Paleolithic Cave Arts in Asturias
César. González Sainz &
Roberto Cacho Toca
Department of Historical Science, University of Cantabria
The Western Cantabrian Region. Introduction to Paleolithic cave art in Asturias.
1. The Principality of Asturias, at the western end of the Cantabrian corridor, was occupied and trekked assiduously by groups of hunter-gatherers throughout the Upper Paleolithic.
They left multiple evidence of their activity in the caves of the region, and this includes examples of rock art and mobiliary art. Asturias, therefore, concentrates a very significant part of the total cave art known today in the Cantabrian region. Forty-five caves, from a total of a hundred and three in the region, are located in the central and eastern part of this autonomous community. Its western sector, beyond the valley of the River Nalón, has a very different geological structure, with older lithologies and less karst, and so there are fewer caves with archaeological deposits or remains of Paleolithic human activity.
The center and east of Asturias has a very complete cultural sequence of the Upper Paleolithic (38,000 to 11,500 BP). The main stratigraphies have been found in a few key sites such as Abrigo de la Viña, and caves of La Paloma and Las Caldas in the Nalón Valley; or the caves of Cova Rosa, Tito Bustillo and Los Azules in the Sella Valley. Equally, in the East the most important sites that have been dug are La Riera and Cueto de la Mina, in the Llanes area, and Llonín in the Cares Valley. Many of these sites also have magnificent assemblages of paintings and engravings. Furthermore, series of mobiliary art from La Viña, Las Caldas, La Paloma, Tito Bustillo and Llonín, among others, are of exceptional quality.
The Upper Paleolithic of Asturias has characteristics fully integrated with those of the rest of the Cantabrian region, but with a few distinctive features of its own. The main one is the abundant use made of a lithic material which is common in Asturias: quartzite, whereas flint is generally rarer and of poorer quality than in other parts of the Cantabrian. This implies a greater apparent crudeness in their lithic industries, and some differences in the tool composition. Thus, it is more frequent than in other areas to find tools of varied use, manufactured out of simple materials, such as side-scrapers, endscrapers on flakes, carenated endscrapers or denticulate pieces. Less frequent are those lithic tools that required large, long, parallel-sided blades (e.g. some kinds of burin). At the same time, certain types of tools, which are very common in Asturias and western Cantabria, seem to be linked to the possibilities for knapping and retouch allowed by quartzite, for example the lithic hunting points with a concave base of the Solutrean period (21,000-16,500 BP).
The economic organization of human groups here must have been similar to other parts of the Cantabrian region, with seasonal movements among different habitats, which were nearly always in caves. The subsistence strategy was to exploit varied resources: hunting herds of red deer, horses, bison and sometimes aurochs in open areas of the coast or lower valleys; or ibex and chamois on rocky, steeper slopes; or fishing salmon and trout in the rivers, or sea trout and plaice in estuaries; and also collecting shellfish along the shore (relatively frequent after 17,000 BP).
2. The documentation and research of Paleolithic art in Asturias took place in a series of stages, similar to those of other Cantabrian areas, although the people involved are occasionally different.
In the first stage we find researchers coming from the center of the Cantabrian region, and who included a number of Asturian caves in their first studies of the region, especially the one published in 1911 by Alcalde del Río, Breuil and Sierra. This publication includes the Asturian cave art sites of La Loja, Pindal, Quintanal and Mazaculos II, all logically within the eastern part of the Principality. Other researchers like Hernández Pacheco and Conde de la Vega del Sella began their work soon afterwards, and carried out excellent studies of the caves of Peña Candamo and El Buxu respectively, as well as others with only a few cave art figures, such as Cueva de San Antonio.
Of the post-war period the only fact worth mentioning, perhaps, is the falsification of paintings in a cave which is still open to the public today. Later, between the 1950s and 1970s, Francisco Jordá, professor at the University of Salamanca, became the main authority on cave art in Asturias, and he carried out studies in El Pindal and Pedroses, and in Tito Bustillo together with other archaeologists. The more important researchers at that time also included Magín Berenguer, who made magnificent reproductions of the art in Tito Bustillo and Llonín, two excellent cave art assemblages discovered in those years.
