Spelunking Online

About ten years ago, I brought my sons to Howe Caverns so that they could experience the caves.  Ever since I was a child, myself, I’d wanted to go there, to see the minerals and formations and just feel that prehistoric sense caves create the moment we enter them.

Big mistake, then, to visit Howe Caverns for the experience: they have lined the entire site with electric *colored* lights that obliterate the beautiful, subtle colors of the various minerals and rocks and create a wholly modern environment, miles below the surface of the planet.  Only in the photographs we took were the real colors visible, when the flash washed-out the artificial lights.  We used a cheap mayfly camera, but even then, the quality of the photos far surpassed what we saw with our own eyes.

So, I worried about the Lascoux Cave “virtual visit” when I first clicked on this site.  I’ve known of these caves all my life, and my father — a devoted rock hound and amateur geologist — shared with me his love for ancient mysteries that might one day reveal themselves in caves.

In some ways, the “virtual visit” is as disappointing as I’d feared.  First and foremost, the photos are much too small for marveling.  There is no sense of perspective in these narrowed views, and with no frame of reference, it is impossible to imagine the position(s) the artists had to assume in order to create these paintings and engravings.  I’ve read where there was necessarily scaffolding created to reach some places, but how big were the final works in relation to the average size of a person back then?  I wanted some way to understand the scale of it all.

Most of all, there is a loss of experience in being removed by both the camera and the internet.  Though I understand our breath alone endangers these works of art, and thus we cannot visit them in person, I feel this means we will never fully appreciate them, either.

Here is what I envision:
The artists of that time lived in a dark world when the sun set.  They were afraid of predators, including other humanoids, and they lived hard lives with work that had to be accomplished during daylight hours if they were to survive the night, the next few days, or even the season — and for that, they needed some easy way to train up their young and get them past the fears, past the errors, and quickly into the flow of
survival.  One of the best ways to do this is to fill the idle hours with stories, songs, and art.

Those caves were lit by firelight, by torches carried and thus in motion with every turn and gesture.  The animals would not only feel huge, they would feel alive and in motion — a clever guide could make the animals move to fit the story, could guide the rapt listeners through the tales.  They would mix truth and fiction, history and fantasy, to weave a cautionary tale, but also one of hope.

Some of the side areas, especially the one with the squares of color, tell me they taught others to create these paintings.  There was a class on how to mix or match colors — they had to work with materials at hand, had to spend a portion of daylight finding the red clay or burning the charcoal or otherwise developing what they needed for the artwork.

Some of the engravings may have been learning tools for shape, size, or design. Some of the handprints may have been signatures, tests for color, or even graffiti from later visitors — kids who dared sneak in, unguided. Some of the engravings might also reflect new techniques being explored, or reflect a time when painting materials became unavailable, or the artists were away or lost forever.

The virtual tour was a good start on imagining life in the distant past, getting a glimpse of the souls of these people not so very different from those of us today who love an illustrated book or even a movie.

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