Paleolithic Arts in North Spain
  • The Digital Archive Project

    Cave Arts in Northern Spain
  • Introduction
  • Recent Research
  • Main characteristics
  • Rock Arts in Iberian Peninsula

    Caves in Asturias
  • Introduction
  • Peña de Candamo Cave
  • Lluera Cave
  • Tito Bustillo Cave
  • Buxu Cave
  • Pindal Cave
  • La Loja Cave

    Caves in Cantabria
  • Introduction
  • Chufín Cave
  • Altamira Cave
  • Hornos de la Peña Cave
  • Castillo Cave
  • Chimeneas Cave
  • Pasiega Cave
  • Las Monedas Cave
  • Santian Cave
  • El Pendo Cave
  • La Hasa Cave
  • Covalanas Cave
  • Pondra Cave

    Caves in Basque Country
  • Introduction
  • Venta de la Perra Cave
  • Arenaza Cave
  • Santimamiñe Cave
  • Ekain Cave

  • Main characteristics of Paleolithic cave art in SW Europe.

    César. González Sainz
    Prof. of the University of Cantabria

    Main characteristics of Paleolithic cave art in SW Europe.
    Before entering in the Iberian Peninsula, with its own different regions and peculiarities, a brief account should be made of the basic characteristics of this first artistic cycle in all southwest Europe.

    As mentioned above, this art displays great unity over wide geographical areas, above all in its mobiliary or portable version, but also in rock art. This unity is not seen again in the continent until the expansion of the Roman Empire, with very different economic, social and cultural bases. Furthermore, the same artistic tradition survives during a long lapse of time, covering all the Upper Paleolithic (c. 37,000-11,000 BP). Logically, regional peculiarities exist and styles change in time, yet these enrich, rather than detract from, this background unity. This is easily seen if figures of European Paleolithic art are compared with those of other prehistoric artistic cycles. It is, however, very difficult to define in a simple way. As will be shown, Paleolithic art does not have practically any aspects (referring to position, themes or contents, techniques or composition) which can be defined quickly and without needing to give exceptions.

    1. Cave art is distributed in different parts of the caves, from right at the entrance - therefore coinciding with the living area - to the end of the cave. Together with panels in comfortably-sized passages, the figures can be found in small chambers only reached with difficulty. Hence, some figures are visible to only one person at a time, and from the same position in which they were produced. These dark, withdrawn places, far from noise and light, in the depths of a cave are possibly the most typical locations, but by no means the only ones. A good number of art assemblages in daylight have been known for many years. The fact that they show a limited range of techniques (deep engravings and bas-relief) is mainly due to the greater problems for the conservation of paint. But recently, many more sites with Paleolithic art on open-air rock outcrops have been discovered, both in Spain (the assemblages of Domingo Garc’a and Siega Verde) and in Portugal (Mazouco, and a number of sites in the C™a Valley), and occasionally in the south of France (Fornols Haut). It has even be noticed that some of the sites along the River C™a have large images of animals on the rock outcrops, which must have been visible at a considerable distance from the site itself.

    In caves, artists produced their drawings and compositions on walls, floors and roofs. They used all types of accessible surfaces, and altered their techniques to suit the varying degrees of hardness, humidity or color of the rock surface. Sometimes they decorated smooth flat walls, or walls crossed by cracks and other irregularities which they used and frequently incorporated into their depictions. It is easy to see these same tendencies in the open-air panels of engravings, which are sometimes on horizontal beds of rock, as at Siega Verde, and other times on vertical or inclined walls. The use made of relief and discontinuities in the rock surface is the same as in caves.

    2. In these areas they painted or engraved depictions of animals, usually mammals, but sometimes fish, birds or serpents; a few humans, generally caricatures; more or less conventionalized abstract "signs" (a good number of these "signs" are repeated in different caves); and other less striking manifestations, such as stains of color with random forms, and series of non-figurative engraved lines or paintings. That is to say, not all the known tangible realities were represented, but a selection of them. There are no evident depictions of plants, or habitational structures; nor are there any landscapes or weapons, although some animals have spears stuck in their bodies. And sometimes we can find figures of imaginary beings, mixtures of men and/or different animals.

    Among the animals, the basis of Paleolithic art, bovines - bison and wild aurochs -, horses, deer and reindeer, goats and chamois are the principal figures. In other words, the animals which were most commonly hunted and consumed (although the proportions between the species depicted and consumed are not always the same, especially if these are evaluated at any particular site, rather than in the total number of sites in the region, or of any given period). But occasionally we find mammoths, rhinoceros, bears, carnivores, as well as fish, serpents and even insects.

    The animals are usually depicted in a more natural style than are human figures, whose faces are conventionally omitted or deformed. Many of the abstract signs are specific to each region, as will be seen later.

