Paleolithic Arts in North Spain
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    Cave Arts in North Spain
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  • Castillo Cave, Cantabria

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

    Castillo01 Castillo03 Castillo12 Castillo25 Castillo55 Castillo31 Castillo52 Castillo47 Castillo45 Castillo64 Now clickable at
    CA001| CA003| CA012| CA025| CA055|
    CA031| CA052| CA047| CA045| CA064|

    Castillo cave

    This cave takes its name from the hill where it is situated, overlooking the town of Puente Viesgo, in the center of Cantabria. In 1903, an important archaeological deposit was located in the entrance vestibule of the cave, and numerous paintings and engravings were discovered in its interior. Hermilio Alcalde del Río, a local teacher, was the discoverer, and he also undertook the first studies in the site. Later, at different times during the century, other caves were found in the same hill, whose entrances had been blocked and hidden by collapses. These are the caves, each with an archaeological deposit and cave art, of La Pasiega, Las Chimeneas and Las Monedas; as well as La Flecha, which only had an archaeological deposit in its entrance.

    In the Upper Paleolithic, the large outer rock-shelter at El Castillo, 190m above sea level and facing east-northeast, was occupied much more often than the other caves which were then open. It was thus the main habitat in the hill and in all the immediate geographical area. These other smaller caves, despite being in the same intensely karstified limestone hill, seem to be mere satellites of the great habitat and decorative complex centered on El Castillo. They were occupied more occasionally as camps, for meetings and diverse activities, some of which would have involved the production of cave art.

    After the first studies in the cave, the vestibule of Castillo was excavated by the Institut de Paleontologie Humaine at Paris, directed by H. Obermaier and H. Breuil, between 1910 and 1914. The cave art was studied at the same time, with the collaboration of Alcalde del Río and several foreign archaeologists. This work played a vital role in the definition of the Paleolithic cultural sequence in the Cantabrian region, due both to the good state of conservation of the archaeological deposit and to its great thickness. Layers corresponding to nearly all the periods of the Paleolithic were dug, reaching over 20m in depth. Furthermore, the documentation of the cave art inside the cave, where there are many complex panels with superimpositions of figures in different techniques and styles, was also important for the model of the chronology of cave art elaborated by Henri Breuil. This model, based on a succession of technical procedures and stylistic changes throughout the Upper Paleolithic, was the main one used in chronological studies until 1965, when Leroi-Gourhan published his major work. Nowadays, the panels of figures in El Castillo are still proof of the distribution of many assemblages of cave art through millennia of decoration, despite the interpretations of some structuralist prehistorians, who tend to consider that all these complex panels are synchronic, or that the superimpositions are a form of composition.

    The excavation of the stratigraphy at El Castillo was restarted in the 1980s by V. Cabrera, an archaeologist who had previously studied the results obtained by the first digs, which had hardly been analyzed and were not well published. In summary, in the twenty meters of depth in the vestibule, nearly thirty archaeological layers could be differentiated. These go from the late Acheulian, about 150,000 years ago, to the end of the Upper Paleolithic, and even the Epipaleolithic and more recent prehistoric periods. This long sequence, as it is being dug and studied at present, is providing valuable information about the transition, or replacement, between the Neanderthal populations of the Mousterian period and the Homo sapiens sapiens of the Aurignacian and later Upper Paleolithic periods.

    The multiple occupations found in the long stratigraphic sequence is probably a result of the good habitation conditions of the vestibule, and the excellent strategic position of the Castillo hill. It is located in the center of the Cantabrian region, in the middle of the regional relief, and right in the area of contact between the open coastal zone and the interior valleys. The hill forms the eastern end of the Sierra del Dobra, a mountainous West-East ridge between the rivers Besaya and Pas. It dominates the route into the Toranzo valley up the River Pas, and also the nearby Pisueña valley, and it therefore controls the way to the high summer pastures, which must have been important for the herds of wild ungulates. On its other flank, the hill also controls the route to the Besaya valley, going round the Sierra del Dobra to the north.

    The characteristic conical shape of the hill and its central position in the region landscape, between these two main types of territory: the coastal plains and the inland valleys, indicate that the large vestibule of Cueva del Castillo must have been an essential camping place for the Paleolithic hunters of this central area of the Cantabrian region, on their movements between the coast and the valleys. Marine shells are frequent in the Upper Paleolithic deposit as far as the layers of the Magdalenian period. Furthermore, from the hill itself, different biotopes can quickly be reached, each with its own resources. Lithic raw material for the manufacture of tools is relatively abundant in the area, in the form of conglomerates on the hillside, and cobbles from the bed of the River Pas. The area also had good hunting and fishing, as the archaeological deposit so clearly shows; this was available both on the flatter ground in the valley and on the quite steep hillsides, which would have had partially different vegetation and resources, depending on their orientation.

