Peña de Candamo Cave, Asturias
César. González Sainz &
Roberto Cacho Toca
Department of Historical Science, University of Cantabria
La Peña de Candamo Cave
The cave art in Cueva de La Peñ de Candamo, in the village of San Román de Candamo, is the westernmost assemblage in the whole of the long corridor forming the Cantabrian region. Its position therefore marks the end of the area of limestone hills and well-developed karst landforms. The entrance of the cave is on the right-hand bank of the Nalón river but, whereas the other cave art sites in the middle valley are just above the present-day river course, this cave is located at the top of a steep hillside, called "PeĖa de Candamo", 200m above sea level. In this way, the entrance overlooks a wide area, and several natural communication routes, such as the access to the middle valley of the River Nalón. The great strategic value of the location has, in consequence, often been stressed, as it could have been used to control the animal herds moving along the valley and, perhaps, human groups too.
The cave was studied in 1914 by E. Hernández Pacheco, assisted by J. Cabré and Benítez Mellado, who carried out a magnificent work of documentation and analysis of its art. No artifacts or other remains of human occupation were found in the cave, but they were in another small cave near-by. This had a single, thick layer, with abundant industry of Solutrean age (21,000-16,500 BP), probably belonging to periodic human occupation of the site.
The cave is short, and generally rather small, but despite that, it is quite spectacular. It has many large calcite formations, like columns, flowstone and gour floors, which noticeably conditioned the organization of the art, especially regarding the choice of panels and even the techniques applied in the Upper Paleolithic. In fact, this profusion of calcite limited the production of art to a few accessible, clean walls, in three or four different locations. Besides, the growth of the flowstone separated a few small high-level chambers, like the so-called "Camerín". In this space, after climbing a stalagmitic flowstone, Paleolithic people drew animal depictions visible from all points of the main central chamber in the interior of the cave.
The art begins on an inclined roof in an earlier chamber, easily reached from a sloping floor. This is the "Gallery of the Signs", with three abstract motifs painted in red, composed of various concave lines in the shape of three-pointed stars, and next to other simple, non-figurative marks, also in red. Most of the designs are, however, concentrated in the main chamber, especially on a wall nearly eight meters long and over two meters high on its left-hand side. The use of scaffolding or some other form of ladders must have been necessary, therefore, here and in other parts of the cave, as will be explained later. This central chamber is 25m long, 20m wide and 15m high, and very spectacular because of the large calcite formations that have grown on all sides, especially on the left.
The "Wall of the Engravings", located on the right-hand side of the chamber, has one of the most complex and most interesting groups of cave art in the Cantabrian region. Unfortunately, it has suffered from the effect of natural processes, and even worse, from direct human action during the 20th Century. Because of this, some of the figures copied by Benítez Mellado at the start of the century, and by Magín Berenguer in the 1950s, have been lost for ever. But despite this degree of destruction, the higher figures are relatively well preserved, particularly on the left-hand side of the wall. In this way, it is still possible to see and enjoy a large number of figures painted in sienna and sometimes in red, black dots, figures engraved with simple or striated lines, and figures both painted in black and engraved.
The superimpositions among these figures on the "Wall of the Engravings" were studied carefully, and used by H. Breuil, together with superimpositions observed in Altamira, Castillo and La Pasiega, to devise the chronological structure of Cantabrian parietal art. It is striking that the oldest paintings, aurochs painted in sienna as simple outlines, with horns represented with twisted perspective, and associated with several series of parallel lines of black dots, should be hidden on the right of the panel, its least visible part from the center of the chamber. It is possible that at first only this more hidden part of the wall was used, or that only this group of paintings has been conserved, whereas others could have been obliterated by the great number of engravings and paintings carried out on the central part of the wall in later Paleolithic phases.
From the iconographic point of view, the most interesting figures on this wall include two large bulls facing each other (the one on the left is nearly two and a half meters long, one of the largest figures in Cantabrian art), two anthropomorphic figures, and above all, several stags with large, branching antlers, wounded with spears and roaring. This theme is repeated in several Cantabrian caves and, from the style of the figures, it can by dated in more recent moments of the Upper Paleolithic, mainly Magdalenian. Examples of caves with this type of figure are Altamira, El Buxu, and the Gallery B of La Pasiega. It is also noticeable that, unlike in the center of the Cantabrian region, in the caves situated between Tito Bustillo and La Garma, striated engraving is used here mainly to represent chamois, horses and stags, and not the almost inevitable hinds' heads found in the center of the region.
On the left of the wall, beyond a vertical separating edge of rock, another high panel contains further depictions. The most important of these is a horse painted in very dark red.
The art is completed with a couple of high panels located on the left of the main chamber, especially the famous "Camarín", which dominates the chamber from above. Here, in a small space, we find two practically complete paintings of horses, heads of bovines, and another one or two horses. A previous wall, high above the floor of the main chamber, has the black painting of an ibex, and like the figures in the "Camarín", this faces, or opposes, the "Wall of the Engravings".
The techniques applied in Candamo are therefore quite varied. The succession observed in some of its panels begins with red or sienna linear figures first, followed by black paintings, and finally engraved, striated or scraped figures, which are sometimes associated with black outline representations of stags and chamois. The distribution of the techniques appears to be linked to the accessibility and visibility of the panels. Thus, paint predominates in high, difficult to reach places; and detailed engravings in lower, more accessible panels.
Summing up, La PeĖa de Candamo is believed to contain 15 aurochs, 11 horses, 5 bison, 7 stags, 3 hinds, 4 ibex, 2 chamois, a doubtful wild boar and 2 doubtful seals, and 2 anthropomorphs. A critical examination of available documentation might increase the numbers of chamois and stags in detriment to ibex and aurochs respectively. However, the poor state of conservation especially in the lower parts of the panels, which have most of the fine engravings that are so complicated to interpret, does not allow any definite conclusions. In addition, the chamber nearer the cave entrance has signs in red, and there are series of parallel lines also in red, lines of black dots, and other non-figurative themes.
La PeĖa de Candamo is therefore a complex assemblage, formed by successive additions of paintings and engravings, mainly in Style III and early Style IV of Leroi-Gourhan's series, corresponding to the Solutrean and early and middle Magdalenian (between 21,000 and 13,000 BP approximately). Most of the signs and animals in sienna, red or black, in the first chamber, on the big wall or in the "Camerín", were probably produced in the first of these periods, although an earlier age cannot be excluded for some of the figures, especially the outlines in sienna. Other black figures, and the abundant, excellent engravings on the "Wall of the Engravings", which are occasionally associated with black paintings, belong to early Style IV.
Hernández Pacheco, E. 1919. La caverna de la PeĖa de Candamo (Asturias). CIPP, no. 24. Madrid.
Moure, J.A. 1981. Algunas consideraciones sobre el "Muro de los grabados" de San Román de Candamo (Asturias). Altamira Symposium (Madrid 1979), pp. 339-352. Madrid.
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