Project

New regards in the study of the Paleolithic rock art: Disassembling the “Basque emptiness”

Goal: The Cantabrian region is one from the key territories with Paleolithic decorated caves in the world. That unusual concentration is especially remarkable in the center-western area, with a regular distribution between Nalón and Asón valleys, whereas the Eastern sector, between the Asón and the Pyrenees, presents a significant lower density, which increases again from the central Pyrenees.

This unequal distribution was hardly explainable taking into consideration 1) the noticeable homogeneity in the distribution of non-decorated sites observed during Upper Paleolithic, and 2) also the absence of relevant lithologic and orographic differences. In addition, the important geostrategic position in the space historically occupied by the Basque Country seemed to contradict the marginal role shown by the parietal register.

This lack of evidence in the territory has been highlighted from the beginning of the research in Paleolithic art, but especially in last 20 years. During last decade, some research projects addressing to solve the issue of this “Basque emptiness” (in terms of rock art) have been developed. It highlights the prospections developed by the team of D. Garate and by the Antxieta group initially, and the later integration of the speleologists (especially groups FUE, ADES, Satorrak).

As a result, the number of decorated caves has increased threefold. The data generated have contributed to a better understanding of the graphic activity and the dynamics of settlement during Upper Paleolithic, not only in Basque Country, but also in Cantabrian region, the Pyrenees and the Périgord. On the one hand, it is remarkable the discovery of parietal sites from initial and middle Upper Paleolithic, periods practically unknown before in the regional graphic register, and that offer a new distribution of the graphic territories. On the other hand, the appearance of great Magdalenian parietal sites like Atxurra or Armintxe will allow a better understanding of the contributions, in terms of symbolism, of the different geographic regions.

In conclusion, Eastern Cantabrian region has changed its role from an irrelevant area for the studies of Paleolithic parietal art to become a key territory for the study of the Upper Paleolithic graphic activity.

I will add to this post all the news about this projet (new discoveries, publications, conferences, etc.). Every collaboration is welcomed.