    The interior of the cave has a complex series of passages. The art tends to be distributed throughout practically the whole cave, with very unequal densities of figures. This, and the great variety in the techniques, styles and formats, the superimposition of figures in several panels, as well as the habitual occupations in the vestibule, show that the cave must have been visited and modified on numerous occasions. As a result, it contains art that can be attributed to nearly every period of the Upper Paleolithic. Partly because of this, and partly because the cave has been greatly altered to accommodate tourist visits (work has been done since the 1950s, without adequate archaeological control), it is now frankly quite difficult to obtain a precise idea of the spatial structure of the art. The alterations to the cave impede a correct evaluation of the difficulty of the routes taken through the different parts of the cave during the Paleolithic, or the original visibility of the panels. So, we have to reduce the description of this abundant art to the main areas and content, as follows:

    * From the vestibule, we directly enter the first "Main Chamber", a large hall which has different decorated passages leading off. But first, we should mention a lower passage, below the route into the Main Chamber. This is a semi-circular passage, or oxbow, which has the first group of noticeably homogeneous animal engravings. They are simple figures drawn with a single line, representing horses and stags, in a good composition of superimposed animals, and a few hinds and goats. The stylistic character, in terms of their proportions, perspective, degree of completeness in outline and interior, suggest they correspond to an early period in the Upper Paleolithic.

    * The Main Chamber is nearly 70m long. The art is distributed on almost all its walls, including a final chamber or side-passage, and it contains nearly all the most typical themes and techniques to be found in Cueva del Castillo, except for the conventional abstract signs. Some of the more important figures are a large painting of a stag in red, now somewhat faded, a magnificent depiction of a male auroch, facing right and painted in black in a quite late style, as well as other black paintings less spectacular or definable. There is also a group of horses painted in black, but badly faded, and this is perhaps the part of the cave where the art is worst conserved. In several places in the chamber, we can see a large number of generally small engravings, above all of hinds, sometimes with magnificent striated heads and chests.

    This Main Chamber also has a few very schematic anthropomorphic figures. They are in a style which is common in the art of recent prehistoric periods, and may be associated with the Bronze Age deposits which are recorded in the Chamber.

    * From the first part of the chamber, we can descend to the so-called "Polychrome Frieze", in a passage which continues down to the "Gallery of the Hands". This panel of "polychromes", on successive sections of wall, is one of the most important accumulations of paintings in the region, and has figures belonging in very different moments of the Upper Paleolithic. Here we find the first hand images, painted as negatives by spraying diluted red pigment around a hand. They are superimposed by a number of red hinds, in a simple style. The panel also has some oval signs in red. On a higher part of the wall there is the front-quarters of a large bison outlined in red, which used the natural shape of the rock to suggest the rest of its body, a large horse similarly in red, and around them smaller figures of a horse's head, a hind, and the front-quarters of a stag. Above and to the right of the large horse, the remains of a red claviform sign can be appreciated, similar to the ones in La Pasiega B and Altamira.

    The lower part of the panel has four figures of bison, which are the most recent figures. Three of them have been dated by C14-AMS, with the result that they were painted on at least two different occasions. The oldest is the smallest one on the left, dated to about 13,500 BP, and another two in the center of the panel, superimposed on the hands, signs and hinds, had dates of about 13,000 BP. In fact, these bison are not polychromes although the effect of using and including the red color of the previous figures does evoke that type of figure. Instead, they are outlined with black paint and engraving, and only the fourth animal, on the right of the panel, had a reddish-brown color wash inside the bison's body in addition to the black paint and engraving of its outline and the interior details.

    * Going down a slope from the "polychromes", we reach the "Gallery of the Hands", an "L"-shaped passage, which has a small chamber called by the first explorers the "Tectiforms Corner". The walls and even the roof of the passage are decorated by numerous negative hand images associated with red discs. They are nearly all left hands, and superimposed on some of them there are at least seven bison with a very simple outlined form in yellow. A large number of engravings are superimposed both on the bison and on red quadrilateral signs. These mostly represent hinds in a quite archaic style, but some of them have striated chins.

