Lesson Plans: Grades 3-5

Lascaux: La Vie en Caverne!


The Lesson


Deer painting, Lascaux  cave, France.

Deer painting, Lascaux cave, France.

Credit: Courtesy of The French Ministry of Culture

Speleology, the scientific study of caves, began in France with Edouard Martel. It's only appropriate that elementary French students learn their cave-art vocabulary by studying the caves of France. In this highly kinetic lesson, students will explore cave paintings of France and create their own cave-wall art for the classroom.

Guiding Questions

  • Why do people make paintings or sculptures or other works of art? Why do you suppose cave people painted or scratched pictures on their walls?
  • What kinds of stories can we get from the pictures they put on their walls? If you lived in a cave home, and you wanted to tell an important story about living in France, how would you put it into pictures?

Learning Objectives

At the conclusion of this unit, students will be able to

  • explain the purpose of cave paintings and rock art
  • identify some of the animals that roamed France in prehistoric times
  • appreciate the methods used by ancient civilization to create cave and rock art
  • use appropriate French words related to cave exploration: explorer, la grotte, la casque, la lumière, allumer, la peinture, la gravure, le dessin, la sculpture, l’archéologie, archéologue, préhistorique, la pierre, troglodyte

Preparation Instructions

Background material is taken directly from the official websites of the caves, available through EDSITEment.

From The Cave of Lascaux, an EDSITEment-reviewed website:

"The western edges of the Massif Central and the northern slopes of the Pyrenees are noted for an exceptional concentration of Palaeolithic caves. In fact, there are no fewer than one hundred and thirty sanctuaries, the most renowned of which is Lascaux. Located on the left bank of the river Vézère, Lascaux is set a little apart from the traditional prehistoric sites further downstream, between Moustier and Bugue."

"The research carried out during the past decades has placed the iconography of Lascaux at the beginning of the Magdalenian Age, that is, 17,000 years before today. However, certain indications, both thematic and graphic, suggest that certain figures could belong to a more recent period. This is borne out by dating with Carbon 14 (around 15,000 years old). The cave was discovered in 1940, when a group of four teenagers took a jaunt on the hill overlooking the village of Montignac. Their afternoon walk was to materialise into one of the most renowned archaeological discoveries of the XXth Century."

"The first twenty metres inside the cave slopes steeply down to the first hall in the network, the Great Hall of the Bulls. The Painted Gallery, which is about thirty metres long, is a continuation of this hall. A second, lower, gallery, the Lateral Passage, opens off the aisle to the right of Great Hall of the Bulls. It connects the Chamber of Engravings with the Main Gallery and, at its extremity, with the Chamber of Felines. The Shaft of the Dead Man is set a little apart, at the far end of the Chamber of Engravings, and the Silted-up Chambers are in the same direction. However, there are no traces of man in these rooms."

"The work carried out at Lascaux shortly after the Second World War made access to the cave easier. At that time, the entrance was considerably enlarged and the floors lowered to enable the constant flow of tourists (almost 1,200 people per day) to circulate more easily. But, in 1955 the first indications of deterioration of the paintings appeared. A thorough study found that the cause was an excess of carbon dioxide in the air brought about by the visitors' breath."

"This gas acidified the water vapour being breathed out and, as it condensed on the walls this corroded the rock face as well as the calcite. A system was then put in place to monitor the production of carbon dioxide. Nevertheless, a few years later, green patches developing rapidly on the walls indicated the presence of green algae and mosses. Research showed that this deterioration was caused by the intensive development of this site. The Ministry of Cultural Affairs, headed by André Malraux, had the cave closed on April 20 1963."

"The cave paintings were restored to their original splendor and are checked daily for deterioration. A facsimile of the cave was constructed in Montignac so that the treasure of Lascaux is always available to the public."


From The Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc, available through both the EDSITEment-reviewed resources French Ministry of Culture and Casa de Joanna:

On December 18, 1994, three amateur speleologists, Jean-Marie Chauvet, Éliette Brunel, and Christian Hillaire, explored the Cirque d'Estre. An air current emanating from an opening at the end of a small cave had led them to dig a passage in the small cavity and crawl through it to an obscure shaft.

"They descended with their speleological ladder and discovered a vast chamber with a very high ceiling. It was filled with magnificent, glittering concretions. They progressed in a single file line toward another chamber as big as the first one, and there admired the unexpected geological wonders that surrounded them. They also saw animal bones scattered on the floor. They explored almost the entire network of chambers and galleries, and on the way back out, Éliette saw an amazing sight in the beam of her lamp: a small mammoth drawn with red ochre on a rocky spur hanging from the ceiling. … They discovered hundreds of paintings and engravings."

