76 years ago today – The Discoverers of Lascaux
"76 years ago today – The Discoverers of Lascaux"
In 1940, four young men happened upon a prehistoric cave in Dordogne. Seven decades later, one of these discoverers enters the life-size replica of what has become a heritage site.
Looking back on these four boys who have left a lasting mark on the history of Lascaux…
8 September 1940: several hundred metres from Montignac, in a clearing on the Lascaux hill, 18-year old Marcel Ravidat was walking with his dog Robot. When the dog disappeared down a hole in the ground, left by an uprooted tree some years earlier, the young mechanic’s apprentice began throwing stones into it. They rolled and rolled deep down into the earth.
Marcel could feel it: he had just found something extraordinary. Could it be the local legend, an underground passage leading to Lascaux Manor?
He returned only four days later with a few friends to discover one of the greatest archaeological works of art of the 20th century.
That summer Jacques Marsal, a Montignac boy, was almost fifteen. A high school student on holiday, he was with the others on the now famous day of 12 September 1940, and went to alert his former teacher Leon Laval a few days later.
He did not return to school, but instead camped on the site with his friend Marcel in order to protect the cave until 1942.
That year he was picked up on the Montignac bridge by the French gendarmerie and requisitioned for the Service du Travail Obligatoire (Mandatory Work Service) in Germany.
At Marcel Ravidat’s suggestion, he became an official Lascaux guide when the cave opened to the public in 1948, and worked there for some fifteen years.
Georges Agniel was born in 1924. His parents had moved to Paris to find work. Georges was spending the holidays with his maternal grandmother when he participated in the fabulous discovery of 12 September 1940. However he quickly had to leave his friends to return to school in Paris and is only present on very few photos taken that autumn of 1940.
A technician at Citroën motor works and later at the Thomson-Houston company, he returned to Montignac on 11 November 1986 to join his three companions Marcel, Jacques and Simon. He later participated in the ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the discovery in the presence of the French president François Mitterand and was decorated with the French Ordre national du Mérite (National Order of Merit) in 1991.
Leon Laval was the first adult to enter the Lascaux cave. On 16 September 1940 Jacques Marsal knocked on his former teacher’s door to tell him about the discovery. On 18 September Laval descended into the cave to confirm the boy’s extraordinary find!
A retired schoolteacher, son of two teachers, Leon was passionately interested in literature, theatre and music, but also archaeology. He became a correspondent of the CNRS (French national research centre) and a delegate of French Historical Monuments (Curator of the Cave) until 1948, when it opened to the public.
Leon Laval entered into contact with Abbé Breuil in order to authenticate the cave and its paintings.
Simon Coencas, now 89, and his family were refugees in Montignac fleeing the persecution of Jewish people. When he participated in the fabulous find in 1940, he was 13 years old and the youngest of the group!
He does not appear on the photos taken in the days following the discovery of the cave: he returned to Paris with his family a few days after the event. Life was not easy for Simon, who witnessed his parents’ arrest, and was later also arrested and deported to the Drancy detention camp. He was miraculously released one month after deportation and hid until the end of the war.
As he likes to tell it, “he was a jack-of-all-trades” but has always been present for each anniversary of the discovery. Again this year, Simon did us the honour of his presence and visited the work in progress at the International Centre for Cave Art with the President of the Departmental Council of the Dordogne, Germinal Peiro.
Like his childhood friends, Simon was decorated with the Ordre national du Mérite in 1991, and named Officier des Arts et des Lettres in 2011.