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The Cave of Altamira

The Cave of Altamira

The world-famous limestone cave with its amazing cave paintings is one of the most important archaeological sites of Palaeolithic art.

Visual Arts

Keywords

Altamira Cave, Altamira, Maria Sanz de Sautuola, cave painting, cave drawing, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, Magdalenian cultures, Magdalenian style, Palaeolithic, Modesto Cubillas, Cantabrian Mountains, steppe bison, Santillana del Mar, Spain, cave, prehistory, history of art, prehistoric man, UNESCO world heritage, horde, archaeology, deposit, Sistine chapel, 1879, art, 19th century, Europe

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Questions

  • In which country is the Cave of Altamira located?
  • In which mountain range is the Cave of Altamira found?
  • The art of which period is Altamira one of the most important archaeological sites?
  • Regarding its greatness, to which famous building is the Cave of Altamira compared?
  • When was the cave discovered?
  • Who wrote the first study about the palaeolithic works of art found in the cave?
  • Who contributed to the discovery of the cave paintings?
  • What works of art made the Cave of Altamira world-famous?
  • Is it true that the original entrance of the cave was sealed by a rockfall 13 years ago?
  • Where are most of the Altamira cave paintings found?
  • Is it true that the scientific community was enthusiastic when they learnt about Sautuola's discovery?
  • What material was NOT used to make paint in the Palaeolithic?
  • Which colour was NOT used to create the cave paintings of Altamira?
  • Which part of the Cave of Altamira is called the 'Sistine Chapel of the Palaeolithic'?
  • What kind of animal CANNOT be seen on the ceiling of the 'Great Hall of Polychromes'?
  • In which epoch were the cave paintings of Altamira were presumably created?
  • When were the cave paintings of Altamira most likely created?
  • What helped to preserve the cave paintings of Altamira in a surprisingly good state?
  • Is it true that the Cave of Altamira is the only cave in Europe where Palaeolithic paintings can be found?
  • What important event concerning the Cave of Altamira happened in 1985?

Scenes

Cave

  • entrance - The original entrance was about 20 m wide and 6 m high. It collapsed approximately 13 thousand years ago.
  • 'Great Hall of polychromes' - The hall is approx. 18 m long and 10 m wide, and features about 100 cave paintings on its ceiling.
  • 'Horse tail' gallery - (Cola de caballo) This passage is about 50 m long, 1 m wide, and 1 m high. It is located at the deepest point of the cave.

The Cave of Altamira is located near the town of Santillana del Mar in Cantabria, in Northern Spain. In the Palaeolithic, hordes of prehistoric people considered the conditions ideal for settling down in the region because of the proximity of the sea and the mountains. In the Cantabrian Range, more than 60 similar caves can be found. The Cave of Altamira, today approximately 270 metres long, is one of the most famous archaeological sites of Palaeolithic art. In 1985, the cave was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 2008, further 17 northern Spanish caves were added to this list.

The Cave of Altamira was discovered accidentally by a local man, Modesto Cubillas, in 1868, when he was hunting in the area. Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, the owner of the land and employer of Cubillas, started exploring it only 8 years later.

However, the epochal discovery was made later, in 1879. Sautuola, who was an amateur palaeontologist himself, took his 8-year-old daughter to the cave. He was searching for stone tools on the ground when his daughter started shouting because she noticed paintings on the ceiling, representing various animals.

The following year, Sautuola published a paper in which he presented the cave paintings as Palaeolithic works of art. However, the scientific community was reluctant to accept the presumed antiquity of the paintings and Sautuola was accused of forgery. During the following decades, however, several similar caves were discovered throughout Europe, proving that Sautuola was right.

Inside the cave

Cave paintings

  • lamp
  • cave paintings
  • paint
  • brush

The Cave of Altamira became world-famous thanks to its Palaeolithic paintings. These probably date back to the Magdalenian epoch of the Upper Palaeolithic, 17,000-12,000 years ago. Magdalenian cultures were named after the type site of La Madeleine in France.

The Altamira cave paintings are thought to have been created 17,000-15,000 years ago, in the Early Magdalenian. The animals were depicted from the most recognisable angle. The contours of the stylised shapes were painted with black, and various colours were used to fill in the images. The artists paid attention to detail as well: they organised the figures in groups, forming various compositions. We can only guess what the real purpose of these cave paintings was as we have no firm evidence regarding the creators' intentions.

Black, red and ochre were the typical colours used. The pigments were extracted from minerals and plants. The powdered pigments were mixed with water, animal fat or blood to make paints, which were applied on the rock surface by brushes, fingers, or by blowing them through hollow bones. Besides the well-known animal figures, 9 handprints can also be found in the cave, and these are presumably older than the animal paintings.

The best-known part of the cave is the 'Great Hall of Polychromes'. This hall lies to the left of the entrance and is 18 metres long and 9 metres wide; its original height probably varied between 110 and 190 centimetres. The hall is sometimes referred to as 'the Sistine Chapel of the Palaeolithic' because of the magnificent paintings on its ceiling, depicting a horde of bison, two horses, a doe, and (possibly) a wild boar.

Structure

  • 5 m

Gallery

Around 13,000 years ago, the cave’s original entrance was sealed by a rockfall, forming a small enclosed area with permanent temperature and humidity. This stable microclimate played a very important role in preserving the original state of the cave paintings throughout thousands of years.

In the 19th century, however, the cave's microclimate was destabilised as a consequence of the discovery. The paintings were damaged by the airflow, the visitors and the electronic devices. The support structure built to improve the ceiling’s stability completely modified the internal structure of the cave. Later on, several measures were taken in order to protect the cave itself and the unique works of art: for example, raising livestock was prohibited in the area to prevent the seepage of polluted water into the cave. The cave has been closed several times throughout the years. Today, only a few lucky visitors can enter the caves, the rest can only admire replicas of the paintings in the museum built next to the cave.

The greatness of the Altamira cave paintings and their significance in the history of art can be illustrated by the fact that even Pablo Picasso, the well-known Spanish artist of the 20th century was amazed by them.

Animation

  • 5 m
  • lamp
  • cave paintings
  • paint
  • brush
  • entrance - The original entrance was about 20 m wide and 6 m high. It collapsed approximately 13 thousand years ago.
  • 'Great Hall of polychromes' - The hall is approx. 18 m long and 10 m wide, and features about 100 cave paintings on its ceiling.
  • 'Horse tail' gallery - (Cola de caballo) This passage is about 50 m long, 1 m wide, and 1 m high. It is located at the deepest point of the cave.

Narration

The Cave of Altamira is located near the town of Santillana del Mar in Cantabria, in Northern Spain. In the Palaeolithic, hordes of prehistoric people considered the conditions ideal for settling down in the region because of the proximity of the sea and the mountains. The Cave of Altamira, today approximately 270 metres long, is one of the most famous archaeological sites of Palaeolithic art.

The Cave of Altamira became world-famous thanks to its Palaeolithic paintings. These probably date back to the early Magdalenian epoch of the Upper Palaeolithic, 17,000-15,000 years ago.

The best-known part of the cave is the 'Great Hall of Polychromes', sometimes referred to as 'the Sistine Chapel of the Palaeolithic' because of the magnificent paintings on its ceiling.

The paintings were discovered by the land’s owner, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, an amateur palaeontologist himself, and his 8-year-old daughter in 1879. The cave, attracting numerous visitors every year, was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. To preserve the unique works of arts, today only a few lucky visitors can enter the Cave of Altamira.

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