"After official declaration of the discovery, Jean-Pierre Daugas, Conservator of Patrimony at the Direction Régionale des Affaires Culturelles, Rhône-Alpes, asked Jean Clottes, then a scientific advisor to the Ministry of Culture and a specialist of decorated caves, for an expert authentication. On December 29, 1994, an expedition, led by the discoverers, was undertaken."

"After initial proceedings begun in the very first days, the cave was officially designated as an Historic Monument on October 13, 1995. Also in 1995, the state began taking measures to expropriate the cave from its three recognized owners. The state became owner of the cave on February 14, 1997. The first measure of protection consisted of 24-hour surveillance of the entry by local police. Soon after, a solid door and simple alarm system were installed while awaiting the intervention of Commander Cadias, who is responsible for the security of Historic Monuments with the Ministry of Culture. A large-scale operation was subsequently undertaken to equip the cave with a reliable protection system. Today the cave is under permanent audio and video surveillance, and a complex protocol is followed before each entry. The authorized persons are obliged to follow a strict set of procedures requiring them to wear a special suit and shoes that have not been in contact with the exterior. In this way, all biological exchanges with the cavity are avoided as much as possible. Inside the cave, a system of climatological and biochemical surveillance has been installed by the Laboratoire Souterrain du CNRS de Moulis and the Laboratoire de Recherche des Monuments Historiques. This system continually regulates the hygometry and temperature within the cave, as well as the bacteriology and growth of concretions."

"The discovery caused a shock. Specialists and non-specialists alike immediately recognized its importance and originality for several reasons. First, the nature of the bestiary represented is very unusual, with rhinoceroses, lions, and bears. The animals most often depicted in Paleolithic caverns are the same as those that were hunted, even if their proportions do not exactly match those represented by the faunal remains found at habitation sites. At Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc, dangerous animals, who did not figure on Paleolithic menus, are largely dominant (more than 60% of identified species if we count mammoth). The techniques utilized to represent the animals are also surprising, especially the use of shading and perspective. These refinements contrast greatly with the images that we are accustomed to seeing."

"The esthetic quality of the individual works, as well their association in dynamic and forceful compositions, is another element of their originality. A large number of the black paintings are so similar that they must have been the work of a single, master artist. Or, at the least, this artist may have been accompanied a few others (acolytes, assistants) who shared the same conventions and techniques. The location of the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave in the Ardèche region changes our perspective of decorated caves. Until now, most researchers believed there were major centers of cave art in the Périgord-Quercy region, the Pyrenees, and the Cantabrian coast. The remaining art was thought to be dispersed in caves here and there in regions such as the Ardèche, the Meseta, and the south of Spain and Italy. This discovery in the Ardèche region, which followed that of Cosquer cave, illustrates our ignorance since we now realize that original caves of great significance might still await discovery regions other than the great centers. With the cave of Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc, the Ardèche region takes its place among the 'classic' regions of parietal art."

From: Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory, Volume 8:
“Rock art includes petroglyphs (designs pecked, scratched, abraded or otherwise cut into cliffs, boulders, bedrock, or any natural rock surface) and rock paintings (designs painted in similar locations).” Rock paintings have been found to include line drawings in charcoal and red ochre, painted images, and negative images, which are formed by painting the rock area around an object, such as a hand. It is believed that the negative images were made by chewing charcoal or ochre to a fine dust and spewing it in light bursts against the object and the area surrounding it.

Rock Art

Familiarize yourself with all of the suggested websites to select the best combination of exploration sites for your class. Determine whether to view the French caves sites in French or English, although viewing in French allows the students to see their new vocabulary words in print and in practical application. Since the English version is so technically advanced as to be unclear for most elementary readers, the French view is recommended, also for further exposure to the target language and for visual reinforcement of the French cultural connection.

The EDSITEment website includes links providing the means to explore the Cave of Lascaux and the newly-discovered Grotto of Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc, as well as many other caves of France, the most "cavernous" geological area of Europe. The lesson is most successful if students participate at computer stations or with a single computer projected to a screen. If these aren't available, print out individual photos in full-color overheads so they fill the wall of the classroom when projected.