Since the mid 1970s, the number of studies on specific caves has multiplied considerably, focusing on more exhaustive research and with more sophisticated tools of documentation. At the present time, a number of general summaries of Asturian art are in preparation. The team formed by R. de Balbín and A. Moure to study Tito Bustillo was important for the renewal they brought about in the procedures of analysis in the Cantabrian region, and equally significant is the research of J. Fortea in the caves and rock-shelters of the middle Nalón valley, e.g. La Viña, La Lluera and Santo Adriano, or in the caves of the inland valleys of eastern Asturias, e.g. Llonín, or the recent discoveries, still being studied, of Covaciella and El Bosque. Furthermore, a long list of archaeologists have carried out occasional studies, revising known caves, like La Loja or El Buxu, or publishing new discoveries, as in Coimbre, Tebellín, Covarón and Trescalabres.
3. The more than forty caves with Paleolithic art which are known in Asturias tend to be concentrated in certain zones, forming four dense and discontinuous clusters of sites, with some gaps in between.
The most characteristic areas are the Nalón Valley, with thirteen or fourteen sites above all in the middle valley, the caves of the Sella Valley, and finally two East-West corridors, one situated to the north of a line of hills known as Sierra del Cuera and the other to the south, following the course of the River Cares.
This distribution of sites, noticeably polarized in a few concentrations, is different from the distribution found in the rest of the Cantabrian region, where the degree of dispersion is much greater, although clustering does exist, such as in the middle valleys of the Rivers Nansa, Pas and Asón in Cantabria.
The four clusters we have distinguished in Asturias have their own peculiarities which need to be mentioned, with variations in the size of the art assemblages, their age, and the techniques applied and themes developed.
* The Nalón group. This is doubtlessly the area with the greatest difference in personality of the whole Cantabrian region. This is due to two factors; first because it is separated from other areas by a wide gap of about 50km (from the Sella valley), and second because of the great homogeneity in technique, age and style of most of the sites. Except for two of the caves, Peña Candamo and Entrecueves, the rest are all caves and rock-shelters with exterior engravings, that is to say, with art produced in the entrances of the caves, within daylight. These correspond to the first periods of the Upper Paleolithic, from the Aurignacian to the start of the Solutrean. These simple, strongly marked engravings were produced between approximately 33,000 and 20,000 BP, and are being studied by Professor Fortea, of the University of Oviedo.
The rock-shelters of La Viña form the most important assemblage, with an impressive sequence of occupations throughout practically the whole of the upper Paleolithic, and with two series of prehistoric engravings which can be differentiated by their style and their height above the floor, and which are partly covered by layers of archaeological sediments. The figures of the first stage must have been produced while standing on the Aurignacian floors, taking into account the age of the layers that cover the figures, and the height and normal dimensions of the manual field. These are series of deep, vertical and parallel incisions. They are simple motifs, similar to those of Cueva del Conde, which have traditionally been attributed to the Aurignacian, and which are also located in the Nalón valley.
The second stage of engravings in the Nalón area corresponds to a much larger number of sites. As well as La Viña, these include La Lluera I and II, Godulfo, Los Murciélagos, Las Mestas, Molín, and two recent discoveries: Santo Adriano and Torneiros. These engravings are now figurative animal images, simple representations but where the species are clearly recognizable. The engraving technique and the positions are very similar to the figures of the first stage, but some caves and rock-shelters have complex panels, such as Viña and Lluera I, whereas others have a single animal, e.g. an acephalous bison positioned vertically in Cueva de los Murciélagos, or a hind in Cueva de Godulfo. The character of this decorative stage is particularly clear in sites like La Lluera, probably the most interesting of all. The rock-shelter of La Viña is one of the sites where the height of these figures, and the presence of engraved pieces of rock fallen from the wall and recovered during the archaeological dig, allows the art to be dated. This second stage, therefore, began in the Gravettian and its last stage of development took place in the Solutrean.