    3. The techniques used are very simple, but are applied in diverse and versatile ways, adapting them to the characteristics of each rock surface. Nearly all the figures were either engraved (with various objects, ranging from flint tools to finger-tips on soft clay surfaces) or painted (in black or in the palette of red colors - going from violet to yellow-, but neither white nor blue was used). In order to paint, they used charcoal or natural dyes (manganese, ocher or limonite), dissolved and applied with pieces of animal skins, brushes or sprayed, or as dry colors applied directly by hand. Besides these, many assemblages with bas-relief sculptures are known in the French Dordogne, or with clay models inside some caves in the Pyrenees. Furthermore many figures were made by chipping off small pieces of rock in order to produce the outline of the animal. This technique was used in some of the older French rockshelters, and was especially common in the open-air assemblages in the Duero Valley, in Portugal and Spain.

    4. Regarding compositions of the figures on cave walls or at open-air sites, there are no fixed rules, but rather an extreme variety. Apart from very few exceptions, there are no narrative scenes, or at least, only a vivid imagination could interpret the compositions as such. But compositions of inter-related figures do exist, in which a sense of unity is perceived. These may go from pairs of animals facing each other to large compositions such as the central panel in La Lluera, the roof of Altamira, or the chamber in Santimami–e, all in the Cantabrian region. And, of course, there are also panels with one, totally isolated figure, and even caves containing a single animal, such as the caves of San Antonio, Otero, Patatal and Sotarriza.

    From another point of view we can find synchronic sites, generally with a small number of stylistically and technically homogeneous figures; and also great accumulations of figures, often superimposed on the same panel, which appear to have been produced during different periods and phases. These are found in the Cantabrian region in the caves of Candamo, Tito Bustillo, Llon’n, Altamira, Castillo, Pasiega and La Garma.

    The formulae of thematic association, as between animals and signs, or the association between certain themes and parts of the cave, are highly variable, but definitely do not occur at random, as was implicitly supposed until the 1960s. The main association of different animal species, as defined by structuralist researchers, is horse plus auroch or bison; with other animals, above all deer or goats, in marginal positions. This appears in a significant number of sites, especially in easily visible panels, painted with laborious techniques and represented by large-sized figures. But this is by no means the only formula of composition in synchronic assemblages, and is not found in the Cantabrian region in sites such as Chimeneas, Arenaza, Chuf’n entrance, La Loja or Cullalvera, and nor is it the most abundant. Indeed, other important formulae of association are found regionally: in the Cantabrian the hind-horse association is repeated at several sites particularly in the Solutrean period, or that of horse and reindeer at Late Magdalenian sites.

    Equally, several tendencies of association between certain themes and parts of the cave are known. Again, here there is a great variety of possibilities, but one of the most significant is the concentration of abstract signs in hidden side-chambers, and not in panels of great visibility on the main route through the cave. This is especially true of the quadrangular and other closed signs of Style III. The central, more visible panels tend to be filled by paintings of large animals, preferentially bison and horses.

    5. Regarding the stylistic features of this art, just a few of what we consider to be the most important points, should be mentioned here. The depictions, as commented above, tend to reflect the most essential or characteristic aspects of the animals' bodies, while human figures appear deformed or highly simplified. On the other hand, the figures generally oscillate between a more or less realistic style and a schematic approach which reduces the form to its essential features without details. Both tendencies occur at the same times during the Upper Paleolithic, and occasionally in different figures of the same composition. This is more common in mobiliary art.

    The animals are usually drawn as profiles, with their heads sometimes turned backwards or facing the spectator, but frontal views occur too. The former type of figure is usually represented with realism, whereas the latter are schematic, and normally consist of heads of animals with their horns or antlers, as the most common animals in this position are goats or occasionally deer.

    Over time, it seems that there was a tendency to change in order to achieve a greater definition of the volume of the animals' bodies. This implied advances in the definition of depth (by different formulae of perspective in horns and limbs), and the reproduction of the different parts of the body (e.g. in the proportion of complete figures, or in the number of limbs depicted). Another development was in the construction of the interior of the animals' bodies, going from the mere indication of their outline, to the generalization of the lines of interior articulation, and the in-filling of parts with color or engraved bands. Similarly, there were changes in the co-ordination and animation of different parts of the body. These were, in any case very general tendencies of change throughout the Upper Paleolithic, and do not imply any strictly ordered or linear modifications during that period. The treatment given to any animal figure, the technique used or the degree of completeness, depended on many more factors than just the general level of artistic skill in each moment or the abilities of each artist.

    Finally, it is necessary to add another feature which appears throughout the Paleolithic, although in varying proportions. It is usual to find animals with heavy, voluminous bodies, with insufficiently short limbs, and sometimes with long necks finishing in tiny heads. These conventional deformations affect the pictures of horses more than bovines, cervids or caprids, and are particularly common in the Gravettian and Solutrean periods (c. 27,000 to 17,000 BP), but not exclusively.

