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Finders honoured on 70th anniversary of their discovery

Lascaux Cave is well-known the world over, thanks to four boys who came up with a brilliant idea on 12 September, 1940. The barbarity of a tormented century later forced them apart and they went their different, dangerous ways. A generation on, it was Thierry Félix’s turn to fall under the spell at Lascaux. He decided to tell us just what happened before the fabulous find and relate the experiences of each of these men.
To do so, he reunited the friends in November 1986 and found his facts directly straight from the source. All the research culminated in the publication of a comic in 1990: “Le secret des bois de Lascaux” written in collaboration with the four finders and illustrated by Philippe Bigotto. It is more than a comic; it is the result of a systematic investigation – showing us the whole adventure and helping us to understand.
“Never let yourself forget” is Thierry Félix’s creed and so, as part of the 70th anniversary celebrations, he decided to organise a walk from Montignac to Lascaux with the two surviving finders: Simon Coencas and George Agniel, aged 84 and 86. At the end of this exceptional day the two men were rewarded: they were invited back into the original cave, their unforgettable childhood sweetheart – and their eyes sparkled, just like before.


On 12 September, 1940 four pals, two local boys and two young Parisians, made up their minds to explore a hole spotted four days before in Lascaux woods by the eldest of them, Marcel Ravidat, alias “le bagnard” (the convict), the nickname of the hero in Victor Hugo’s novel “Les Misérables”: Jean Valjean. 18 year old Marcel Ravidat lived in Montignac at the time, like 15 year old Jacques Marsal. George Agniel lived in Paris, except in summer when he spent his holidays at his grandmother’s in Montignac. As for the youngest of them, 14 year old Simon Coencas, a refugee of Jewish origin – during the war years he lived first in Salignac Eyvigues, then in Montignac.
They had begun to form some sort of an image in their minds of the fascinating hole up on the hill above the village: it had to be the way out from the legendary underground passage linking Lascaux and Montignac Castle. The latter was now of course in ruins, but it had once been the headquarters of the powerful Châtellenie de Montignac. Excitedly, they dug away for an hour or so, slithering on their stomachs down a narrow corridor littered with fallen rocks - and eventually tumbling into an amazing empty space. Their only form of lighting was an oil lamp filled with paraffin and a wick, which Marcel had rigged up in the garage where he worked, along with a “Lampe Pigeon”. There were more burns on their fingers than there was light in the cave. So, when they first went through The Great Hall of the Bulls they saw nothing at all!
Farther on, as they came into The Axial Gallery, the passageway narrowed down and the roof lit up. With the slightest bit of light the black changed into skilfully applied patches of colour. The stags, horses and a huge red bull with a black head followed the curves in the wall above their heads. One thing was for sure: they were not the first inside this place. They all realized that the experience was unique, almost too beautiful to be true. They promised each other not to reveal their discovery and managed to keep the treasure for themselves for three days. They did however let Simon’s young brother, Maurice, in on the secret that very same night.


Clutching their lunchboxes, three days running the five teenagers went off to explore “their secret cave” from top to bottom: The Great Hall of the Bulls, The Axial Gallery, The Apse, The Nave, The Chamber of the Felines and The Shaft (as the different painted areas were later to be named). Every nook and cranny was carefully scrutinised. They revelled in the knowledge that they were the first to unlock the secret. How long had these masterpieces been there, just waiting to be discovered?


They eventually talked to the former schoolteacher of their village, Léon Laval, an archaeology enthusiast. Monsieur Laval remained cautious and asked Georges Estréguil, a highly skilled draughtsman, to go and see what he thought. He was the person who first took an inventory of the cave. Another person just happened to be the right man in the right place: Maurice Thaon. Maurice Thaon had two things in his favour: he had been through the Ecole des Beaux Arts and his family was friends with Abbé Breuil. What’s more, he had just been posted in Montignac where he had rejoined his brother. Abbé Breuil was in Brive at that time, staying with Abbés Jean and Amédée Bouyssonie, both of them passionately interested in prehistory. Maurice Thaon asked Abbé Breuilh to explain his cave art survey techniques. Abbé Breuil provided him with all the necessary equipment and took him off to Combarelles, Font de Gaume and La Mouthe, three decorated caves in the region of Les Eyzies. While all this was going on news of the find at Lascaux was leaking out.
At the same time Abbé Breuil was having problems with his eyesight and had already decided to return to Southern Africa to pursue his studies of rock art and escape World War II. He visited Lascaux Cave on 22 September, 1940 and certified the authenticity of the prehistoric origins of the works there. The site survey was entrusted to Maurice Thaon - a fabulous start to his career!. His reports hit the newspaper and magazine headlines at home and abroad – in black and white in those early days. But for the young finders it meant goodbye to those intimate early days. They were no longer footloose and fancy-free. They were being snatched up by the outside world and all the misery of the 20th century.


The two Parisians, Simon Coencas and Georges Agniel, had to leave promptly for Paris. Marcel Ravidat and Jacques Marsal endeavoured to guard the cave as well as they could by setting up camp and showing the local people around. But then, for each of them, everything changed.
“At the beginning of 1941, after a reinforced door had been installed, Jacques and Marcel went back down to the village. The authorities attempted, with little success, to open up the cave to the public; the Occupation was making everyday life in certain parts of France more and more complicated.
In July 1942 Marcel signed up in the Chantiers de Jeunesse in the Pyrenees; one year later he joined the ranks of the first Resistance fighters in the Périgord.
Then Jacques was forced to leave the Périgord after the roundup made by the French police on Montignac Bridge. He was sent to a labour camp in a country annexed by the Reich.
Simon, after the tragic loss of his parents in a concentration camp, was rescued from Drancy by the French Red Cross. He managed to survive with family and friends, doing odd jobs here and there until France was liberated.
As for Georges, the demarcation line had stopped him from spending his summer holidays at his grandmother’s.
So, it was years before the foursome, who had been forced apart, were able to get back together…”

Four life stories meticulously related by no other than the author of the few lines above: Thierry Félix, the man who managed to reunite the foursome in November 1986 - and every 12 September from then on - to celebrate the anniversary of the fabulous find. A man totally fascinated by Lascaux since Jacques Marsal handed him the torch.