As an optional activity for young students or those who need extra motivation, build excitement for the lesson by making special casques for exploring the caves. You will need the following materials:

  • Styrofoam or heavy paper bowls
  • elastic
  • frozen juice can lids (Note: if juice can lids aren't available, wrap cardboard circles 3" diameter in aluminum foil.)
  • screw-top carton milk or juice caps.
  • paper fasteners

Before class, use a large nail to punch holes in the center of the lids; use a hole punch to place holes at opposite sides of the bowl rim for chin elastic, and at the center "brow" for the headlamp. Students can affix the bottle cap on top of the juice lid, then to the front of the inverted bowl with paper-fasteners. Knot the elastic through the holes in the sides of the casque so that the child can slip the elastic under the chin to wear the casque. Tell students they have to allumer la lumière pour explorer la grotte.

Have adequate newsprint for students working in pairs to record their stories.

For extended activity 1, have on hand wax crayons, clear paraffin, newspaper or newsprint, an ironing board and iron, and a plain brown paper bag for each child, lunch bags for younger students, shopping bags for older students.

You may wish to practice the technique for this activity: Crumple a brown paper bag repeatedly until it is very soft and pliable, like leather. In wax crayon, draw a picture on the bag in heavy strokes. Take a block of clear paraffin and rub it firmly over the entire surface of the paper bag to coat it heavily. Slip the bag over the end of an ironing board and cover with newspaper or newsprint. With a hot iron, press evenly to melt the wax into the bag until the bag has a smooth sheen, like the slick surface of limestone rock walls.

For those bold enough to try extended activity 3, you'll need colored flavored drink mix, straws, and lots of clean-up material.

For activity 2, have several small, unpolished river rocks. You can substitute buttons, the kind that fasten beneath the button so the surface is smooth and can be drawn on.

Set the computer screens to, or project, the opening screen of the Cave of Lascaux, where the cursor acts as a flashlight to illuminate parts of the wall. If you are using overheads, use the panoramique du paroi nord de la Salle Hillaire, the second red radio button from the right on the map of the Grotto of Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc. The European Resources links page, available from the EDSITEment-reviewed resource ArchNet, offers many useful sites for panorama views of cave art. If projecting overheads, have available a wide variety from different caves in France.

Pathways for EDSITEment-reviewed websites: 1.

  1. For La Grotte Chauvet-Pont-D'Arc

    Casa de Joanna
    Select French Resources
    Scroll or click down to Cultural Sites (Culture)
    Select Cave Paintings of Ardeche under the topic of Le Ministere de Culture for a tour of La grotte Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc, also available the “Time and Space” page from Cave of Lascaux

  2. The Cave of Lascaux
  3. For Resources for European Archaeology

    Archnet: Virtual Library of Archaeology
    Select geographical regions
    Select France; you'll be taken to Resources for European Archaeology

  4. For various French prehistoric art images:

    From Archnet: Virtual Library of Archaeology,
    select EuroPreArt
    Select Slide Show
    Select France and view the show!

  5. For Petroglyphs and other Rock Art:

    From Archnet: Virtual Library of Archaeology
    select Subject Areas
    Select Rock Art

  6. For photos of Troglodyte dwellings in France:

    From ArchNet's Resources for European Archaeology,
    under France, select Societe Francaise d'Etude des Souterrains
    Select Liens Internet: Classement par sujet
    Select Troglodytisme
    Many of the offered sites didn't always appear, but one photo that was consistently available was Photo of Troglodyte homes in Loire

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. There's a Rhinoceros on the Ceiling!

Present the vocabulary in a manner most comfortable and appropriate for your classroom purposes.

  • allumer, to light
  • l'archéologie, archaeology
  • archéologue, archaeologist
  • la casque, helmet
  • le dessin, drawing
  • explorer, to explore
  • la gravure, scraping
  • la grotte, cave
  • la lumière, light or lamp
  • la peinture, painting
  • la pierre, stone
  • préhistorique, prehistoric
  • la sculpture, carving
  • troglodyte, someone who lives in a cave

Ask students, "How long ago did people live in les grottes?" Accept all answers before informing students that scientists who explore signs of ancient life, called archéologues, have estimated that people were living in some French caves as early as 32,000 years ago. They know this because of les peintures, les dessins, les sculptures, et les gravures they've found inside some of these grottes. (As you say each word, show a picture of each to make the vocabulary associations.) Explain that people who lived in caves, called troglodytes, would paint, draw, or carve pictures or figures into their walls. Encourage students to conjecture what kind of pictures archaeologists have found, and why they would put such pictures on the wall. Remind students that they often draw pictures of the important people and events in their own lives, and lots of times those pictures are put up on the walls or on the refrigerator door to remind the family of these important things.

