I’ve Met the Flintstones

Altimira cave painting

30th September 1960 was the first broadcast of the TV show the Flintstones but I have had a much more authentic Stone Age encounter.

In 2008 we visited Cantabria in Northern Spain and on dreary damp day headed towards Santillana Del Mar and then followed signposts to the Altamira museum on the edge of the town.   I wasn’t expecting a great deal to be honest so was surprised to find a very big car park and a large building built into the hills.  I was about to learn about something else that I was completely unaware of – Cantabria is the richest region in the world in archaeological sites from the Upper Paleolithic period (that’s the stone age to you and me).  The most significant cave painting site is the cave of Altamira, dating from about 16,000 to 9000 BC and declared, with another nine Cantabrian caves, World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.

Around 13,000 years ago a rockfall sealed the cave’s entrance preserving its contents until its eventual discovery which was caused by a nearby tree falling and disturbing the fallen rocks.  The really good bit about the story is that it wasn’t discovered by Howard Carter, Tony Robinson or Indiana Jones but by a nine year old girl who came across them while playing in the hills above the town in 1879.

Her father was an amateur archaeologist called Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola and he was led by his daughter to discover the cave’s drawings. The cave was excavated by Sautuola and archaeologist Juan Vilanova y Piera from the University of Madrid, resulting in a much acclaimed publication in 1880 which interpreted the paintings as Paleolithic in origin.  So well preserved were the paintings however that there ensued an argument about authenticity and some believed the whole thing to be a hoax and it was’t until 1902 that they were accepted as genuine.

We paid the modest entrance fee of €2.40 and went into the museum, which turned out to be a real treasure with interesting displays about the Stone Age, or the Paleolithic period if you prefer, with the highlight of the visit being a full size recreation of the original cave and its precious paintings.

Today it is only possible to see this copy because the actual cave is now closed to vistors.  During the 1960s and 1970s, the paintings were being damaged by the damp breath of large numbers of visitors and Altamira was completely closed to the public in 1977, and reopened with only very limited access in 1982. Very few visitors are allowed in per day, resulting in a three-year waiting list.  It would be nice to go into the actual cave but actually the replica allows a more comfortable view of the polychrome paintings of the main hall of the cave, as well as a selection of minor works and also includes some sculptures of human faces that cannot be accessed in the real thing.

And, let me tell you, these people were good painters.  The artists used charcoal and ochre or haematite to create the images, often scratching or diluting these dyes to produce variances in intensity and creating an impression of remarkable and sophisticated contrasts and they also exploited the natural contours in the cave walls to give a three-dimensional effect to their subjects. The painted ceiling is the most impressive feature showing a herd of bison in different poses, two horses, a large doe and a wild boar.  Other images include horses, goats and handprints created from the artist placing his hand on the cave wall and spraying paint over it leaving a negative image of his palm. Numerous other caves in northern Spain contain palaeolithic art but none is as advanced or as famous as Altamira.

This place came as a real surprise and we spent most of the morning exploring it.  It was a good job we did because outside it was still raining and was quite damp so after we had walked to see the actual opening to the cave (it wasn’t very exciting I have to say) we debated our options and after some indecision decided to go west again to where it seemed a little brighter.

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