    On a bend in the Gallery of the Hands, near the entry to the chamber with the signs, we can see other highly interesting figures: a large-bellied, long-eared horse, with arrows in its body, next to another horse and a hind also painted in a pre-Magdalenian style. There is also a large quadrilateral sign with a pointed protuberance midway along its top side, and smaller oval signs.

    More complete hinds with striated engraving in their heads are superimposed on the quadrilaterals and other red signs on the end wall of the passage. Very near these, magnificent ibex are engraved with detail, together with red dots and quadrilateral signs, and more rarely, black figures. One of these, at the start of this passage, represents the front-quarters of a bison in a clearly Magdalenian style, very similar to figures in Pyrenean caves.

    * The roof and one wall of a small side-chamber contain an exceptional group of abstract signs wrongly called "tectiforms". In fact they are sub-rectangular signs, different from the true tectiforms in the caves in Perigord in France, and therefore very similar to the signs found in many caves in the center of the Cantabrian region, such as Arco B, La Haza, La Pasiega A, C and D, Chimeneas, Altamira, Mazaculos I or Llonín. This tiny chamber has ten rectangular and oval signs, subdivided transversely into three fields and frequently with borders filled with short lines. They are associated with parallel lines of red dots, usually painted directly with a finger on the rock. At the back of the chamber, a couple of engraved bison are not well known. One of their bodies is filled with lines, and these are apparently Magdalenian figures, of a much later date than the painted signs.

    * The "Second Chamber" can be reached directly from the first, Main Chamber, by a difficult route between large boulders, or alternatively from the start of the Gallery of the Hands. Along the first route we find some of the best hind's heads in the cave, striated in their chins and chests, identical to the figures drawn on flat bones (deer scapulae) during the occupations of the early Magdalenian in the vestibule, documented in layer 8, and dated between approximately 16,500 and 14,000 BP. Among the boulders there is also a pair of engraved horses, facing each other, in a simple but very beautiful composition. The passage from the Gallery of the Hands has a few more negative hand images, and a controversial animal's head painted in red.

    The more interesting compositions in the Second Chamber include a group of bell-shaped abstract signs, painted in red, with a superimposed branching sign in black. The same chamber has a few black animal paintings, above all well-executed figures of ibex. But the most important figure is a bison in a vertical position, using the natural shape of a stalagmite, painted in black and engraved. This chamber also has a large red quadrilateral sign, pointed in its top side.

    * The Third Chamber, following the route towards the end of the cave, has a good, interesting group of black animal paintings, mostly in the passages leading into the chamber. They are figures of stags, horses, aurochs and other less easily defined animals, only painted around their outline, typical of Style III, which is not too common in black paintings in the Cantabrian region. A magnificent engraving of a whole auroch, with its horns in semi-twisted perspective, is of the same period. The passage between the second and third chambers, which has been altered completely, also contains two male bison in line and facing right, painted in black with very late conventions of representation. The same area of the cave has a large number of animal figures in black, usually quite small and depicting goats or deer. Nevertheless there is a whole horse using color wash in the area of its head. A side passage on the left near the entrance into the Third Chamber has a "maskÓ represented on a rock pendant, to which an eye and a line for the nose were added in black, in an identical procedure to other figures of "masks" in Altamira and the Lower Passage in La Garma. A good head of an ibex as a black linear drawing is nearby.

    * Although the Fourth Chamber has fewer figures, there are some animals in black, and engravings of horses. A series of red-violet dots are grouped together.

    * The "Gallery of the Discs" in the deepest part of the cave, is a long corridor with several figures, mainly in red, but with few engravings, unlike in the rest of the cave where they are abundant. At the start of the passage the head of an auroch is painted with horns in semi-twisted perspective and one ear. The most typical motifs in this passage are the lines of large dots or discs sprayed in red and organized in different compositions. There are also some negative hand images, diamond and cross shaped signs, non-figurative lines and the painting of a mammoth in red, as well as numerous bear scratches on the walls and floor.

    Although excellent documentary work and analysis was carried out after the discovery of the cave, to which important studies have been added by prehistorians such as J. González Echegaray, E. Ripoll, A. Moure and others, it now seems that a detailed revision of the art in Cueva del Castillo is necessary, so that it can be analyzed on more modern bases. In present conditions, the inventory of the themes represented can only give us a general idea of the contents, and could be modified substantially. A critical view of the figures which have been published to date enables us to reach a total of 240: about 56 negative hands, 54 hinds, 26 horses, 24 bison, 18 stags, 10 ibex, 6 aurochs, 3 chamois, 2 masks, 1 anthropomorph and 1 mammoth, as well as 5 cervids, 13 bovine, 5 caprids, and another 22 unidentified quadrupeds. Among the non-figurative art, there are some 52 complex signs, mainly quadrangles, quadrilaterals with a pointed side, ovals or bell-shaped signs, and up to 27 dots, single, or as series of lines or in groups. The stains of color and series of simple lines, which are plentiful in the cave, have never been studied in detail, so they have never been counted nor is their distribution known.

    The techniques used seem to be ordered in time in a similar way to those found in the nearby Cueva de La Pasiega. However, there are important differences in the distribution of the techniques in both caves, although they were both occupied at very different times throughout the Upper Paleolithic. In El Castillo negative hands and discs, painted by spraying the pigment, are very common, whereas this technique is hardly found in La Pasiega. Black paint is used more profusely, compared with the predominance of red in Pasiega, including the application of color wash in black, which does not exist in the second cave. Furthermore, discontinuous dotted lines, and red color wash, are unusual in El Castillo, but common in La Pasiega.

    In the very general terms in which we can move, Breuil's proposals for the order of the techniques, based on the superimpositions, are relatively compatible with the chronology suggested by Leroi-Gourhan. The latter distinguished four basic occupations in his Styles III and Early IV, during the Solutrean and Magdalenian periods. At present, although much of the art in El Castillo must correspond to those periods, it is likely that at least the hands and simple series of red dots or discs are of an earlier age to Style III, and are probably Gravettian. The synchrony of all the figures of some of the panels is equally far from certain, because of the different radiocarbon dates that have been obtained, among other reasons.

    The oldest paintings, of Style III and probably also of Style II, are the red sprayed paintings, the red and yellow linear outlined figures, which were applied in different ways, and the lines of red dots. The black paintings, sometimes with color wash, seem more common in the sub-groups of early Style IV than in Style III, although there are clearly animals in that style in El Castillo, just as there are in Las Chimeneas. Some of these black figures, and the "bichrome" bison, recently dated by radiocarbon, would have been the last paintings in the cave, defined in the Magdalenian period.

    The types of engraving, whose association with painting seems to increase with time, are highly varied, and range from simple, single lines, or repeated lines, to partial striation (this is usually in hinds, with direct parallels with the scapulae from the early Magdalenian layers in the habitation deposit, or with the ones from Altamira, dated to about 14,500 BP), or even with lines filling the whole figure in the case of some ibex and bison. These varying styles of engraving must correspond to different periods, although they seem to be most abundant in the sub-groups of early Style IV than in previous styles, and there are even a few engravings superimposed on a "bichrome" figure. This relative abundance of engravings in early Style IV is also found in La Pasiega, and the distribution of the figures, nearer the entrance of the cave, and their generally small size, is equally similar to those in La Pasiega.

    The distribution of motifs and techniques through El Castillo provides interesting information. It is clear that the oldest depictions, such as the hands and discs, are found in practically all the cave, including the parts nearest the end. In contrast, paintings and engravings of a more clearly Magdalenian style, or in Style IV, seem most common in the middle of the cave or nearer the entrance. This general distribution, in disagreement with certain interpretive schemes still in use, is nevertheless relatively similar to the one found, for example in La Pasiega, in both its eastern and western parts, and in the Lower Passage in La Garma.


  • Alcalde del Río, H. 1906. Las pinturas y grabados de las cavernas prehistóricas de la provincia de Santander: Altamira, Covalanas, Hornos de la Peña, Castillo. Impr. de Blanchard y Arce, Santander.
  • Alcalde del Río, H.; Breuil, H.; Sierra, L. 1911. Les cavernes de la région Cantabrique. Imprimerie Vve. A. Chéne. Monaco.
  • Cabrera Valdés, V. 1984. El yacimiento de la cueva de "El Castillo" (Puente Viesgo, Santander). Bibliotheca Praehistorica Hispana, XXII. Madrid.
  • Leroi-Gourhan, A. 1965. Prehistoire de l'art occidental. Mazenod, Paris.
  • Moure, A.; González Sainz, C.; Bernaldo de Quirós, F.; Cabrera Valdés, V. 1996. "Dataciones absolutas de pigmentos en cuevas cantábricas: Altamira, El Castillo, Chimeneas y Las Monedas". A. Moure (ed.), "El Hombre fósil" 80 años después. pp 295-324, Universidad de Cantabria, Santander.

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