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Altamira Cave Paintings


bison

Altamira Cave Entry

Photo: albertoyp via Panoramio



Altamira Cave is 270 metres long and consists of a series of twisting passages and chambers. The main passage varies from two to six metres in height. Archaeological excavations in the cave floor found rich deposits of artefacts from the Upper Solutrean (ca 18 500 years ago) and Lower Magdalenean (between ca 16 500 and 14 000 years ago). Both periods belong to the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age. In the millennia between these two occupations, the cave was evidently inhabited only by wild animals. Human occupants of the site were well-positioned to take advantage of the rich wildlife that grazed in the valleys of the surrounding mountains as well as the marine life available in nearby coastal areas. Around 13,000 years ago a rockfall sealed the cave's entrance, preserving its contents until its eventual discovery, which occurred after a nearby tree fell and disturbed the fallen rocks.

Human occupation was limited to the cave mouth, although paintings were created throughout the length of the cave. The artists used charcoal and ochre or haematite to create the images, often diluting these pigments to produce variations in intensity and creating an impression of chiaroscuro. They also exploited the natural contours in the cave walls to give their subjects a three-dimensional effect. The Polychrome Ceiling is the most impressive feature of the cave, depicting a herd of extinct Steppe Bison (Bison priscus) in different poses, two horses, a large doe, and possibly a wild boar.

Dated to the Magdalenean occupation, these paintings also include abstract shapes in addition to animal subjects. Solutrean paintings include images of horses and goats, as well as handprints that were created when artists placed their hands on the cave wall and blew pigment over them to leave a negative image. Numerous other caves in northern Spain contain Palaeolithic art, but none is as complex or well-populated as Altamira.


Text above adapted from Wikipedia.



bison

One of the bisons on the ceiling of Altamira in Spain, representing the final stage of polychrome art in which four shades of colour are used.

Photo: M. Burkitt 'The Old Stone Age' (1955), after Breuil.




Altamira Bison

Bison at Altamira. This appears to be the original of the one that Breuil painted, above.

Photo: Original, Leroi-Gourhan (1992)




Altamira Bison

Another version of the bison above.

Photo: Guinea (2011)




Altamira Neocave

The 'Neocueva', part of El Museo de Altamira, which aims to recreate the environment at Altamira so that people may get a feeling for the life of the people of Altamira, while the original cave is kept from harm.

The large size of the mouth of the cave (20 metres wide and 6 metres high) provided access to a large 'hall'. This large covered entrance lasted until 13 000 years ago, when it collapsed, sealing the cave, until it was discovered in 1868 when a hunter's dog chased a fox across hilly countryside. The dog fell among some boulders. When the hunter rescued the dog, he saw the entrance to a cave.

Illuminated by daylight, this was the place where the tribe lived.

Photo and text: http://www.quesabesde.com/noticias/nomada-altamira-museo,1_5259




Altamira Museum plan

Plan of the Altamira museum, showing the display areas and the Neocueva. Note that North is towards the bottom of the image.

Photo: http://museodealtamira.mcu.es/ingles/exposicion_museo_00.html



Altamira google earth

Aerial image of the museum and Altamira Cave, which is circled.

North to the top of the image.

Photo: Google Earth




Altamira shells

Because the inhabitants lived close to the coast, fish was a common part of the diet. One of their regular activities was to organise expeditions to the coast to spear or cast their nets to catch fish from the sea.

Shellfish are also abundant on the coast. They obtained abundant seafood as well as highly prized shells, which according to their size were used as containers, decorative objects for the body, or ritual magic.

Photo and text: http://www.quesabesde.com/noticias/nomada-altamira-museo,1_5259




Altamira Bison

Female bison at Altamira. This is a reproduction in the 'Deutsches Museum', Munich.

Photo: Ramessos
Permission: Public Domain




Altamira Bison

Head and forequarters of the bison above.

Photo: Guinea (2011)




Altamira Bison Red Altamira Bison

Another version of this female bison.

Photo: (left) Altamira National Museum and Research Centre © Ministry of Culture, http://www.spainisculture.com/

(right) Gallup et al. 1997


Red Altamira Bison

Another version of this female bison.

Photo: http://coursecontent.westhillscollege.com/Art%20Images/CD_01/DU2500/index.htm




Altamira ceiling

The ceiling art does not conform to any alignment or proportion of size, and some images overlap others.

Photo: http://www.quesabesde.com/noticias/nomada-altamira-museo,1_5259




Altamira Ceiling

Altamira ceiling.

Photo: http://www.arretetonchar.fr/




Altamira Bison

Bison. Time has faded this image.

Photo: Guinea (2011)




Altamira Bison Head

Head of a bison. This is an excellent photograph from the display at the Altamira Museum, and shows the care and attention to detail of the artists commissioned to make copies of the original Altamira paintings.

Photo: Ernesto Lazo via Picasa




Altamira Plan

Plan of the cave at Altamira.

Photo: Nachosan
Permission: Creative Commons Attribution Generic / Share-Alike 3.0




Plan of the Altamira cave in Spain

Plan of the cave at Altamira.

Photo: E. Pfeiffer 'The Creative Explosion'




Altamira Plan

Plan of the cave at Altamira.

Photo: Parkyn (1915) (Public Domain)




Altamira Entry

Altamira cave is set on a hillside, and there is little to tell the casual traveller what mysteries lie behind the trees.

Photo: Hans Castorp via Panoramio




Altamira Entry

The cave is not open to the general public.

Photo: ProfBoss via Panoramio




Altamira View

View of the mountains from Altamira, which means 'high view'.

You can see why, when you look at this photo of the vista of the Picos de Europa mountains from outside the cave of Altamira, with the ground you are standing on just above the polychrome chamber.

Photo: Saura Ramos et al. (1999)




Altamira 1970s

This photo was taken in the original cave in the 1970s.

Photo: Corruchaga et al. (2003)




Altamira interior

Interior of the cave of Altamira. The geological structure favours the collapse of layers of rock which leaves a horizontal ceiling and angular features in the wall.

Photo: Lasheras (ca 2008)




Altamira dig

View of the Altamira site, with a dig in progress.

Photo: © Pedro Saura Lasheras (ca 2008)




Altamira Bison

Bison.

Photo: Guinea (2011)




blowing ochre
Many of the paintings at Altamira appear to have been airbrushed, a sophisticated technique which may be done as shown. Two hollow bones are used, one set perpendicularly in a container of water and ochre, the other is held in the mouth.

When the artist blows across the open hollow bone, the reduction in air pressure forces the ochre up the vertical hollow bone, at which point it is blown onto the rock surface by the jet of air from the bone held in the mouth of the artist.

Photo: http://www.quesabesde.com/noticias/nomada-altamira-museo,1_5259




blowing ochre





It may even have been possible to airbrush paintings on the ceiling using this method, with a little ingenuity.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2012




blowing ochre airbrush
Airbrush from Altamira

22 000 - 13 500 BP.

Wing or leg bone of a bird (a bird of prey or wader) cut in half to create hollow tubes of the same size, used to blow a spray of paint droplets.

Length: 55.50 mm
Width: 7.64 mm
Thickness: 7.21 mm.

Photo: Altamira National Museum and Research Centre © Ministry of Culture, http://www.spainisculture.com/




bone needles
Bone sewing needles from Altamira

13 500 - 11 000 BP.

This Palaeolithic invention had the same purpose as the current tool: to make clothes, shoes or hats. With parallel grooves made with a burin, thin rods were extracted from the bone which later were perforated and polished on stone to make needles. The smallest ones, with a 2 mm diameter and an eye, prove how well they tanned skins to make clothes, and how thin the thread was, which was probably made of animal tendon.

Photo: Altamira National Museum and Research Centre © Ministry of Culture, http://www.spainisculture.com/




bone harpoons
Antler harpoons from Altamira, during the Magdalenian era. Used to catch fish, especially salmon, and perhaps to hunt other animals as well. Made of deer antler, with either one or two rows of teeth. Different types of spears were developed to attach these points to, and different ways of attaching them were developed as well.

Note the hole in one of them, this was used to attach a cord so that when the harpoon detached from the spear, the fish could still be hauled in.

The simplified designs with one row of teeth was made on the flat side of a large bone, and were easier and faster to make, and just as effective.

13 500 - 11 500 BP.

Photo and text: Altamira National Museum and Research Centre © Ministry of Culture, http://www.spainisculture.com/




deer engraving baton drawing


deer engraving baton
Engraving on a perforated baton, 10 310 BP.

Made from the tip of a deer horn, with a magnificent stag engraved on it. This was used to straighten either spears or pieces of antler (after heating, or boiling in water) in order to eliminate the natural curve before making the heads of spears or harpoons.

Length 246 mm
Width: 53 mm
Thickness: 45 mm

Photo and text: Altamira National Museum and Research Centre © Ministry of Culture, http://www.spainisculture.com/




leaping bison
This is the best example of making the most of the support and natural materials when painting on Palaeolithic caves.

This bison, apparently lying on the ground, or leaping forward in a magnificent charge against an adversary was painted using a natural bump in the ceiling. The cracks on the wall were used to outline its head and body, forcing its posture a little, with the head between the front legs.

This technique which involves making the most of the natural support is quite similar to what important 20th century avant-garde artists would do later on.

(I think of this as the 'Leaping Bison', but perhaps it is curled up in death - Don )

Photo and text: Altamira National Museum and Research Centre © Ministry of Culture, http://www.spainisculture.com/




leaping bison


Another version of this wonderful work.

Photo: http://coursecontent.westhillscollege.com/Art%20Images/CD_01/DU2500/index.htm




Altamira Bison
Head of a bison in black.

Photo: http://www.cuevamuseoaltamira.com/




Altamira Bison

Bison.

Photo: Guinea (2011)




Altamira Bison

BIson, another version of the one above.

Photo: http://grupos.unican.es/Arte/Ingles/prehist/paleo/b/Default.htm




Blck Altamira Bison

Black bison. This has been drawn with charcoal, just as modern artists do. The carbon 14 dating gives a date of 13 000 BP, which is just before the cave collapsed, sealing it until modern times.

After drawing with charcoal, the lines were smudged to give the figure volume on the hump and belly, but with a firm and intense stroke on the front legs.

Photo: Altamira National Museum and Research Centre © Ministry of Culture, http://www.spainisculture.com/ © Pedro Saura




Altamira handprints

Handprints were created by blowing ochre mixed with water over the hands, leading to the effect shown here.

Photo: http://www.quesabesde.com/noticias/nomada-altamira-museo,1_5259




Altamira handprints

This handprint was obtained by smearing ochre and water on the hand, and then pressing it on the wall. Both techniques were widely practised by ice age hunters.

Photo: http://www.quesabesde.com/noticias/nomada-altamira-museo,1_5259




flinttools2sm burins

Burins from Altamira.

The burins were made on flint flakes, with the end truncated to get a sharp, chisel like point. They were used to engrave limestone, bone, or antler.

For bone, a deep groove was made, which was gone over again and again with the burin until a thin rod could be extracted to make a point for a spear or a long thin piece of bone for a needle. They were also used to engrave art works on tools and other objects, and to engrave the outlines of animals on cave walls before infilling with ochre and charcoal.

Photo: National Museum and Research Center of Altamira © Ministry of Culture




flint blade altamira
Flint spearhead. The shape and technique of pressure retouch stamps this as being from the Solutrean. The flint was probably heat treated to facilitate the pressure flaking. The entire surface has been retouched. The base on the left appears to have been worked into a shouldered or tanged shape to make attachment to a spear shaft easier.

(Note that the tip on the right of the spear head has been broken off. It would originally have come to a superbly finished point at the end. The hunter must have been sad to see such a beautiful piece ruined. Making a superb piece of work like this required high skill and a lot of time - Don )

Dimensions:
Length 62.41 mm, width 19.30 mm, thickness 6.13 mm.

Date: 18 500 BP
Photo: © Pedro Saura, Altamira National Museum and Research Centre © Ministry of Culture, http://www.spainisculture.com/




bone spears altamira
During the Upper Palaeolithic, spearheads which could be thrown with the hand or with a spear thrower or atlatl were often made of deer horn. Bone and antlers are tough, and have a long life, even though they are not as sharp as a flint point. During the Magdalenian era (the last cultural period of the Upper Palaeolithic) they were the main instrument used to hunt animals, although the systems to attach them onto a handle changed over time.

The base, with bevelled edges, would be used to fix the head onto the wooden handle. The engraved marks would enable a better grip for adhesion of the resin or glue mixture used to join the piece to the wooden part, and would be reinforced with cord made of plant fibres or tendon. Like harpoons, they sometimes had engraved decorations or signs.

Date: 16 000 BP - 14 000 BP
Photo: Altamira National Museum and Research Centre © Ministry of Culture, http://www.spainisculture.com/




flint willowblade altamira
This flint point, carved in the shape of a willow leaf, belongs to the Solutrean period of the upper Palaeolithic era. The piece is finely flaked in order to obtain a symmetrical shape similar to a willow leaf. It would have been attached to the end of a wooden shaft by means of resins and vegetable or sinews and then used as a projectile weapon.

The shape of this type of point, together with the details of its flaking techniques, offer clues to its chronology and the specific cultural and territorial context to which it belongs.

Dimensions: length 79 mm, width 22 mm, thickness 7 mm
Date: 22 000 BP - 14 000 BP
Photo: Altamira National Museum and Research Centre © Ministry of Culture, http://www.spainisculture.com/




Altamira head

Head of a deer. This image is not in the same room as the polychromatic bison on the main ceiling, but in a chamber deeper in the cave.

The head has been outlined in black, without any further shading.

Photo: Guinea (2011)




Altamira face on the wall
This face is only seen after going to the end of the cave, and starting back.

It looks like a natural feature of the walls, but was known to the painters, and no doubt had great significance.

One 'eye' of the face has been outlined in black.

Photo: http://www.quesabesde.com/noticias/nomada-altamira-museo,1_5259




Altamira face on the wall
Another version of the face or mask shown above.

Photo: Leroi-Gourhan (1973)




Altamira second face on the wall Altamira third face on the wall



Two more faces or masks at Altamira, adapted from naturally occurring projections on the wall.

Photo: Leroi-Gourhan (1973)




Altamira horse head
Doe's head made on a flat bone which has been cut to create the shape of the animal. The nose, the mouth, the eye with the tear duct, and the hair of the neck and face have been engraved with a burin. The ears are filled in with a network of lines. We can imagine that in the lost part of the object there was a hole to hang it from a piece of cord or to sew it onto clothes. Aside from its specific use, because of its quality and meticulous finish it must have been especially symbolic and important.

Dimensions:
Length 93 mm, width 30 mm, thickness 5 mm.

Date: 16 000 - 14 000 BP.
Photo: © Pedro Saura, Altamira National Museum and Research Centre © Ministry of Culture, http://www.spainisculture.com/




Altamira horse hyoid bone perforated
Perforated bone plates with parallel marks on the rim. Four plates made by cutting and polishing a horse's hyoid bone (the bone that supports the larynx). They are perforated to be used as pendants or to sew onto clothes. They were discovered together forming a group or series; each one had thirty marks at either side. They may represent a recurrent event or something that has been observed, or the verification of something important such as the moon or menstrual cycle, like a notebook. In any case, they would be more symbolic and purposeful than decorative and casual.

(Note that they may well have been bullroarers, and the holes would have allowed the attachment of a long cord, which was than used to whirl a plate around the head, making a roaring noise - Don )

Date: 20 000 - 16 000 BP.
Photo: © Pedro Saura, Altamira National Museum and Research Centre © Ministry of Culture, http://www.spainisculture.com/




Altamira Bison Altamira Bison

Bison.

Although these photos are of the same depiction of a bison, they may be of the facsimile of Altamira near Santillana del Mar.

Photo: (left) http://eso-socialscience.blogspot.com/2010/10/palaeolithic-art.html
Photo: (right) Photo: http://www.csj.org.uk/caminodelnorte.htm




Altamira Bison

Head and forequarters of the bison above.

Photo: Guinea (2011)




Altamira Signs

Signs at Altamira. These are in the terminal gallery known as the "Cola de caballo" (Horse tail).

It is a very narrow passageway 50 metres long with a number of different signs.

Photo: http://www.profesorenlinea.cl/artes/ArtePrehistoria.htm
Text: Translated and adapted from: http://grupos.unican.es/Arte/Ingles/prehist/paleo/b/Default.htm




Altamira ceiliing

Tectiformes at Altamira.

Photo: Jennifer Tanabe




Altamira ceiling

A close up view of part of the tectiformes above, found in the terminal gallery known as the "Cola de caballo" (Horse tail).

Photo: http://www.quesabesde.com/noticias/nomada-altamira-museo,1_5259




tectiformes altamira
These tectiformes are in a gallery only one metre high by one metre wide, in the deepest part of the cave, the "Cola de caballo" (Horse tail). Cultural motivations brought people there at different times to draw and engrave these signs, 250 metres from the entrance. They entered the cave with wooden torches or fat lamps to be able to draw this group of reticulated (net shaped) signs, strictly compartmentalised and repeated next to the most prominent crack in this deep gallery.

Photo: Altamira National Museum and Research Centre © Ministry of Culture, http://www.spainisculture.com/




Altamira Boar
Wild boar near the entrance.

Length: 1.65 meters from the base of the tail to the snout.

The animal is quite fuzzy 'and damaged ' - according to Breuil - 'by the decomposition of the rock surface due to the condensation of water vapor from the outside air that enters the cave '. Breuil also says that by being near the entrance it has deteriorated, 'especially since 1902 '.

The animal is in the act of jumping, with forelegs elevated and forward. There is hardly any shading with ochre, with just black smudging to indicate the body of the animal. The hind legs and the lower abdomen have been engraved, and much of the interior of the figure has been scraped back.

(Note that Bahn (1999) states quite categorically that this is a bison. - Don )

Photo: http://www.cuevamuseoaltamira.com/
Text: Translated and adapted from Guinea (2011)




Altamira Boar
Eight legged wild boar, presumably to show the running animal, though conceivably it could be one animal painted on top of another.

This bears the unmistakable style of a Breuil painting, though this is unacknowledged in the source.

Photo: http://www.vintage-views.com/paintings-of-the_palaeolithic-age-cave-of-altamira.html




Altamira Deer

Deer, and part of a small horse.

Photo: Ernesto Lazo via Picasa




horse, ibex, hand
A horse in red, an ibex and a hand. These match the art from the Gravettian era, the earliest era with human presence in the cave. (to me this horse is similar to the art of Lascaux, which is from a later period - Don ) The horse's silhouette is filled in with red. Next to it there is the shape of a hand on the rock and an ibex drawn with simple lines.

The ceiling was filled initially with red figures, especially horses. Then, many does and a few deer were engraved next to some figures that are shaped more like humans. Later on, polychrome bison (also a doe and a horse) covered the ceiling almost entirely. And finally, some bison, completed only in black, took up the remaining free space just before the cave stayed completely dark when the entrance collapsed.

Photo and text: © Pedro Saura, Altamira National Museum and Research Centre, © Ministry of Culture, http://www.spainisculture.com/




horses,  ibex, hand
This is shows the image above in context, with other horses around it, apparently contorted out of shape.

Note the two negative imprints of hands in black, superimposed over other images.

Photo: © Pedro Saura, Altamira National Museum and Research Centre, © Ministry of Culture, http://www.spainisculture.com/




Altamira Bison

Bison.

Photo: Guinea (2011)




Altamira Hind

Head and neck of a polychrome hind. Below, on the right, small bison in outline. From the picture gallery, Altamira.

Length of hind: 7 ft 4.5 inches, 2250 mm.

Photo: Original, Leroi-Gourhan (1992)




Altamira Hind

The complete hind at Altamira.

Photo: http://eso-socialscience.blogspot.com/2010/10/palaeolithic-art.html




Altamira Hind

Another version of the hind at Altamira.

Photo: http://www.quesabesde.com/noticias/nomada-altamira-museo,1_5259




artwork tracing aurochs
Aurochs engraved with the fingers on the soft clay of gallery III. Tracing H. Breuil, 1935.

Photo: Lasheras (ca 2008)




Altamira Horse

Horse.

(Perhaps this image has been degraded by time, but to my eyes this seems an amateurish rendition - Don )

Photo: Guinea (2011)




Altamira ceiling

Horses on the ceiling, incompletely outlined in black.

Photo: http://www.quesabesde.com/noticias/nomada-altamira-museo,1_5259




Altamira Plan of paintings in main room

Ceiling at Altamira. Length about 45.5 feet

Photo: 1911 Encyclopaedia Brittanica
Permission: Public Domain




Altamira horse and hind

Horse and hind from Altamira, at the top left of the image above.

Photo: After a drawing by Abbé Breuil
Source: Lubbock (1913)
Permission: Public Domain




Altamira ceiliing

Replica of the Altamira ceiling, at the Museo Arqueológico Nacional de España

Photo: José-Manuel Benito
Permission: Public Domain




Altamira ceiliing

Ortho-image of the polychrome ceiling at Altamira. Produced by the National Geographic Institute.

Photo: Corruchaga et al. (2003)




Altamira ceiliing replica
This replica of Altamira as shown during the reproduction of the paintings re-creates the original cavern space as it was during Palaeolithic habitation rather than as it is today: that is, natural rock falls, supporting walls, paths, and other arrangements made in modern times have been suppressed. By applying computerised modelling to the cave’s topography, more than 40 000 sample points per square metre were measured and shaped; the reproduction has an accuracy of one millimetre. The paintings have been reproduced using the same techniques and natural pigments employed by Palaeolithic artists. Thus high technology and artisan techniques were combined to achieve the best results.

This high-quality alternative to visiting the original cave does not compromise preservation of the original, yet it allows it to be known with absolute fidelity. It is an 'open book' about Altamira based on scientific data and an original museological concept based on quality and singularity. The new museum provides an interesting opportunity for everyone to experience this heritage, and it allows Altamira to be shown without restriction to a larger number of visitors. More than one million people have visited the new Museum of Altamira since 2001; the number of visitors is expected to stabilise at over 200 000 per year, which is more than the number that came to the original cave during the 1970s.

Photo: Corruchaga et al. (2003)




Altamira neocueva

The Neocave vestibule.

This shows the way the cave would have looked when scientists first started to make excavations in the well lit and relatively warm refuge from ice age conditions enjoyed by the previous inhabitants.

Photo: Corruchaga et al. (2003)




Altamira neocueva ceiling

The Neocave ceiling with paintings. Every engraving, every ochre spot, even every crack in the original ceiling of Altamira has been reproduced to one millimetre accuracy here. It is a superb recreation.

Photo: Corruchaga et al. (2003)




Altamira neocueva ceiling

Another shot of the ceiling in the neocave.

Photo: Corruchaga et al. (2003)




Altamira Horse

Horse, Altamira Museum.

Photo: Ernesto Lazo via Picasa




Altamira Bison

BIson.

Photo: Guinea (2011)




Altamira Reindeer

Reindeer, Altamira Museum.

Photo: Ernesto Lazo via Picasa




Altamira ceiliing

Ceiling at Altamira.

Photo: Jennifer Tanabe




Altamira ceiliing

Another view of the ceiling at Altamira.

Photo: http://kaie-arwen.hubpages.com/hub/Cave-Paintings








The Bird Men of Altamira

bird-man of Altamira

Bird-man of Altamira, L'homme-oiseau, un des sorciers de la grotte. This drawing was made originally by H. Breuil.

Photo: http://lithos-perigord.org/spip.php?rubrique25




bird-man of Altamira



Photo: Meller et al. (2010)

(originally from Abramova (1995))




I have been unable to find more than fleeting references, and a few drawings, of the hommes-oiseau of Altamira. The Lascaux version is well documented.

Here is one of the few text references, from Groenen (2011):
L’homme-oiseau a été repéré dans la scène du Puits de la grotte de Lascaux, sur le Grand Plafond de la grotte cantabrique d’Altamira et dans la grotte d’Addaura en Sicile. À Lascaux et à Altamira, le motif articule une tête d’oiseau, bien reconnaissable à son bec, à un corps, aux bras et aux jambes d’un être humain. En outre, le sexe, masculin, est en érection.

The bird-man has been spotted in the scene of the Well of the Lascaux cave, on the Great ceiling of the cave of Altamira and at the Cantabrian cave of Addaura in Sicily. At Lascaux and Altamira, the pattern shows a bird's head, easily recognisable by its beak, a body, arms and legs of a human being. In addition, the penis on the masculine figure is erect.

bird-man of Altamira

Another version of one of the figures from Altamira.

Photo: Bataille (1989)









altamira A view near the cave entrance, which is under trees on the skyline in the centre of the photograph. To the right, the ground drops down to the valley of the river Saja.

Photo from "Secrets of the Ice Age" by Evan Hadingham.

The following is condensed and adapted from 'Cro-Magnon Man' by T. Prideaux:

In 1868 a hunter's dog chased a fox across hilly countryside about 15 miles inland from the port of Santander on the Atlantic coast of Spain. The dog fell among some boulders. When the hunter rescued the dog, he saw the entrance to a cave.




maria altimiraDon Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola's daughter Maria

The owner of the estate was a Spanish Nobleman and amateur archeologist, Don Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola (1831 - 88). The paintings were not discovered until November 1879 when the Don's daughter Maria, aged 5 to 9 years old, looked up from where the Don was digging for tools, and saw a herd of red animals spread across the ceiling. 'Mira, Papa, bueyes!' (Look, Papa, oxen!) she exclaimed.




Sanz de Sautuola'Don Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola.

Photo: http://aulabiertadesociales.blogspot.com/2011_02_01_archive.html




Maria de Sautuola'Maria Sautuola.

In 1879, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola made ​​a return visit to the cave to collect more flints and tools, this time accompanied by his young daughter Maria Justina, eight years old. While Don Marcelino inspected the floor and walls, the girl, staring at the ceiling, famously declared: 'Dad, look! Painted Oxen!' Sautuola froze, enraptured with the pictures that his daughter had just revealed. Immediately, he was aware of the importance of the find. At first, the news was received with many doubts and misgivings among French prehistorians, who considered that they were fakes, despite the evidence, However, years later they admitted the authenticity of these findings. It was the same Henri Breuil who later defined it instead as the 'Sistine Chapel of Paleolithic art.'

Photo: http://aulabiertadesociales.blogspot.com/2011_02_01_archive.html




sautuola

Don Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola
Photo: Bahn (1998)

At first the discovery was pooh poohed by the academic establishment. They thought it could not be more than 20 years old. It was not until 1902, long after the Don's death in 1888, that the article 'Mea Culpa d'un Sceptique' was published by Emile Cartailhac, formerly one of Altamira's greatest critics. In 1903 he invited a young French priest, Henri Breuil, to go with him to Altamira. Breuil began making copies of the paintings, and these made the world aware of the treasures in the cave. The main picture gallery is only 60 feet long, and 27 to 30 feet wide, with an oppressively low ceiling. No wonder the artists decided to paint it instead of the walls.

The colours have lasted because they were made from permanent natural earth pigments which are minerals, and do not decay. The iron minerals give the reds, yellow and browns, while manganese dioxide gives the blacks. They were 'fixed' by mixing them with blood, animal fat, urine, fish glue, egg white or vegetable juices.

