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The Delicate Immortality of the Chauvet Cave Paintings

We tend to think of things that stand the test of time as being very durable, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Last year, a group of former Boy Scout leaders exploring Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park decided to topple over a 200-million-year-old natural rock formation. (They were later sentenced to probation.) While they claimed that they destroyed the formation to prevent children from being crushed by a falling boulder, their behavior provoked international outrage and reminded us all that something 1,000 times older than humanity can be destroyed in a matter of seconds, and often without very much thought or difficulty.

In 2012, an 80-year-old parishioner’s attempt to restore Elias Garcia Martinez’s fresco “Ecce Homo,” depicting Jesus, famously turned it into a gruesome mess. What was lost in this story was the relatively recent vintage of the painting—dating back to 1930, it was about the same age as the parishioner who painted over it—but, much like the Boy Scout leaders’ destruction of the natural rock formation, it was a reminder of how fragile objects can be, even in the hands of people who care about them.

It would be a shame if any harm came to the 32,000-year-old paintings of the Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc in southern France, which is home to some of the world’s oldest human drawings. Last week’s decision by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee has placed the cave on the organization’s World Heritage List where it joins Spain’s Cave of El Castillo, which contains the world’s oldest known cave art (dating back back over 40,000 years). The French government has been very protective of the Chauvet Cave, prohibiting foot traffic and directing tourists to a nearby replica instead, but the cave’s addition to the UNESCO list acknowledges the most beautiful thing about artifacts of the ancient world: that there were vast periods of time during which these fragile things could have been destroyed, and they were not.

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Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.
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