Inora Newsletter #42



The Altamira Museum and Research Centre has been developing an archaeological project called “The Times of Altamira” since 2003. The aim of this project is to discover more about the Altamira Cueva and its immediate area in the times when it was occupied by groups of hunter-gatherers, between 18,000 and 14,000 years ago (late Solutrean and early Magdalenian). The first season’s work was focused on the Cueva de Cualventi, where a determined small area was excavated in order to review the stratigraphy revealed by earlier digs. The excavation, co-ordinated by R. Montes and P. Rasines, was carried out by archaeologists from the Altamira Museum.

Another aim of this first season was a full examination of the cave in order to verify certain reports about the existence of Palaeolithic art there (García Guinea & Rincón 1978). The indication referred to the presence of red stains on the walls of a small chamber called La Covacha, located at the base of the rock-shelter outside Cualventi, or to the evidence of some engravings, found by A. Pintó (surveyor in García Guinea’s team) in the same Covacha.
The visual examination made in August 2003 by the team from the Altamira Museum confirmed this preliminary information, and located a large number of works, in the form of painted and engraved figures, stains of pigment and other signs. This means that, instead of being a cave with some evidence of art, Cualventi has become a new and well-documented Palaeolithic art site in Cantabrian Spain.

Location and description of the Cueva de Cualventi

The Cueva de Cualventi is located in the centre of Cantabrian Spain (at Oreña, in the Alfoz de Lloredo municipality, Autonomous Community of Cantabria) and only 2 km away from the Altamira Cueva. The entrance faces west. It is on the side of a wide, shallow doline, in a small valley running down to the shore of the Cantabrian Sea. At present, the cave is 2.5 km in a straight line from the coast (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Location of the Cueva de Cualventi in Cantabrian Spain.

Cualventi presents a large rock-shelter with two entrances to deeper galleries.

The lower one leads to a small cave called La Covacha, which is connected to the active part of the system; it was the sink hole in the doline until it became blocked, during the Magdalenian, with a layer of silt and sand containing early/mid-dle Magdalenian artefacts.

The upper entrance, which is the way into Cualventi itself, is about 4 m higher, and leads into the fossil levels of the cave. A number of pits and shafts descend to the active system, which is also partly blocked by the sediment fill which accumulated in the vestibule after La Covacha was sealed off (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Section of Cueva de Cualventi.

The upper entrance, which is the way into Cualventi itself, is about 4 m higher, and leads into the fossil levels of the cave. A number of pits and shafts descend to the active system, which is also partly blocked by the sediment fill which accumulated in the vestibule after La Covacha was sealed off (Fig. 2).

The rock-shelter contains a thick and wide archaeological deposit, which is an important source of information about the late glacial period in Cantabrian Spain. However, its scientific excavation and the results obtained have not been published in sufficient detail, and our project aims to compensate for this deficiency. Nearly twenty years after the last digs carried out by M. A. García Guinea, the team from the museum has cleaned the deposit and the stratigraphic sections in order to extract samples to be studied by specialists in different fields (Lasheras et alii, in press).

Cave art documented

The existence of indications of Palaeolithic cave art in Cualventi was known thanks to the work of M. A. García Guinea and his team (carried out between the late 1970s and 1986). Now, the project developed by the Altamira Museum has been able to check these indications and confirm the existence of at least two groups of cave art (one of red paintings and the other of engravings) which differ in their technique, style and chronology. These two groups are distributed in 12 panels, containing as many as 26 graphic units (both figurative and non-figurative).

Eleven of the panels are found in the small chamber in the lower part of the rock-shelter known as La Covacha.

It is reached through a small entrance which leads to a steep slope and the chamber itself. The entrance was blocked by Layer E (corresponding to Layer 6 in García Guinea’s stratigraphy). It was re-opened by García Guinea’s team when they were digging the early/middle Magdalenian deposit and this establishes the latest possible time ante quem for the cave art.
In the first place, we will describe the panels forming the series of red paintings. These were generally produced by using the techniques of colour wash and dotted lines; the figures are therefore similar to those in other caves in Cantabria, such as Covalanas, Arco A and B, and El Pendo.

Fig. 3. Topography of the shelter and the first level of Cualventi

Panel 1: 108 cm high (from roof to floor) by 100 cm wide. It contains the figure of a hind and other remains of red pigment in the form of very faded heterogeneous stains. The figure of the hind is located in the upper part of the panel (78 cm from the floor). It has two ears, the complete muzzle, the start of the chest and the cervical line. It is 65 cm long, from the muzzle to the end of the cervical line, and 30 cm high. It was painted by dabbing the pigment on the wall to form a dotted line, although on its back the dots overlap and give rise to a rough line of unequal thickness and intensity (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Representation of a
hind painted in red ochre.
Fig. 5. Representation of an
ibex painted in red ochre.