For forty years it was the world's foremost showplace of historic art, until its replacement in this respect by the cave of Lascaux.

breuilPhoto: Bahn (1998)

Henri Breuil (1877 - 1961). Although he trained as a priest in his youth, and remained a priest till he died, he never practised his profession. Instead he was allowed by the church hierarchy to devote his whole life to the study of prehistory. He was the son of a lawyer, and was guided in his studies by a teacher at the seminary who expounded the theory of evolution to him, and lent him books by Gabriel de Motillet, the anticlerical prehistorian.




breuilPhoto: Secrets of the Ice Age by Evan Hadingham, 1980

Left, the Abbé Breuil (wearing cassock) photographed at El Castillo, northern Spain, in July 1909, with his patron, the Prince of Monaco (sitting at right).

Breuil had a talent for drawing animals, and was co-opted by prehistorians to help with the illustration of paleolithic portable and cave art. He became the world's leading authority on paleolithic art until his death. He spent about 700 days of his life underground, exploring and painting. In some cases his drawings and tracings are the only record left of paintings that have since faded or disappeared.






Bison Altamira

Bison at Altamira
Photo: J. Powell 'Ancient Art'

He saw cave art as collections of single images of hunting magic, unlike Leroi-Gourhan who saw them as carefully planned compositions. However his stature was such that it has only recently become possible in France to criticise his work openly.


profile altamira 1981

A short campaign of excavations was conducted at the Altamira site from 30 December 1980 through 12 January 1981. Their aim was the verification and possible refinement of the stratigraphic sequence reported by earlier workers, gathering a large enough sample of artefacts from intact Magdalenian deposits for reliable identification of the industrial phases represented, and the recovery of substantial samples of faunal remains, pollen, and organic matter for radiometric dating.

This is a profile of the Magdalanian deposits exposed on the North wall.

Photo and text: Freeman (1988)




plan excavations altamira 1981
Freeman (1988) writes:
The excavations were planned to take best advantage of the clearest intact stratigraphy available. Previous excavators had removed a great deal of the sediment from the area of the vestibule known as the 'Cocina' (Kitchen ), but the North wall of the vestibule to the East of the stairway was still intact and suitable for our purposes. The flowstone that originally covered the floor of the vestibule was still present over the two and a half to three meters closest to the limestone cave wall. Perhaps because of the increasing thickness of that flowstone, that part of the sediments had been respected as a sort of witness section. A grid of 1 metre squares was laid out to approximately coincide with the witness section. Each North-South column of squares was given a letter designation, and each East-West row a number. The squares actually opened during our limited field work are the partial squares K8- M8 and the complete squares K9-N9.

Though the area we were able to excavate in the limited time available was extremely restricted, the archeological content of the deposits was very rich, and stratigraphy clear enough that we were able to meet major goals for clarification of stratigraphy and securing adequate samples of materials from the Magdalenian deposits established at the outset of our work. Substantial numbers of bone tools, particularly sagaies, 106 retouched stone tools, and a relatively large sample of biotic material were recovered from the Magdalenian level, which proved to be a single, probably relatively short-term, though laterally differentiated occupation horizon. Papers by Gonzalez Echegaray, Bernaldo de Quiros and Cabrera in this volume discuss the recovered artefacts in more detail. We recovered matter for another carbon-14 date of 15.910 ± 230 B.P. (1-12012) on Magdalenian Level 2 (in substantial agreement with the date of 15.500 ± 700 B.P. provided years ago by the University of Michigan), and took eight pollen samples that are now being processed. Further research is, however, still needed to gather comparable information from the Solutrean and pre-Solutrean deposits.

Photo and text: Freeman (1988)




patella vulgata, Wales
The term 'Cocina' (Kitchen ) traditionally applied to this area is entirely appropriate for the activities attested by recovered residues, which are overwhelmingly the remains of processes of food preparation and the disposal of the garbage from meals. The bulk of the remains is shell, predominantly from the genus Patella. The Magdalenian deposits form a true shell midden like that at El Juyo. Faunal remains have been examined by Richard Klein of the University of Chicago. He identified remains of 14 red deer, 2 bison, 3 roe deer, 1 horse, 1 bear, 1 fox and 1 wolf (Freeman et al., 1988). The list includes all the animals prominently depicted in Altamira's cave art. Salmon, traces of other fish, and bird remains were also recovered, as were thousands of limpet shells (genus Patella), of comparatively large sizes. The distribution of most kinds of residues was spatially patterned. For example, there are localised concentrations of cervid (deer) vertebrae, specific stone tool types, and antler sagaies (spear points).

Text: Freeman (1988)
Photo: A group of common limpets (Patella vulgata) in Pembrokeshire, Wales, 27 June 2006.
Source: Tango22
Permission: GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2




Patella vulgata
Patella vulgata specimens from the Solutrean level at Altamira.

(H. Obermaier´s excavations).

Patella vulgata, colloquially known as the common limpet or Common European Limpet is an edible species of sea snail with gills, a typical true limpet, a marine gastropod mollusc in the family Patellidae. It is endemic to the waters off western Europe.

Photo: Alvarez-Fernández (2010)
Text: adapted from Wikipedia




Littorina littorea
Littorina littorea specimens from the Solutrean level at Altamira (H. Obermaier´s excavations).

The common periwinkle or winkle, scientific name Littorina littorea, is a species of small edible sea snail, a marine gastropod mollusk which has gills and an operculum, and is classified within the family Littorinidae, the periwinkles. This is a robust intertidal species with a dark and sometimes banded shell. It lives on the rocky shores of the North Atlantic Ocean, along the coasts of northern Spain, Scotland, Ireland, Scandinavia and Russia.

