of Shemur, via Wikimedia Commons.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.