Panel 2: 97 cm high (from roof to floor) by 40 cm wide. It consists of a large red stain (34 x 21 cm) which has faded into the rock. It is perhaps the remains of a figure painted as a colour wash. The panel has other remains of pigment including some dots.

Panel 3: A large panel situated between 96 and 183 cm above the present floor and with a width of a little over 100 cm. Practically the whole surface has remains of red colouring, generally badly faded and diffuse, which we interpret as the remains of an animal figure, painted in part with dotted lines and other parts in colour wash. Following the lines of dots, we can identify the complete figure of an ibex, 58 cm long and 42 cm high (Fig. 5), with a horn, head, neck, chest (with the start of a foreleg), cervical-dorsal line, hindquarters (a single hind leg) and tail. Its outline is made up of dots, generally overlapping, and its interior is filled with a faint colour wash which is visible in the head, neck and lower part of the body.

Panel 4: This occupies a hollow in the wall with very smooth sides (in fact, formed by the pressure of flowing water over the wall). Its size is 102 cm high by 85 cm wide, and is positioned between 110 and 212 cm above the floor. The whole panel is covered by very faded red ochre, and the techniques of dotted lines and colour wash are present. Despite the poor state of conservation, at least two animal figures can be recognised. One of these is the figure of a large bison, 50 cm high and 85 cm long, painted with colour wash (Fig. 6). The other is a dotted cervical-dorsal line and croup, possibly of a horse, 40 cm long, superimposed on the bison. Both figures are positioned in the concave part of the panel, and this affects the bison, which is seen distorted from any angle of view.

Panel 5: This has two red ochre stains; the upper one is 30 cm high and 7 cm wide (it has been partially covered by calcite and its original size must have been bigger). The lower stain is an isolated dot 1.5 cm in diameter. They are located about 110 cm above the present floor level.

Panel 6: This has two rough vertical lines in red, but very faded, with measurements of 6 x 2 and 12 x 2 cm respectively. They are found between 55 and 70 cm above the present floor.

Panel 7: 100 cm high (from roof to floor) and 46 cm wide, containing different faded red stains and several dots forming lines. Possibly, this panel originally held the figure of an animal, but the poor state of conservation impedes any form of interpretation.

Panel 8: This has two red stains. One has a triangular shape (measuring 20 x 20 cm) and the other is linear (13 cm long). They are 80 cm above floor level.
Fig. 6. Representation of a
bison painted in red ochre.

Panel 9: Very faded and diffuse remains of red ochre in the lower vertical side of a hollow in the roof. The remains take the form of a stain 48 cm high and 40 cm wide, as well as a large dot 3.5 cm in diameter.

Panel 10: The top part of a hollow, located in the roof of La Covacha, above panel 9. It only measures 30 x 30 cm. All the animals face left. At the top right, a hind’s head is 15 x 10.5 cm in size. It displays certain details, like the mouth, eye and ears, but the neck is missing. The mouth was prolonged to suggest its tongue. It was produced with a single engraved line which is occasionally repeated (in its throat, forehead and ears). There is an arched line above its muzzle. The belly, groin area and hind leg of another animal can be seen below the hind. To its left, an ibex, measuring 8 x 8 cm, is complete except for its hindquarters. Its forelimbs are projected forwards, while its horns are long and almost straight. It has no interior details, although the position where its eye should be coincides with a fossil in the rock. It was drawn with a simple engraved line which was corrected in places. At the top left there is another ibex, 3.5 x 4 cm in size, drawn with a more careless line than the previous figure. Its horns are long, but not parallel, its muzzle is indicated, a line comes from its mouth in the form of its tongue, and a fossil suggests its eye. Above the first ibex, there is the head and neck of another ibex, 5 x 5 cm in size, with a long curved horn. It was drawn schematically, using a simple, single line with some corrections.

Panel 11: The left hand wall of the ramp leading into La Covacha is straight, and covered with calcite between 140 (roof) and 55 cm above the floor as it is nowadays. Here, there is an area with red ochre whose lower part is a stain with small remains of pigment grouped in a space of 8 x 9 cm. The upper part, where wall and roof meet, has a group of specks of colour and small remains, possibly of a dotted line, belonging to the figure of an animal, measuring 36 x 25 cm in total. They could be the remains of a head (with an ear) and chest, a foreleg, belly, a hind-leg, and part of the cervical-dorsal line, of a horse. However, we cannot be sure of this interpretation owing to the poor conservation of the figure.

Panel 12: It is the only panel located outside La Covacha. It is found in the main cave of Cualventi, at the end of the first passage leading directly into the fossil part of the cave system. It consists of 5 red stains, which have faded into the rock. They do not form any shape, and are situated between 78 and 120 cm above the floor (Fig. 3).