The common periwinkle is mainly found on rocky shores in the higher and middle intertidal zone. It sometimes lives in small tide pools. It may also be found in muddy habitats such as estuaries. Littorina littorea is an omnivorous, grazing intertidal gastropod. The common periwinkle is primarily an algae grazer, but will feed on small invertebrates such as barnacle larvae. They use their radula to scrape algae from rocks, and, in the salt marsh community, pick up algae from the cord grass, or from the biofilm that covers the surface of mud in estuaries or bays.

This species appears in prehistoric shellfish middens throughout Europe, and is therefore known to have been an important source of food since at least 7500 BC in Scotland. It is still collected in huge quantities in Scotland, mostly for export to the Continent, and also consumed locally. The official landings figures for Scotland indicate that over 2,000 tonnes of winkles are exported annually. This makes winkles the sixth most important shellfish harvested in Scotland in terms of tonnage, and seventh most important in terms of value. However, since actual harvests are probably twice reported levels, the species may actually be the fourth and sixth most important, respectively.

They are usually picked off the rocks by hand or caught in a drag from a boat. They are eaten in Great Britain and Ireland where they are commonly referred to as winkles or in some areas willicks or wilks, and in Belgium where they are called crickles. They are commonly sold in paper bags near beaches in Ireland, salted and with a pin attached to the bag to enable the extraction of the soft parts from the shell.

Periwinkles are considered a delicacy in African and Asian cuisine. The meat is high in protein and low in fat. Periwinkles are also used as bait for catching small fish. The shell is usually crushed and the soft parts extracted and put on a hook.

Photo: Alvarez-Fernández (2010)
Text: Adapted from Wikipedia


(Note that Littorina has an operculum, a 'door' to the shell which closes when the live shell is plucked from the sea, which means that it would survive for quite some time out of water without going bad. Limpets, however, lacking such a closure, would probably need to be kept submerged in sea water in containers if they were not to be eaten immediately - Don )

Limpets


Left: Altamira. Level 2. Specimen of Patella vulgata with sessile barnacles on its surface.

Right: Altamira. Magdalenian. H. Obermaier’s excavations. Patella vulgata with perforations caused by worms of the Polydora genus.

Photo: Alvarez-Fernández (2010)




solutrean sizes

Distribution of frequencies according to size (mm) of Patella vulgata at the Solutrean of Altamira.

Most were in the range 35 to 60 mm. The median for Obermaier's sample is larger than for the González-Freeman sample.

Photo: Alvarez-Fernández (2010)




magdalenian sizes

Distribution of frequencies according to size (mm) of Patella vulgata at the Magdalenian of Altamira.

Most were in the range 35 to 60 mm. The median for Obermaier's sample is larger than for the González-Freeman sample.

Photo: Alvarez-Fernández (2010)




Altamira marine shells map

Solutrean and Magdalenian sites with evidence of marine shells data.

Photo: Alvarez-Fernández (2010)




artwork Altamira
Absolute dates obtained up to 1991. In red, those that correspond to rock art.

Photo: Lasheras (ca 2008)




layers Altamira
Since 2004 the Museum of Altamira has been revising and analysing the stratigraphic sequence revealed by the previous excavations and eight strata have been distinguished: five correspond to the Magdalenian, with 50/70 cms of total thickness and with a timeframe varying between 14 070 BP and 15 580 BP and two Solutrean levels of 20/30 cms thickness and dates of between 17,200 BP and 19,630 BP. The main innovation lies in the detection of a basal level, well differentiated, but unseen before our work, from which two dates of 21 930 BP and 21 910 BP have been obtained, which correspond to the Gravettian. This extension in the period of human occupation is something that must be related to the art of the cave, and some of the figures and signs.

Photo: Lasheras (ca 2008)






Bison Altamira
Bison bonasus, European Bison or Wisent.

Wisent in the Wisentgehege Springe game park near Springe, Hanover, Germany

The wisent, also known as the European bison or European wood bison, is a species of Eurasian bison. It is the heaviest surviving land animal in Europe; a typical wisent is about 2.1 to 3.5 m (7 to 10 ft) long, not counting a tail of 30 to 60 cm (12 to 24 in) long, and 1.6 to 2 m (5 to 7 ft) tall. Weight typically can range from 300 to 920 kg (660 to 2,000 lb), with an occasional big bull to 1,000 kg (2,200 lb) or more. It averages slightly lighter in weight that the American Bison (Bison bison), and has shorter hair on the neck, head and forequarters, but longer tail and horns.

Wisent were hunted to extinction in the wild, but they survived in Białowieża Forest, straddling the border between Belarus and Poland, until the 1920s and have since been reintroduced from captivity into several countries in Eastern Europe, all descendants of the Białowieża or lowland wisent. They are now forest-dwelling. They have few predators (besides humans), with only scattered reports from the 19th century of wolf and bear predation. Wisent were first scientifically described by Carolus Linnaeus in 1758. Some later descriptions treat the wisent as conspecific with the American bison. It is not to be confused with the aurochs, the extinct ancestor of domestic cattle.

In 1996 the IUCN classified the wisent as an endangered species. It has since been downgraded to a vulnerable species. In the past it was commonly killed to produce hides and drinking horns, especially during the Middle Ages.

Photo: Michael Gäbler
Date: 2010.03.21
Permission: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.
Text: Adapted from Wikipedia




Bison Altamira
Bison bison, North American Bison.

The American bison (Bison bison), also commonly known as the American buffalo, is a North American species of bison that once roamed the grasslands of North America in massive herds. Their range once roughly comprised a triangle between the Great Bear Lake in Canada's far northwest, south to the Mexican states of Durango and Nuevo León, and east along the western boundary of the Appalachian Mountains. Because of commercial hunting and slaughter in the 19th century, the bison nearly went extinct and is today restricted to a few national parks and other reserves.