Say: "Aujourd'hui, nous allons explorer des grottes en France." Make sure that everyone is wearing a casque and that everyone has a buddy (Les spéléologues s'en vont toujours avec un copain!), then turn out the lights in the room and lead students to their computer stations, or project the opening screen of the Cave of Lascaux or the panorama of the Hillaire Chamber north wall at Chauvet-pont-d'Arc. Each website provides a virtual tour of the cave. Allow students plenty of time to explore the figures and in pairs, observe and take notes of all the different kinds of animals to be found on the ceiling, even try to copy the drawings as real scientists do. Some images are vague, but in general, they'll see horses, bears, leopard-like animals, mammoths, and rhinoceros. Some of the many caves throughout France have penguins and other animals—see for example the images in caves at Chauvet Pont-d'Arc and Cosquer Cave. They may also notice hand paintings. Ask the students to conjecture why these images were drawn. Ask if the same animals are in France today. When the panorama is fully explored, instruct the students at stations to continue to explore the cave. Lead them to the map screens, where by clicking on a radio dial they can see all the chambers and sites within the caves. If projecting, have a wide variety of views to explore. Allow students to finger-trace the lines of the drawings. Ask them to identify dessins, peintures, gravures, and sculptures.

Bring closure to the exploration by having the amateur archaelogues / spéléologues return to their seats and report their recherche. Have them record their researches, indicating the geographic location of the cave they explored on a map. They should record both natural and archaeological evidence, as well as evidence depicted through images. Ask them to imagine a day in the life of a troglodyte based on the pictures they've seen, and to use pictures of their own to record a typical troglodyte day on their newsprint. Post all of the "cave art."

For young students, extend this activity—Build your own painted cave wall
  1. Crumple brown paper bags repeatedly until they are soft. In heavy wax crayon, children draw their stories. Coat the entire face of the drawing with paraffin, press between wax paper and newspapers, and iron. The paper bag takes on the glossy sheen of wet limestone rocks, just like the cave wall.
  2. Stuff the paper bags loosely with newspaper, tape the bags closed, and tape many bags together to form rock walls, making a small cave covered in paintings on the inside. (If you cover a class wall, you really only need two side walls and a roof to accomplish a small, pup-tent sized cave.)
  3. The “negative” hand drawings that students may notice were made by chewing pigmented powder and lightly spewing it along the outline of the hand. This can be duplicated with flavored drink mixes and straws on unwaxed newsprint. Students may need reminding that their goals is to outline their hand, not coat it in paint! These negatives are best preserved with clear acrylic spray. See examples of negative handprints at both Chauvet Pont-d'Arc and Cosquer Cave. Ask students what kind of implement the cave people might have used to create their hand prints. What might they have used for pigment? (Possible answers: slender hollow animal bones or sticks; ground ore with iron or other minerals to create various colors.)
Activity 2. Bonjour, Pierre!

Using the procedures of Activity 1, show students images of the cave art in France, then include examples of petroglyphs from another French cave, Cosquer, found at the Time and Space page from Cave of Lascaux. Ask them to interpret the separate images, and to record their identity as best they can in their "scientific notebooks." At the close of the activity, instruct students to put some of the pictures together to tell a story.

For younger students or those who learn better with tactile objects, distribute river rocks to students and have them record a petroglyph on the stone using crayon or by scratching one stone with another. Encourage variety in the glyphs. Instruct students in the French vocabulary for each glyph by having each student or one group responsible for a single glyph. They can master the vocabulary if they think of it as a formal name "Je suis Pierre l'Homme," "Je suis Pierre la Lance," and "Je suis Pierre Mammouth!" Je suis de Cave -_________. Have students form a display and explain the context of the objects they created by grouping their petroglyphs.

Extend this Activity—Petroglyph Games
  1. Reinforce vocabulary by calling out the vocabulary word and the appropriate glyph-holder steps forward. Select three or four glyphs and have students give information about where their glyph might be found and what it suggests about the life of troglodytes, using their French vocabulary words.
  2. Form the glyphs into a pattern and have students tell you facts regarding the pre-history you've constructed using the French vocabulary.

In place of the art activities suggested above, have older and more advanced students use the notes they recorded in their scientific notebooks to create an Archaeological Site Report, available in .pdf format.

The Basics

Time Required

4 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Anthropology
  • Foreign Language > Modern > French
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Archaeology
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Europe
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Art History
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Cultural analysis
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Visual analysis


Activity Worksheets