The other group of art consists of a single panel of engraved figures (Montes et alii, in press). It contains 3 figures of ibex (2 of them practically complete), the hindquarters of another animal and a hind’s head (Fig. 7) and they constitute panel 10:

Fig. 7. (left) Panel of engravings with representations of three ibex
and one head of a hind.

Preliminary Assessment

Until our study is completed, and is the subject of a fuller publication, the following conclusions can be expressed in the form of a summary:

a) Cualventi has a large archaeological deposit (covering some 600 m2) with a sedimentary sequence accumulated in the later phases of the last glacial period, roughly during the time between 17,000 and 11,000 BP. Above this sequence, smaller remains are found in a layer of calcite, and more recent objects were found on the surface.

b) The cave holds a large number of examples of cave art, as many as 26, which are certainly Upper Palaeolithic in age. Most of these are located in La Covacha, at the base of the rock-shelter, below the entrance to the fossil cave system. In the main cave, the only examples seen are the faded red stains at the end of the first passage.

c) The cave art can be divided into two groups, differentiated by their technical and stylistic characteristics and also by their chrono-stylistic attribution: The first, of clearly pre-Magdalenian age, consists of figures that are exclusively red (ochre) with frequent use of dotted lines and the generalised application of colour wash (which is conserved, absorbed into the rock surface). The animal figures are similar to those known in caves in the centre of Cantabrian Spain, such as El Pendo, Covalanas or Arco A and B (Montes & Sanguino 2001; González & San Miguel 2001) which have recently been ascribed to a period ranging from the Gravettian to the early Solutrean. These figures have no archaeological context in the deposit in the rock shelter, which only provides evidence of occupation in the Magdalenian and a few isolated late Solutrean artefacts (to be precise, two flat-retouched points). The second group consists of the engraved animal figures. They are similar to others found in well-dated sites (such as Altamira, Juyo, Cobrante or El Castillo; Montes et alii in press), and with few doubts they may be attributed to the same period. These figures can be related directly to the majority of the human occupations in the lower layer of the stratigraphy, the Magdalenian layer, which sealed the entrance to La Covacha.

d) The existence of figures created with the technique of dabbing dots to form lines, analogous sensu stricto to the figures found in caves making up the so-called “Ramales School” is of great interest. It widens considerably the spatial distribution of this type of figure, so distinguishable from the technical, thematic and stylistic points of view.

In conclusion, Cualventi and its Upper Palaeolithic art are of particular interest. On the one hand, they can be related to Altamira (in the case of the occupations and the Magdalenian engravings), and on the other, it is possible to integrate the cave into the group known as the “Ramales School” dating to the late Gravettian and early

José Antonio Lasheras, Ramón Montes, Pedro Rasines,
Emilio Muñoz, Pilar Fatás & Carmen De Las Heras
Altamira Museum and Research Centre. Ministry of Culture of Spain


GARCÍA GUINEA M. A. & RINCÓN VILA R., 1978. — Primeros sondeos estratigráficos en la Cueva de Cualventi (Oreña. Santander). Excavaciones de 1976. Revista de la Universidad de Santander, 1, p. 359-389.
GONZÁLEZ C & SAN MIGUEL C., 2001. — Las Cuevas del Desfiladero. Arte rupestre paleolítico en el valle del río Carranza (Cantabria-Vizcaya). Monografías Arqueológicas de Cantabria. Consejería de Cultura, Turismo y Deporte del Gobierno de Cantabria.
LASHERAS J. A., MONTES R., RASINES P., MUÑOZ E., FATAS P. & DE LAS HERAS C., in press. — Proyecto científico “Los tiempos de Altamira”. Limpieza del yacimiento y cortes estratigráficos, documentación topográfica y fotográfica de la cavidad y su arte rupestre y toma de muestras de la Cueva de Cualventi (Oreña, Alfoz de Lloredo. Cantabria). In Actuaciones Arqueológicas en Cantabria 2000-2003. Consejería de Cultura, Turismo y Deporte del Gobierno de Cantabria.
MONTES R. & SANGUINO J. (dir.), 2001. — La Cueva de El Pendo (Escobedo de Camargo, Cantabria). Actuaciones Arqueológicas 1994-2000. Monografías Arqueológicas de Cantabria. Consejería de Cultura, Turismo y Deporte del Gobierno de Cantabria, Ayto. de Camargo y Parlamento Regional de Cantabria.
MONTES R., MUÑOZ E., LASHERAS J. A., DE LAS HERAS C., RASINES P. & FATÁS P., in press. — The Association between deer/hind and mountain goat in the rock art assemblages of the Lower/Middle Magdalenian of the centre of the Cantabrian Region: new discoveries and some interpretations. Prehistoric and Tribal art: New discoveries, new interpretations and new methods of research. XXI International Valcamónica Symposium.

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