The Art of Altamira Cave

THE CAVE ART

 
 
The paintings and engravings of Altamira were begun during the Aurignacian period, the first chapter of Upper Palaeolithic art in Europe. The art was created over a period of 20,000 years, between 35,559 and 15,204 cal BP. The cave was re-used repeatedly, with artists either respecting and avoiding existing depictions, or adding to them and using them in new figures. We are left with a spectacular Palaeolithic palimpsest.
 
The art throughout the cave of Altamira is impressive, but on the ceiling of the Hall of the Paintings it becomes truly spectacular.

THE CEILING WITH THE POLYCHROME BISON

 
Bison Cave Art Paintings Altamira Spain Archaeology
Bison
© Museo de Altamira. Photo P. Saura
This is the main attraction and interest of Altamira. The 25 large polychrome figures depict bison, a hind and two horses. They are between 125 and 170cm in length, while the hind is 2 metres. The figures were produced by engraving and drawing the outlines. Greater detail was achieved by deeper engraving. Most of the figures were then filled with red paint obtained from ochre, although some were painted with yellow or brown paint, again obtained from ochre. In several figures, black pigment was used for shading. The use of colour to capture anatomy was highly selective; to separate the legs from the chest, the haunches from the belly, and so on.
 
The natural protuberances on the ceiling were employed for perspective and volume (No. 34, 35, 36, 39, 50). Cracks were also used to represent outlines (No. 34).
 
This grand composition is completed with the large head of a horse (No. 41) with the figure of a foal (no. 46).
 
Hind Cave Art Paintings Altamira Spain Archaeology
Hind
© Museo de Altamira. Photo P. Saura
Bison Cave Art Paintings Altamira Spain Archaeology
Bison
© Museo de Altamira. Photo P. Saura

THE CEILING OF THE RED HORSES

 
This is the oldest stage in the decoration of the main ceiling, with animals painted in red, engraved signs, hands and several series of dots.
Red Horse Cave Art Paintings Altamira Spain Archaeology
Red horse
© Museo de Altamira. Photo P. Saura
Red Horse Cave Art Paintings Altamira Spain Archaeology
Red horse
© Museo de Altamira. Photo P. Saura
 
Red Sign Cave Art Paintings Altamira Spain Archaeology
Red sign
© Museo de Altamira. Photo P. Saura
Eleven large (between 150 and 180cm in length) red figures, mostly horses, were originally dispersed across a large part of the ceiling. None of them include any relief or other natural forms of the ceiling.
 
Near the Hall of the Paintings a very narrow side-passage is decorated with red signs. One sign consists of four irregular ovals divided up internally. Another sign, 3 metres in length and formed by long red bands of parallel lines crossed by small transversal lines, is tucked under an inaccessible rock prominence.

MAGDALENIAN BLACK AND ENGRAVED FIGURES

 
Black Bison Head Cave Art Paintings Altamira Spain Archaeology
Black bison head
© Museo de Altamira. Photo P. Saura
All of the black figures in Altamira were drawn with charcoal. This has allowed some of them to be dated by AMS radiocarbon. The age - Lower Magdalenian - together with certain stylistic and technical uniformity (charcoal as the pigment and a linear style) suggests they are belong to the same ensemble, even though they were probably created at different times.
 
Themes in Magdalenian art are varied; horses, aurochs, bison, ibices, red deer stags and hinds, semi-human faces and signs.
 
There are only four aurochs in Altamira, but all with similar styles. On the main ceiling, a large bull measuring almost 3 metres in length is partially hidden under a polychrome bison. The outline of the forehead and the line of the belly follow natural cracks in the rock wall. The dorsal line is a wide charcoal band with numerous engraved marks.
Black Bison Cave Art Paintings Altamira Spain Archaeology
Black bison
© Museo de Altamira. Photo P. Saura
Black Signs Cave Art Paintings Altamira Spain Archaeology
Black signs
© Museo de Altamira. Photo P. Saura
 
For a depiction of a bison, a natural rock feature becomes the starting point for a composition - a strip of calcite marked in black acts as the horn.
 
A group of quadrilateral black signs in the final passage were carbon dated to the Lower Magdalenian (15,440 +/- 200 BP GifA-91185). Nearby, and using natural forms in the rock, human-like faces known as 'masks' were created with a minimal use of marks to suggest eyes, eyebrows and mouths.

THE ENGRAVED CAVE

 
Engraved representations are found throughout Altamira. The red deer is the species most often represented with this technique. One large group of engravings seem to belong to the same family.
Engraved deer Cave Art Paintings Altamira Spain Archaeology
Engraved deer
© Museo de Altamira. Photo P. Saura
Engraved deer Cave Art Paintings Altamira Spain Archaeology
Engraved deer
© Museo de Altamira. Photo P. Saura

THE LAST BISON

 
The date of this monochrome bison (No. 16) is the most recent, based on carbon dating - 13,130 +/- 120 BP - and therefore represents the work of the last artists.
 
It displays an artistic style and manner of execution that has matured; a selective application of charcoal, a smudging of the charcoal to achieve shading.
 
With the collapse of the cave entrance soon after - and the impossibility of re-entering the cave - it is intriguing to wonder how this sacred space would have continued to evolve artistically.
 
The Cave of Altamira
Bradshaw Foundation
 
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