When Thierry Félix was a child, his heroes were the four finders of Lascaux. Let’s not forget that he was born in Montignac in 1964, one year after Lascaux was closed to the public by order of the Ministre des Affaires Culturelles, André Malraux, due to a proliferation of lichen caused by the excessive number of visits. At an early age he had the immense privilege of going down into the cave with Jacques Marsal as his guide. At that time very few visits were permitted: five visitors a day, five days a week.
Then, in 1983, the cave was closed for good. He realised just how fortunate he had been and turned over and over in his mind each image, each word pronounced by Jacques on that subterranean journey, 18,000 years into the past. He became a guide at Lascaux II, the facsimile of the cave which opened to the public in 1983. He studied prehistory and prepared a thesis on Lascaux Cave Art*. With the finders themselves he checked all the information he had gathered and in 1990 he published a comic telling the true story of the discovery of Lascaux: “Le secret des bois de Lascaux”, text: Thierry Félix, drawings: Philippe Bigotto, co-writers: Maurice Ravidat, Georges Agniel and Simon Coencas. Jacques Marsal had passed away in 1989.


Among the black and white drawings the frescoes at Lascaux gush forth in all their painted glory. It takes your breath away. The preface to the book was written by Yves Coppens and there is a wealth of rare historical documents, including the story of the discovery written by the man who led the expedition on 12 September, 1940: Marcel Ravidat. And thus, Félix and Bigotto started out on their adventure with the “Dolmen” publishers, making it a point of honour to share the profits from the sale of the book with the finders.
The book came out during the 50th anniversary celebrations of the discovery of Lascaux. Thierry Felix insisted that the finders should be treated like heroes. President Mitterand, who came to visit the real Lascaux Cave, went out of his way to congratulate the three remaining finders, but Thierry Félix felt even more could be done and he battled on with his “crusade”.


And so, with patience, he started to think up other ways of paying tribute to them: a rock positioned near the cave with their names engraved on it, a commemorative plaque in the palette of colours characteristic of Lascaux for each of them to keep as a souvenir, an exhibition retracing their individual paths and a walk from Montignac to the hill, behind 83 year old Simon Coencas and 86 year old Georges Agniel - in memory of Jacques Marsal and Marcel Ravidat who passed away in 1995.
At the same time, arrangements for Nicolas and Carla Sarkozy’s visit (for the 7Oth anniversary of the discovery of Lascaux) were taking shape. The presidential couple arrived in Montignac on the Sunday morning and spent time going round the original cave in the presence of the curator, Muriel Mauriac, Professor Yves Coppens and the Ministre de la Culture et de la Communication, Frédéric Mitterand. The dazzling experience left the President and his wife deeply moved. They then went on a walkabout in Montignac before entering the town hall to unveil a plaque commemorating their visit and exchange a few words with the finders. The tour continued with a visit to the Musée National de la Préhistoire where the presidential couple spoke to palaeontologists and prehistory experts. As their visit drew to a close, there was a speech advocating the protection and enhancement of our cultural heritage – in the auditorium of the brand new Centre d’Accueil du Pôle de la Préhistoire, inaugurated on 24 July, 2010 in Les Eyzies. When the helicopter left, taking the President of France to Brive, the festivities were already in full swing. It was time to go on “the finders’ walk”


Everyone was ready; the media and crowd were assembled and the finders themselves were over the moon! After the walk, in the presence of Bernard Cazeau, senator and president of the Conseil Général de la Dordogne, Georges and Simon stepped once more into the original cave, which only scientists are normally allowed to visit. What a delight to find it just as beautiful as before with colours as bright as they were on the very first day. The fungal infection was a thing of the past and the grey and black blemishes were starting to go. Professor Yves Coppens, president of the new conseil scientifique, has declared that Lascaux is sound and healthy:
“The paintings are in no way damaged, but of course we must remain vigilant…”

So, down in the tranquillity of their cave, the two men relived the wonderful surprise they had had 70 years before. And there was more to come: two days later, on Tuesday evening, 14 September, the Pôle International de la Préhistoire invited them to the preview of the film which showed parts of the conversation they had had in June with Thierry Félix and Serge Maury, archaeologist, under the Lascaux frescoes, reproduced at Le Thot Museum in Thonac. With their witty sense of humour they had revealed their very own secret Lascaux.
This film, co-produced by the Pôle International de la Préhistoire, the Centre National de la Préhistoire, DRAC Aquitaine and the Service Départemental de l’Archéologie, is part of the collection « Les grands témoins de la Préhistoire ». A series of interviews broadcast on the Pôle International de la Préhistoire website:
An anthology of once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Sophie Cattoire

* Thierry Félix is still doing research at Lascaux Cave; it is both his job and his passion. He is an educational advisor, initiating his students into the world of books. With his biculturalism, his teaching skills and his expert knowledge of prehistory he is indeed the obvious choice for studying the signs at Lascaux.

See also Norbert Aujolat’s photos and finds at Lascaux Cave:
Perpetual mating season at Lascaux Cave
Copyright (c) Ferrassie-TV 2010 - 26 septembre 2010 Photos | Sommaire