A SPLASH OF COLOUR IN THE DARK
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
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
HAPPY TIMES DOWN IN THEIR CAVE
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?
TIME TO GROW UP, TIME TO PART
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 BARBARITIES OF MODERN TIMES
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
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
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.
THIERRY FELIX’S CRUSADE
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.
A SPLASH OF COLOUR - 50 YEARS ON
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”.
QUICK! A 7Oth ANNIVERSARY, BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE.
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”
AS BEAUTIFUL AS BEFORE
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: www.pole-prehistoire.com
An anthology of once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
* 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: