MUSEUM CAMPUS — The Lascaux caves in France, home to some of the most famous Paleolithic wall paintings in mankind's history, have been closed to public access since 1963, when it became clear that human presence was causing the structure to deteriorate.
But starting Wednesday, guests can walk through the winding pathways and see the 18,000-year-old artwork firsthand without traveling farther than the South Loop.
The Field Museum will then debut its new exhibition "Scenes from the Stone Age: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux," a multimedia showcase of artifacts that includes full-size replicas of the famous paintings in a simulated walk-through of the cave's most notable sections.
The exhibit was curated largely by the General Council of Dordogne, the region in France that's home to Lascaux. But it got a finishing touch when it reached Chicago's shores with the addition of a special star from the Field's archives.
"The Magdalenian Woman" is one of the Field Museum's most famous artifacts, brought to Chicago by Henry Field "in his suitcase," according to Bob Martin, the museum's A. Watson Armour III Curator of Biological Anthropology.
Field bought the 14,000-year-old skeleton for his then-new museum in 1926, and the day it opened it brought 22,000 visitors: "the biggest one-day attendance that we have had before or since," Martin said.
While efforts were underway to construct the third-ever replica of the caves, models of the overall structure and a collection Paleolithic artifacts indigenous to southwestern France, Martin and the Chicago were lobbying for her to be added to the exhibit.
"Lascaux is 18,000 years old, and this skeleton is probably around 14,000, so she's 4,000 years younger than the painters who painted Lascaux," Martin said. "But they're all Magdalenian, the tools are the same, so it's still the same tool tradition all those years later."
The skeleton, previously on display in the second floor's Evolving Planet exhibit, was removed so her bones could be scanned and a replica created.
The replica was sent to French anatomical artist Elisabeth Daynès, who used forensic procedures to recreate the woman's muscles, tendons and skin, creating a likely projection of what she would have looked like.
Daynès ultimately sculpted four additional figures using similar estimates to illustrate the cave's likely inhabitants 18,000 years ago, which are scattered through the cave reconstruction in the exhibition.
"This artwork really makes a connection to people that lived 20,000 years ago, and it's an emotional experience," said Jaap Hoogstraten, director of exhibitions for the museum, at a preview event Tuesday attended by Daynès and other French representatives.