The art in Cueva de Entrecueves contrasts noticeably with these exterior assemblages. Not only is it situated deep in a cave with quite difficult access, but it is also formed apparently by a few abstract signs painted in red. They include some ladder-shaped signs or scaliforms, an angle, and also quadrangular signs, different to the more typical Cantabrian quadrangular paintings, but possibly of the same age, Solutrean basically. The northern-most site in the Nalón valley is Peña Candamo. It is also the most complex of the area, with art of different styles and phases of the Upper Paleolithic, produced using a wide variety of paint and engraving techniques.
To the east of the Nalón valley, at the moment we find a large gap without sites which is difficult to explain. This covers all the coastal zone around Cabo de Peñas, and the smaller valleys between the Nalón and the Sella, i.e. of the Rivers Aboño and Piles, as well as to the south, the depression between Oviedo and Cangas de Onís, following the courses of the tributaries; the Nora and Piloña.
* The valley of the River Sella has an important group of sites around the mouth of the river and the immediate coastal areas. The main one is Tito Bustillo, with paintings and engravings produced probably during a long time-span, although the most spectacular are the polychrome animals, above all horses and reindeer, of Magdalenian age. The same karstified hill has Cueva de La Lloseta and La Cuevona, two caves with small groups of art. And close-by, we find the assemblage at Les Pedroses, with red paintings and engravings of various animals, as well as Cueva de San Antonio, with just one horse painted in black. Located on tributaries in the interior of the Sella basin, another two caves have art. One is Cueva de El Sidrón, on the River Piloña, which has hardly been studied, and Cueva del Buxu, with excellent engravings and paintings of animals and signs, unfortunately not very well preserved.
In the east of Asturias, and in continuity with the coastal and interior sites of the Sella area, another two groups of caves are arranged in two parallel lines: one is in the coastal strip, and the other follows the valley of the River Cares, south of Sierra del Cuera, to its confluence with the River Deva.
* The eastern coastal strip, to the north of Sierra del Cuera, has a large number of caves with art, although this is generally not too spectacular, with few paintings and with an unusually high proportion of abstract signs, mainly in red (e.g. the caves of Balmori, Tebellín and Herrerías). Nevertheless, there also are sites with small groups of animal figures, such as Cueva de Trescalabres, which has depictions of several animals and a circular red sign, attributed to Style III, or the interior assemblage in El Coverón, with black paintings superimposed over other red ones. These are probably of Magdalenian age, but regrettably very faint.
A little further to the East, almost on the boundary with Cantabria, more decorated caves are found, especially Cueva de El Pindal, with a large number of paintings and engravings, mainly of the Magdalenian period. Another two caves are Mazaculos I, which has a quadrangular sign, and Mazaculos II, with dots and a zigzagging line.
* Finally, between Sierra del Cuera and the massif of Picos de Europa, a natural corridor follows the course of the River Cares, where many sites of great interest have been discovered in the last few decades. Besides, this corridor connects to the west with the valley of the River GŸeña, a tributary of the Sella, where the caves of Molín and Buxu are located.
Beginning in the west, the first small group of paintings is found in Covaciella, a new discovery. The main figures are situated in one panel, with several superbly executed and well-preserved bison, painted in black and engraved, as well as a painted horse's head. They are complemented by a stag and an ibex engraved at either end of this well-ordered panel. These figures show all the most typical graphic conventions of the Magdalenian period and two C14-AMS dates have been obtained, situated about 14,000 BP. This date corresponds to the start of the middle Magdalenian in the region, and is wholly coherent with the style of the assemblage.
Cueva de El Bosque is located very near Covaciella, and has a good group of black paintings, mainly goats, and equally of Magdalenian style. Following the course of the River Cares to the east, the next important caves are Coimbre, with a large group of engravings, not well studied but also Magdalenian, and above all Cueva de Llonín.
Archaeological deposits are being dug in this cave, which has layers corresponding to the start of the Upper Paleolithic, Solutrean, middle and late-final Magdalenian, and more recent periods. The cave art is distributed in several parts of the cave, especially in a frieze 13m long containing many figures often superimposed upon each other. The different styles and techniques make it possible to distinguish several stages of decoration. The first figures were painted in red, in the Gravettian and above all Solutrean, the most important being an anthropomorph and a series of non-figurative marks as well as some animals. Later, a group of black figures were painted, including a typically Cantabrian quadrilateral sign. Then in the Magdalenian period, in early Style IV, a good number of animals were engraved with striated lines, while a few more complex figures, painted in black and engraved, may correspond to an immediately later moment, together with fine, realistic engravings of animals, mostly goats.
