Lasers, computers and prehistoric cave sculptures

Sixty years ago, archaeologists discovered intricately carved friezes on the walls of caves in Roc-aux-Sorciers, France. Carved 15,000 years ago, they are the sculptural equivalent of the famous Lascaux cave paintings but are barely known because they have never been on display.

The messy business of tourism — breath and heat and sweat and sticky little fingers poking and scratching and touching — would damage the carvings beyond repair, so instead a replica has been created, exact to microscopic detail using computers and laser-copying technology.

A museum to open near Poitiers, in western France, will span one-a-half millenniums of human image-making, from stone chisels to computers. The star of the show, at Angles-sur-L’Anglin, in the départementof Vienne, will be a 60ft-long frieze of bison, horses, cats, goats and erotic female figures, carved into the limestone of western France 15,000 years ago.

The caverns containing the frieze were discovered by French and British archaeologists in 1950 but have never been opened to the public. The Roc-aux-Sorciers (witches’ rock) caves are the only site of their kind in Europe: a two-dimensional, carved equivalent of the celebrated cave paintings at Lascaux in Dordogne, 120 miles farther south, which were created 1,000 years earlier.

From today, the public will be able to visit a €2.7m (£2.1m) visitor centre where the original sculptures, and the contours of the cavern sides, have been precisely recreated to full size by computerised, laser-copying techniques. At intervals a half-hour son-et-lumière display will be projected on to the frieze, suggesting how the carvings may have been created and how they were discovered 58 years ago.