Paleolithic Arts in Northern Spain
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  • Lluera Cave, Asturias

    César. González Sainz &
    Roberto Cacho Toca
    Department of Historical Science, University of Cantabria

    3.2. Cueva de La Lluera I.

    Lluera1 Lluera2 The caves of La Lluera are located in the village of San Juan de Priorio, just a few kilometers from Oviedo. They are therefore in the middle valley of the River Nalón, only five meters above the present-day river level. La Lluera I is a short cave, made up of two short passages with separate entrances, which unite inside the cave. La Lluera II is situated fifty meters upstream, and is an even smaller cave. The art at La Lluera was discovered in 1979 by the Polifemo caving club of Oviedo, and its study began immediately under J. Fortea Pérez, who concentrated on the cave art, and J.A. Rodríguez Asensio, who took charge of the archaeological dig at the site. These professors have published important reports about the site.

    The excavation of the archaeological deposit at La Lluera I, in the eastern passage, revealed evidence of human occupation at different moments during the Solutrean, developed in the region between 21,000 and 16,500 BP approximately. Materials from the much later Azilian period were also found (between 11,500 and 9000 BP in the Cantabrian), and a bone taken from this layer was dated by radiocarbon to 10,280 +/- 230 BP.

    The cave of La Lluera II also contained Solutrean material in a single level of human origin. It is likely that the parietal engravings found at both sites belong to this period, and to be more precise, their style seems to indicate a time in the early Solutrean.

    Regarding cave art, La Lluera I is doubtlessly the clearest example of what Professor Fortea has called the second artistic type in the Nalón valley, including other nearby caves in the same area, such as Abrigo de la Viľa, and caves of Molín, Adriano, Godulfo and Murciélagos, as well as in the westernmost parts of Cantabria (e.g. Cueva de Chufín on the River Nansa, and less clearly related, the caves of Hornos de la Peľa and Venta de la Perra), which were discovered some time ago. The technical and stylistic similarities among the figures in all these sites are accentuated by the fact that they are all "exterior" assemblages. The work of engraving was carried out in them within daylight, or at most within semi-shade a little further inside the caves.

    All the cave art at La Lluera I was engraved with simple, deep and quite clear lines, achieved by repeatedly cutting the same grooves. It has also been noticed that the groove's profile was sometimes cut back on the inner part of the animal figure, and other times on the outer side, in a very early attempt to express the volume of some of the animals represented.

    The themes are the usual ones: depictions of the more or less typical wild animals in the Cantabrian region during the Full Glacial period, and which were thus very well known to the artists. Hinds, aurochs and horses were the main animals represented, together with an occasional ibex, and a possible mammoth. Conventionalized abstract designs (or "signs") are rare at La Lluera I, which has just a few fringed signs and crosses.

    The stylistic conventions observed in these animals are relatively simple. They are figures defined by their outline, with hardly any of the interior details which were so common in styles of a later age. Besides, their profile is incomplete in many cases, apparently reduced to the parts which best allow the animal to be identified: the head, cervical-dorsal line and croup. In the cases when limbs are shown, above all in aurochs, horses, and less frequently in hinds, only one limb is drawn for each pair, and they are short, finishing in a point, normally without indicating the hoof, and open. For similar reasons, perspective is defined even less, apart from the attempts to show volume mentioned above, and there are hardly any elements indicating depth. So, normally only one of the hinds' ears is shown, or only one of the bovines' horns.

    Some of the most common compository formats at La Lluera I are quite conventional and well known in the region. A significant one is the hind's head constructed with few lines: a straight line indicates the forehead and is prolonged to the ear, a concave line shows the neck, and below that a third, less curved line represents the chin and front part of the neck. Therefore, in this structure we already find some of the key conventions repeated in later periods in hind's heads which are technically and stylistically more complex: the long, pointed and triangular-shaped head, and the mouth open by a separation of lines.

    The engravings at La Lluera I form a roughly synchronic composition, divided in different panels along the western passage. The study of its organization has proved to be very interesting. The engravings were produced from the exterior zone with full visibility, as far as the area where the shade begins to darken, and there the decoration stops. Throughout this decorated zone, between daylight zones and semi-shade, there is considerable variety in the iconographic compositions, density of figures, and degree of imbrication and superimposition. Similarly, it has been seen that the size of the figures tends to decrease the further the artists went from natural light, at least along the eastern wall.

    Among these different panels, the most obvious and important one, which appeared to play a central role in the articulation of the assemblage, is known as the "Great Niche", and it is the part of the cave art published in detail so far. This hollow in the wall has a surprisingly clear composition based on six or seven bulls and a horse, positioned over oblique parallel lines in the rock surface, and flanked by a dozen hinds, which are smaller and less complete. The central figures of this panel seem the best finished and clearest of all the art at La Lluera I. Other panels are dominated by hinds and unfinished outlines which are difficult to identify, as well as containing examples of the species already mentioned, and ibex, a possible mammoth and abundant non-figurative marks. La Lluera I therefore displays an assemblage with quite homogeneous, more or less synchronic, designs, whose style is attributed by Professor Fortea to intermediate phases between Leroi-Gourhan's Styles II and III.

    Regarding the small cave of La Lluera II, it has a very restricted group of parietal art. Here, about fifteen closed signs, feminine sexual triangles, surround the forequarters of a hind, in a single composition. The engravings, which were produced in the exterior zone and thus are easily visible, have deep lines which were cut back in a clear attempt to represent volume as at La Lluera I. According to Professor Fortea, both sites would have been synchronic, and probably produced in an early moment of the Solutrean. Besides, they are complementary from an iconographic and symbolic point of view: the ideal sanctuary would have been divided here into two different but nearby locations; just as in many Cantabrian caves the large panels in the main passages are complemented by groups of abstract signs in small side chambers (e.g. in Tito Bustillo, Peľa Candamo, Altamira, La Pasiega, Castillo or Cullalvera).


    Fortea Pérez, J. 1989. Cuevas de La Lluera. Avance al estudio de sus artes parietales. Cien aľos después de Sautuola, pp. 187-202. Santander.

    Rodríguez Asensio, A. 1990. Excavaciones arqueológicas realizadas en la cueva de "La Lluera" (San Juan de Priorio, Oviedo). Excavaciones Arqueológicas en Asturias 1983-86, pp. 15-17. Oviedo.
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