This inland corridor finishes at the confluence of the Cares and Deva rivers. The last site is situated here; Cueva de La Loja, with an interesting group of finely-engraved wild aurochs.
4. Cave art in the western part of the Cantabrian region has certain characteristics of its own, which are as follows. First, it has a large number of abstract images.
The frequency of signs, compared with animals for example, seems to increase along the Cantabrian corridor, at least as far as the east of Asturias, where they are most common. As mentioned above, this area has caves in which the art consists solely of conventionalized signs. These are the caves of Mazaculos, Herrerías, Balmori, Tebellín, possibly Sidrón, and even Entrecueves in the Nalón area. Others have only non-figurative lines, ranging from series of engravings in clay (caves of Los Canes and Subores), to non-figurative linear marks (Trauno, Samoreli and Cueto de la Mina). Nevertheless, the same area has sites where animal themes predominate, such as Trescalabres and Covarón.
The signs found in eastern Asturias are of the same types as those in the center of the Cantabrian region, for example classical quadrilaterals and quadrilaterals with a pointed protuberance in the middle of one side in Llonín, Buxu and Mazaculos I, or types intermediate between these and claviforms in Tebellín, and late-style claviforms in Pindal. Besides, loop-shaped signs have been recorded in Balmori, Pindal and Tito Bustillo, bastonets in Pindal, "grilles" in Herrerías and Covarón, as well as signs in the form of ladders, circles and ovals. These signs are generally painted in red, similar to the signs found in the caves of Monte Castillo, Altamira, or other sites in Cantabria. However, in the Sella valley and to the west, different kinds of signs become more common, with other forms and often engraved rather than painted (e.g. in Tito Bustillo, El Sidrón and El Buxu).
The animal themes are more difficult to differentiate from those in most of the Cantabrian region, with high frequencies of deer, especially hinds in the periods from the Gravettian to the Solutrean and early Magdalenian (27,000 to 14,000 BP). Bison, horses and goats are also common. The most usual techniques are also the same as in the rest of the Cantabrian. Just two observations can be made. One is that the technique of dabbing red paint to form dotted lines, used in the Solutrean, is less common than in other parts of the Cantabrian; and the second is that animals engraved with simple, deep lines are extraordinarily abundant in the Nalón area.
"Complex" assemblages, with multiple panels corresponding to different periods, and therefore with superimpositions, and varied techniques and styles, are spread out across Asturias. There is at least one such site in each of the four areas that we have described above. Thus, we have Peña Candamo in the Nalón area, Tito Bustillo in the Sella, Llonín in the Cares valley, and Pindal and even El Covarón in the eastern coastal strip. Together with these, a much larger number of caves have art apparently produced at a single time, and which therefore vary greatly from each other in techniques, and above all in the stylistic conventions used.
5. Regarding the chronological stages of development that can now be recognized in Asturias, we find a very similar organization to that of other Cantabrian areas, especially its central sector. These can be described briefly as:
a) Early stages, corresponding to a long lapse of time, from the early phases of the Aurignacian to the start of the Solutrean, i.e. between 35,000 and 20,000 BP. The Styles I and II defined by Leroi-Gourhan developed during these stages. They are represented by the art in daylight areas of cave entrances and rock-shelters, starting with the non-figurative linear marks, in El Conde and La Viña, and continuing with animal figures, also as simple, deep engravings. A large number of sites correspond to this second phase, but the most typical could be La Lluera I. This figurative phase is not only present in the Nalón valley, but also in the center of the region, in the groups of art in the daylight zone of the caves Chufín, Hornos de la Peña and Venta de la Perra. These are always deep engravings, although red ocher has been noted on the wall at La Viña, and perhaps this was used as an abrasive. Equally they are always within the reach of daylight, with very simple animals, drawn strictly in profile, and developed from the cervical and dorsal lines. Normally they have one limb for each pair, with horns in twisted perspective, and no interior details of the body. Certain ways of drawing are particularly characteristic, and just three lines are often used to represent the whole forequarters of the animal. These engravings, and occasionally abstract signs, in the shape of triangles and sometimes ovals, correspond to the Gravettian period and the early Solutrean.
