Caves exhibit recreates paintings — and a sense of life in era

Caves exhibit recreates paintings — and a sense of life in era

There's something you've never seen before at the Field Museum, even though it's been around 17,000 years or so.

"Field Scenes from the Stone Age: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux," a display that runs through early September at the Chicago museum, takes you back to the days when a flint-headed spear was state-of-the-art for running down deer.

The cave paintings were found by a French teenager in 1940. Cut off from the passage of millennia, they were brilliant and imaginative — and well-preserved, until modern humanity got to them.

You are welcome to see the originals if you're a world-class researcher and have a plane ticket to the Dordogne region of France.

For the rest of us, there's Lascaux II, a reproduction built near the original cave, and Lascaux III, which is in Chicago.

Anna Altschwager, the exhibition project manager, said that since it has reproductions of work you can't see in Lascaux II, the Field Museum is the only place in the world for nonscientists to see some of the artwork.

The teens who were the first moderns to explore the caves stomped all over the cave floor, and later visitors' hot breath caused mold to start deteriorating the paintings. Eventually, that forced the cave to be closed to nonscientists.

But the Field exhibit, all 7,000 square feet of it, has paintings, sculptures and hands-on activities to help us learn about our ancestors.

The exhibit pretty much undoes all the knowledge we have gained through the years by watching "The Flintstones."

Sure, there are extinct animals such as the auroch (an ancestor of domesticated cattle) represented at Lascaux, but dinosaurs were gone 65 million years earlier.

Toward the end of the last ice age, rhinoceri roamed France, the paintings show.

But these people are "just like you and I," Altschwager said.

Though Paleolithic, or old stone age, the early people thought and acted much the way humans do now, including exercising their creativity to paint the animals.

(There's only one human represented in all the cave's galleries.)

Given their hunting skills and life of ritual, they apparently made do without an iPhone or microwave popcorn.

The exhibit dovetails neatly with the Field's own Magdalenian Woman, formerly the Magdalenian Girl, which was already in the permanent collection there. The Field family, which also owned a well-known department store downtown, stocked the museum with treasures discovered in the early 20th century.

The Field Museum acquired the Magdalenian skeleton in 1926, 15 years after it was unearthed. (For dentistry fans, it's the oldest recorded case of impacted wisdom teeth.) She lived a couple thousand years later than the Lascaux painters, but in the same rough era and genetics and not far away in the Cap Blanc rock overhang.

A University of Illinois-Chicago researcher, Richard Jurevic, helped figure out that the skeleton, formerly believed to be that of a girl, was actually a woman of about 25, based in part on the impacted wisdom teeth.

Skeletons of that era have been called Magdalenian (after a French location) or Cro-Magnons, but they are indeed Homo sapiens, Altschwager said.

Human beings, and creative ones.

"There are a lot of misconceptions about early cultures, that they were ughing and growling and clubbing, when in fact it's clear they were creative people," she said.

The original cave artists used natural pigments like ochre, manganese and iron ore, and so did the artists who replicated their work for the exhibit.

How now, Black Cow? Originally, there were other images of animals on the rock that features "The Black Cow," one of Lascaux's most famous treasures, suggesting generations of work done in the area.

There's also "The Crossed Bison," with crossed hind legs that makes it look like one bison is closer than the other.

"That's perspective — that thing we didn't invent until the Renaissance," Altschwager noted.

Though for some reason the Lascaux painters didn't convey the image of reindeer, there are now-extinct Megaloceros deer and even a rhino on the walls.

And then there are the humans themselves, reproduced in sculpture by French sculptor Elisabeth Daynes using modern computer-aided techniques "like you see on 'CSI,'" Altschwager said. "She is an artist with a studio in Paris who works by hand, but all based on anatomical information and even genetics.

"She crosses the line from science into art and interpretation. They're so expressive."

Daynes also worked on Field's Egyptian mummies and did three-dimensional printing with imaging data of their skulls.

The Lascaux display also has other, smaller treasures, such as stones or bones engraved with images. That suggests to Altschwager that the Lascaux culture had time for leisure, imagination and spiritual thought.

"If you're in constant danger, you don't have time for this," she said. "They were probably pretty stable over time. This wasn't just one group of artists; it was multiple artists over generations."

If you go

What: "Scenes from the Stone Age: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux" at the Field Museum

When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through Sept. 8

Where: 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago

Tickets: Free with All-Access or Discovery pass; All-Access is adult $30, child (ages 3-11) $21, senior (65 years +) $25, and student with ID $25; Discovery is adult $23, child $16, senior $19, and student $19

More information: fieldmuseum.org/visit/admission-and-hours

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