before it's in the papers"
August 03, 2010
TO THE WORLD SCIENCE HOME PAGE
Fungus attacks iconic cave paintings, magazine reports
and World Science staff
A U.S. magazine is reporting that a virulent white fungus that has been threatening the site of the world’s most famous cave paintings has begun reaching the artworks themselves.
The situation is gravely worrying experts, according to Time magazine, which published the report in its May 15 issue.
The 17,000-year-old paintings in the Lascaux cave in Southwestern France are among the first examples of art and symbols produced by humanity. The magnificent, realistic depictions of mammoth, bison, deer and horses are widely considered monuments to the development of human art and consciousness.
While naturalistic, the artworks also contain elements so modernistic that Pablo Picasso, upon exiting the cave in 1940 shortly after its discovery, is said to have remarked: “We have invented nothing.”
In 1992, through a series of bureaucratic decisions that couldn’t be traced to any one individual, Time recounted, French officials had a new air-conditioning system installed at Lascaux.
The system was meant to protect the artworks against deterioration, but many experts at the time warned against it. Now it is widely blamed for the outbreak of the fungus itself. The white mold, Fusarium solani, appeared in 2001 and began to spread across the cave floor.
“Last month French officials admitted to Time that the Fusarium solani fungus has on occasion spread from the floor to the paintings,” the magazine reported after gaining exclusive access to the site. The publication also reported that “separate fusarium strains have now been identified in the various arms of the 235-m cave complex.”
At the same time, according to the magazine, the cave’s keepers, including its curator Jean-Michel Geneste, claim they have brought the outbreak under control. This control involves a combination of chemical attacks against the fungus, and carefully picking filaments of the fungus off the walls by hand.
The cave is closed to almost all visitors except scientists.
The London-based Independent newspaper quoted archaeologist and cave-art expert Paul Bahn as saying: “This is extremely worrying. If the fungus is reaching the paintings, it’s potentially catastrophic.”
But Geneste told the paper that there was no danger. “There is no damage to the paintings, although there was a danger if the fungus was allowed to develop over many years.”
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