March 15, 2014

1033 SPAIN (Cantabria) - Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain (UNESCO WHS)

The Altamira cave, located near the town of Santillana del Mar, 30 km west of the city of Santander, was well known to locals, but had not been given much attention until in 1868, when it was "discovered" by the hunter Modesto Peres. Seven years later, the amateur archaeologist Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola started its exploration, and in 1879 his daughter Maria, nine years old at the time, noticed that the ceiling was covered by images of bisons.

Sautuola rightly assumed that the paintings might date from the Stone Age, and engaged an archaeologist from the University of Madrid to help him. Their interpretation that the paintings dates from Paleolithic, was derided by the French specialists, Sautuola being even accused of forgery. Only in 1902 the scientific society retracted their opposition to the Spaniards, but Sautuola had died 14 years earlier, and didn't live to enjoy the restitution of his honour.

Therefore Altamira was the first cave in which prehistoric cave paintings had been discovered, and changed forever the perception of prehistoric human beings. It is approximately 300m long and consists of a series of twisting passages and chambers, and archaeological excavations in the cave floor found rich deposits of artifacts from the Upper Solutrean (c. 18,500 years ago) and Lower Magdalenian (between c. 16,500 and 14,000 years ago). Around 13,000 years ago a rockfall sealed the cave's entrance.

The artists used charcoal and ochre or haematite to create the images, but they also exploited the natural contours in the cave walls to give their subjects a three-dimensional effect. The Polychrome Ceiling is the most impressive feature of the cave, depicting a herd of extinct steppe bison in different poses, two horses, a large doe, and possibly a wild boar. Dated to the Magdelenian occupation, these paintings include abstract shapes in addition to animal subjects.

Seventeen decorated caves of the Paleolithic age were inscribed as an extension to the Altamira Cave, inscribed in 1985. The property represents the apogee of Paleolithic cave art that developed across Europe, from the Urals to the Iberian Peninusula, from 35,000 to 11,000 BC. Because of their deep galleries, isolated from external climatic influences, these caves are particularly well preserved. The caves are inscribed as masterpieces of creative genius and as the humanity’s earliest accomplished art. They are also outstanding illustrations of a significant stage in human history.

About the stamp, which depict the image choose for the overseas promotion of tourism, I wrote here.

Cave of Altamira - Wikipedia
Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain - UNESCO official website

Sender: Luis M. Ceballos (direct swap)
Sent from Hinojedo (Cantabria / Spain), on 05.01.2014
Photo: J.A. Garcia Alvarez

1 comment:

  1. What a lovely postcard, thanks for sharing. The caves must be wondrous to see - if one is allowed in. I have read that access to some of these caves are limited, and the paintings are becoming degraded by time.