Two subspecies or ecotypes have been described: the plains bison (Bison bison bison), smaller in size and with a more rounded hump, and the wood bison (Bison bison athabascae) – the larger of the two and having a taller, square hump. The wood bison is one of the largest species of bovid in the world, surpassed by only the Italian Chianina, the Asian gaur and wild Asian water buffalo. It is the largest extant land animal in North America.

Photo: Jack Dykinga, USDA
Date: 2005
Permission: Public Domain
Text: Adapted from Wikipedia






Although they are superficially similar, the American and European bison exhibit a number of physical and behavioural differences. The American species has 15 ribs, while the European bison has 14. Adult American bison are not as rangy in build, and have shorter legs. American bison tend to graze more, and browse less than their European cousins, due to their necks being set differently. Compared to the nose of the American bison, that of the European species is set farther forward than the forehead when the neck is in a neutral position. The body of the American bison is hairier, though its tail has less hair than that of the European bison. The horns of the European bison point forward through the plane of its face, making it more adept at fighting through the interlocking of horns in the same manner as domestic cattle, unlike the American bison which favours charging. American bison are more easily tamed than their European cousins, and breed more readily with domestic cattle.

Text: Adapted from Wikipedia

This is a good video which shows parts of Altamira Cave. It shows many of the images in the cave, but the live bison shown appear to be north american.



Here is my translation of the opening credits:

Altamira Cave is located in the vicinity of Santillana del Mar, Cantabria, Spain. It demonstrates one of the most important pictorial periods of Prehistory. The art of Altamira belongs to the Solutrean and Magdalenian periods within the Upper Paleolithic. Its artistic style is the so-called Franco-Cantabrian, characterised by the realism of the figures represented.

The paintings of Altamira, discovered in 1879, were the first large set of prehistoric paintings to be discovered. The study of these finds after the discovery of the cave and the recognition of the importance of the works raised a huge controversy with respect to the accepted approaches in the science of prehistoric times.

The realism of the images provoked, at first, a debate about their authenticity. Their recognition as an artistic work made ​​by Palaeolithic man was a lengthy process, but it helped to define prehistoric studies.

The carbon 14 method led researchers André Leroi-Gourhan and Annette Laming to propose that two of the paintings of Altamira had dates between 17 000 and 14 000 years BP, which meant that they belonged therefore to the Magdalenian III period.

References

  1. Abramova Z., 1995: L'Art paléolithique d'Europe orientale et de Sibérie., Grenoble: Jérôme Millon.
  2. Alvarez-Fernández E., 2010: Limpets and periwinkles in Cantabrian Spain between 22 000 and 15 000 Cal BC: Archaeomalacological remains at Altamira Cave Analele Universităţii Creştine 'Dimitrie Cantemir', Bucureşti, Seria Istorie – Serie nouă, Anul 1, Nr. 4, 2010, p. 32-51
  3. Lubbock J. (Lord Avebury), 1913: Pre-Historic Times, As Illustrated by Ancient Remains, and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages, 7th Edition, Williams & Norgate, London
  4. Bahn, P., 1998: The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art, Cambridge University Press , 1998.
  5. Bahn, P., 1999: Journey through the ice age Seven Dials, London, 1999
  6. Bataille, G., 1989: The tears of Eros, City lights books, (translated from Les larmes d'Éros, 1961)
  7. Corruchaga J., Monforte P., 2003: The New Museum of Altamira: Finding Solutions to Tourism Pressure Of the Past, for the Future: Integrating Archaeology and Conservation, Communicación Presentada al Congreso Mundial de Arqueología, Washington D.C. June 2003.
  8. Freeman L., 1988: The Stratigrahic Sequence at Altamira, 1880-1981 Espacio, Tiempo y Forma, Serie I, Prehistoria,,t. I, 1988, pags. 149-163
  9. Freeman L., Gonzalez Echegaray J., Klein R., Crowe W., 1988: Dimensions of Research at El Juyo, Upper Pleistocene Prehistory of Western Eurasia: 1-39. Philadelphia.
  10. Gallup A., Gruitrooy G., Weisberg E., 1997: Great Paintings of the Western World: Beaux Arts Edition.
  11. Groenen M., 2011: A l’aube de la métaphysique. Jalons pour une préhistoire de la spiritualité Contribution au chantier Philosophie et soins de l’âme présenté à l’UNESCO les 17-18 novembre 2010 dans le cadre des 10e rencontres sur les Nouvelles Pratiques Philosophiques, dans : Sciences croisées, 7-8 « Soin de l’âme), pp. 1-19.
  12. Guinea M., 2011: Altamira y otras cuevas de Cantabria , Ediciones Silex/Digitalia, 2011
  13. Lasheras, J. , ca 2008: The Cave of Altamira http://www.ssfpa.se/pdf/2009/Altamira.pdf
  14. Leroi-Gourhan A., 1992: L'art pariétal Langage de la préhistoire, Jérome Millon: Grenoble.
  15. Leroi-Gourhan A., 1973: Prähistorische Kunst: d. Ursprünge d. Kunst in Europa, Herder, 1973 - 601 pages
  16. Meller H., Maraszek R., 2010: Masken der Vorzeit in Europa (I): Internationale Tagung vom 20. bis 22. November 2009 in Halle (Saale) von Harald Meller und Regine Maraszek (Gebundene Ausgabe - 12. November 2010)
  17. Parkyn E., 1915: An Introduction to the study of Prehistoric Art, Longmans, Green and Co.
  18. Saura Ramos P., Perez-Seoane M., de Quiros F., Lasheras J., Beltran A., 1999: The Cave of Altamira, Lunwerg Editores, S.L., Barcelona






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