The hypothesis of Leroi-Gourhan, that the interior of caves was slowly conquered for areas of decoration, cannot be maintained today. It is now clear that at the same time, or even before, these exterior engravings were produced in the Nalón, other caves were being decorated in their interiors with simple paintings. These were positive and negative hand images, a few series of dots, finger-marks, and other paired marks. Well before 20,000 BP, paintings were being produced in Asturias, inside caves such as Tito Bustillo, with a negative hand, finger-marks and the lines in sector II, and also in Llonín and Peña Candamo.
b) The Solutrean period and the start of the Magdalenian, approximately between 20,000 and 16,000 BP is a stage when the Cantabrian region shows its own personality compared with the rest of SW Europe. One of the main characteristics is the great use of red paint, in simple outline figures, or dabbed-on as dotted lines, and then at the end of the stage, as color-wash affecting part or all of the figure, sometimes associated with engraving around the outline. At this time a large number of abstract signs appear, many of them typical of central areas of the Cantabrian region, with rectangular shapes, or ovals, with a pointed protuberance or crescents. Animal themes, in continuity with the second Nalón stage, are dominated by the hinds, together with horses and aurochs. In their design, it is more common for both limbs to be represented per pair, as well as some details of interior articulation, such as an eye, or partition lines, indicating the manes and the muzzles of horses, or as lines from the withers to the front limbs of hinds.
Many Asturian caves can be attributed to this period. These include the red paintings in Candamo and Entrecueves, and of different colors, although red predominates, in Llonín. Also some of the first phases of production of the main panel in Tito Bustillo, and perhaps in its chamber with vulvae. And paintings which are mostly red in Covarón, Trescalabres, Mazaculos I, and possibly part of the iconographic record in Pindal.
c) The last stage corresponds to the art produced during much of the Magdalenian, from approximately 16,000 to the end of this artistic cycle about 11,500 BP, during the temperate climatic oscillation of the Alleršd. This is, therefore, Leroi-Gourhan's Style IV. Asturian art shows at first a relative continuity in some abstract signs, like the quadrilaterals almost turned into claviforms in Cueva de El Tebellín, and in the animal iconography, still dominated by hinds. Soon, however, tendencies are seen towards naturalism in the style, and to the expression of volume and depth in the depictions, as the art becomes more clearly linked with areas beyond the Cantabrian, showing particularly strong ties with the Pyrenees. This is noticeable in mobiliary art from Asturian sites, like La Viña, Las Caldas and Tito Bustillo, especially in middle and late Magdalenian deposits (c. 14,000 - 12,000 BP), which have pendants and other pieces identical to the Pyrenees; but also in rock art, as will be explained.
During the Magdalenian, in contrast with earlier periods, we find a greater diversity in the technical procedures applied. Especially characteristic are black paintings, the association of engraving with paint, and sometimes polychrome figures. Assemblages only with engravings are very common now, often with the typical striated lines forming bands in the jaw and chests of some animal depictions, mainly heads of hinds, as found in Tito Bustillo and Llonín, or in other animals in Peña Candamo. Besides, many figures are of outstandingly naturalistic, with correct proportions, generally good perspective, including details in the interior of the animals, articulating the different parts of their bodies, and a more frequent use of volume and other natural forms and shapes of the rock surface.
Many of the engravings and black paintings in El Buxu, the group of signs in Tebellín, and the striated engravings and some of the paintings in Candamo, Tito Bustillo and Llonín probably correspond to the early phases of the Magdalenian. In the middle and late Magdalenian, some of the more classic assemblages were produced, such as in Covaciella, the polychromes in Tito Bustillo, and the black paintings and more recent engravings in Llonín. Equally corresponding to the late-final Magdalenian, we have some of the painted and engraved animal figures, and the series of claviforms, in Pindal, the group of engravings in La Loja, or the group of black paintings, mainly of goats, in El Covarón and El Bosque.
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