    6. Dating Paleolithic art has been one of the central problems of research ever since its beginnings until the present time, when modern procedures such as the C14-AMS method have re-opened the subject with new controversy.

    Various procedures have been used in different circumstances, either to confirm the chronology of cave art in the Upper Paleolithic, or to obtain a more precise date within that period. Some of the older arguments used were: the depiction of extinct animal species, like mammoth, reindeer or bison, whose bones were only found in Paleolithic sediments, or the use of natural dyes or lithic engraving tools like those found in the strata of Paleolithic occupation. Other arguments were the fact that stalagmitic layers covered some of the paintings, or that the entrances of decorated caves had been blocked by natural processes, and these were only uncovered by large scale public works, such as quarries or roads, or by using caving equipment or sophisticated diving techniques. Similarly, the start of some decorated cave passages may have been blocked by sediments of a later Paleolithic occupation, or walls with rock art were covered by occupation levels, or pieces of the wall containing art had broken off and become integrated in the stratigraphy.

    Besides its link with the stratigraphy, the main criteria to date rock art was, and still is, its analysis compared with mobiliary art, which is found in stratigraphic sequences, and therefore has, at least, a relative date. In the early times of research, Breuil and other authors established a few "parallels", or links between the two variants (figures which were characteristic in their themes, technique or stylistic features). They also used superimpositions of figures in panels to organize a technical and stylistic chronology, although this assumed that there always existed a great difference in time between the superimposed figures. Since the 1960s, dating has been based more on the paintings which are well recorded stratigraphically, and the stylistic and chronological analysis of the whole mobiliary corpus - which has become more abundant and of a more precise chronology - and its comparison with rock art. The "parallels" have gradually been revised, so that nowadays only a few are still accepted as sure. But these few are extraordinarily useful.

    Since the 1980s it has been possible to date minimum amounts of charcoal from some of the black paintings, using the application of particle accelerators to the traditional method of radiocarbon dating. In this way absolute dates have been obtained for black figures in some twenty caves mainly in France and Spain (the caves of Altamira, Castillo, Covaciella, Monedas and Chimeneas in the Cantabrian region). The results have confirmed the Paleolithic date of the paintings, and roughly speaking, the stylistic chronology, especially in the late periods of the Upper Paleolithic. For older, Pre-Solutrean phases, however, some important contradictions have been produced, which have been the cause of fierce controversy. More recently it has become possible to date calcite layers associated with panels containing art, in caves like La Garma, Pondra and Venta de la Perra. This gives ante or post quem dates for all kinds of depictions, including engravings and paintings with inorganic pigments.

    In our opinion, the comparison with mobiliary art, and the so-called stylistic method of dating are still valid in general, at least for broad chronological approximations. In certain regions like the Cantabrian or the southwest of France there does seem to have been a process of changes, in technique and above all expression, aimed at achieving a greater realism and a more faithful expression of the third dimension. But even if this happened it does not mean that it affected all the figures produced in that period in the same way, or that the process can be applied in a simple linear way, or that it is equally valid applied to isolated figures or to synchronic assemblages with many paintings. Not only have there been good and bad artists at any moment, but any painter may not have given all his works of art the same treatment, as he did not intend to achieve always the same degree of realism, or applied all his technical skills in every figure.

    If we accept these tendencies to a general change, at least in regions like the Cantabrian, a succession of periods can be detected through the Upper Paleolithic, shown above all by differences in the stylistic conventions applied to animals figures, but also by tendencies to change in the most usual techniques, in the abstract signs associated with them, and in the iconographic structure. Despite having some important problems, the best chronological synthesis is still the one devised by Leroi-Gourhan in the 1960s, and which we will follow, with a few adaptations, in the chronological order of the art of Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Country.

    7. It is very difficult to know the meaning of this art. It is a fact that there has been an absolute lack of continuity in cultural tradition between the Paleolithic and our society, unlike the situation in Baja California, among the Bushmen, and above all in Australia. This partly explains the little progress made in research on the meaning or reason of art during the Paleolithic, and that most studies prefer to concentrate on documenting the techniques, themes, composition and even on the chronological ordering of the art.

    The studies aimed at interpreting the meaning have tended to reflect, unfailingly, the changes in mentality and the way of thinking and considering the past that have taken place, and continue to take place, in our society, as well as the ideology of each researcher. Nowadays, prehistorians usually trust little in sweeping single explanations, valid for the whole long period, whether these are ideas linking the art with good luck in hunting, with the expression of basic mythologies, or with rituals intended to maintain social cohesion, as these do not need to be mutually exclusive. Most studies are now based on the comparison between the different regions, and the different moments of the Upper Paleolithic, as a way of trying to understand the role played by the art, and hence, its meaning.

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