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Diego Garate
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Actes de la séance commune de la Société préhistorique française et la Hugo Obermaier-Gesellschaft à Strasbourg (16-17 mai 2019) Textes publiés sous la direction de Ludovic Mevel, Mara-Julia Weber et Andreas Maier Paris, Société préhistorique française, 2021 (Séances de la Société préhistorique française, 17), p. 173-194 www.prehistoire.org Abstract: The symbolic use of the underground landscape is one of the most relevant aspects of the behaviour of Upper Palaeolithic societies in Europe. Currently available archaeological data clearly indicate the development of symbolic activities inside the caves from the Aurignacian, with Chauvet as the best example. This symbolic use became generalized until its most widespread levels at the end of the Upper Palaeolithic period, during the Middle Magdalenian. Besides, some of these caves were used during several periods in the Upper Palaeolithic. At the same time, even though the presence of graphic palimpsests was noted from the beginning of research in cave art, the recurrent use of caves for symbolic purposes, basically parietal art, in different periods during the Upper Palaeolithic has received the most interest only after the introduction of 14 C-AMS analyses of charcoal paintings. Thus, until now, the reuse of caves for symbolic purposes, especially rock art, has scarcely been studied. The main goal of the present study is therefore to construct a preliminary overview of the phenomenon in order to establish differences and/or similarities in the reutilisation patterns. The methodology to identify the reuse of caves art in the area of study has been based on the critical re-evaluation of existing information. Previous studies have been partial, mostly because they were restricted to specific geographical areas. In this way, a recurrence has been observed in the use of these symbolic spaces which is especially striking in the central/western Cantabrian region, during the whole period, in a way that is not detected in other regions. This is a very significant observation because it is evidence for a shared form of behaviour regarding graphic codes in human groups that followed one another over time and are archaeologically represented by very different technocomplexes. Résumé : L'appropriation symbolique des paysages souterrains est l'un des comportements les plus marquants de l'Homo sapiens pendant le Paléolithique supérieur en Europe. L'incursion à l'intérieur des grottes à des fins symboliques semble être lié à de rares actes funéraires des populations néandertaliennes et des certaines activités ponctuelles comme celles documentées dans la grotte de Bruniquel. Les données archéologiques actuellement disponibles indiquent clairement le développement d'activités symboliques à l'intérieur des grottes depuis l'époque aurignacienne, avec la grotte Chauvet comme meilleur exemple. Ce processus se généralisera jusqu'à atteindre son paroxysme vers la fin du Paléolithique supérieur, au cours du Magdalénien moyen. Dans certaines régions, les grottes demeurent la principale source d'information pour appréhender l'organisation des sociétés paléolithiques en raison des problèmes de conservation des habitats de plein air. Elles ont en effet été occupées, voire habitées, et utilisées pour différentes fonctions selon des chronologies plus ou moins longues. D'ailleurs, certaines d'entre elles ont été occupées pendant plusieurs périodes, continues ou non, pendant le Paléolithique supérieur. C'est la raison pour laquelle certains spécialistes ont proposé l'idée que certains de ces sites aient eu le statut de « sites d'agrégations », comme l'illustre le cas de la grotte d'Altamira. Cette même idée a également été évoquée sous le nom de « super sites » pour certaines grottes pyrénéennes comme Isturitz ou le Mas d'Azil. Si la présence de palimpseste graphique dans l'art ru-pestre a été mise en évidence depuis les prémices des recherches dans ces contextes, l'utilisation récurrente de grottes à des fins symboliques et artistique a été véritablement démontrée avec le développement des analyses 14 C-AMS sur les peintures réalisées au fusain. Pourtant, jusqu'à présent, la réappropriation de grottes à des fins symboliques n'a guère été un véritable objet d'étude. Seules les grottes de Cantabrie occidentale et centrale ont été évaluées de manière conjointe dans cette perspective, alors que dans d'autres secteurs elles ont été considérées individuellement. Récemment, à travers nos recherches dans l'est de la Cantabrie et dans les Pyrénées occidentales, nous avons détecté l'existence de trois sites qui présentaient des récurrences graphiques : les sites d'Aitzbitarte IV et d'Aitzbitarte V, étaient des ensembles d'art rupestre inconnus. Erberua était pour sa part déjà connu, mais nos travaux ont permis la réinterprétation de certaines gravures. En raison de ces nouveaux indices et dans le but de parvenir à avoir une vision d'ensemble de ce comportement culturel à la fin du Paléolithique supérieur, nous avons répertorié et caractérisé tous les sites d'art rupestre qui présentait une réutilisation des parois en réalisant une réévaluation critique des informations publiées et la discussion de modèles pour le bassin versant du golfe de Gascogne. L'objectif principal de la présente étude était de proposer un premier aperçu de ces phénomènes et de trouver des différences et/ou des similitudes dans les schémas de réappropriation des parois. Au final, nous avons observé une récurrence de ces espaces symboliques qui est particulièrement frappante dans la région de Cantabrie centrale/occidentale, pendant tout le Paléolithique supérieur. Ces résultats permettent de mettre en évidence un comportement partagé pour des codes graphiques par des groupes humains qui se succèdent dans le temps, en transcendant les technocomplexes auxquelles ils appartiennent. L'enquête actuelle s'est limitée à un sujet principal-la distribution géographique et spatiale-et reste préliminaire en raison de notre objectif principal qui était d'obtenir une vue d'ensemble à l'échelle de l'Europe occidentale. Dans tous les cas, des analyses plus approfondies devront être effectuées pour préciser les interactions entre les différentes phases de décors, pour définir les schémas de construction graphique de l'ensemble et bien sûr, pour expliquer les différences mises en évidence. Mots-clés : Grotte ornée, Symbolisme, Réutilisation, Europe, Magdalénien. Zusammenfassung: Die symbolische Nutzung unterirdischer Landschaften ist einer der relevantesten Verhaltensaspekte jung-paläolithischer Gesellschaften in Europa. Die zurzeit verfügbaren archäologischen Daten zeigen deutlich die Entwicklung sym-bolischer Aktivitäten in Höhlen seit dem Aurignacien, mit der Chauvet-Höhle als bestem Beispiel. Diese Art der symbolischen Nutzung erfuhr immer weitere Verbreitung bis zu ihrem Höhepunkt gegen Ende des Jungpaläolithikums, während des Mittleren Magdalénien. Außerdem wurden einige dieser Höhlen zu mehreren Zeitpunkten während des Jungpaläolithikums genutzt. Wenn-gleich Palimpseste bei Höhlenkunst von Beginn der Untersuchungen an beschrieben wurden, wuchs das Interesse an der wieder-holten Nutzung von Höhlen für symbolische Zwecke, hauptsächlich an Wandkunst, zu verschiedenen jungpaläolithischen Epochen erst nach der Einführung von 14 C-AMS-Analysen an Holzkohle-Zeichnungen. Bislang wurde die Wiederverwendung von Höhlen zu symbolischen Zwecken, insbesondere Felskunst, kaum untersucht. Das Ziel dieser Studie ist es daher, einen vorläufigen Überblick über das Phänomen zu geben, um Unterschiede und/oder Gemeinsamkeiten in den Wiederverwendungsmustern herausstellen zu können. Die Methode zur Erkennung der Wiederverwendung von Höhlenkunst im Untersuchungsgebiet basiert auf der kritischen Neubewertung der vorhandenen Informationen. Bisherige Studien betrachteten meist nur einen spezifischen geographischen Raum und waren daher partieller Natur. Auf diese Weise konnte eine wiederholte Nutzung symbolischer Plätze festgestellt werden, die sich in einer besonders hohen Intensität während des gesamten Untersuchungszeitraumes in der zentralen/westlichen kantabrischen Region abzeichnet, wie sie in keiner anderen Region erkannt wurde. Dies ist eine signifikante Beobachtung, da sie beweist, dass zeitlich aufeinanderfolgende Menschengruppen, die archäologisch durch sehr unterschiedliche Technokomplexe repräsentiert sind, eine geteilte Art des Verhaltens in Bezug auf graphische Kodierung hatten.
Diego Garate
added a research item
El arte parietal paleolítico de la cueva de Aitzbitarte V se descubre en 2015, en el marco de las labores de prospección desarrolladas en la última década en el oriente cantábrico. Hemos documentado una decena de grabados situados en tres sectores profundos de la cavidad y compuestos por representaciones de bisontes y líneas. Las características formales de los primeros son específicas del arte gravetiense en el caso de los sectores A, C y D, y del Magdaleniense en el sector B. En ambos casos las convenciones gráficas presentan paralelos continentales, con el S/SO francés en el primer caso, y con los conjuntos pirenaicos en el segundo. De esta manera, en la cueva de Aitzbitarte V se identifican dos fases decorativas correspondientes a dos periodos distantes en el tiempo, siendo el primer caso de recurrencia gráfica reconocido en la Región Cantábrica oriental.
Iñaki Intxaurbe Alberdi
added a research item
The renewal of the archaeological record, mainly through the discovery of unpublished sites, provides information that sometimes qualifies or even reformulates previous approaches. One of the latter cases is represented by the three new decorated caves found in 2015 in Aitzbitarte Hill. Their exhaustive study shows the presence of engraved animals, mainly bison, with formal characteristics unknown so far in the Palaeolithic art of the northern Iberian Peninsula. However, parallels are located in caves in southern France such as Gargas, Cussac, Roucadour or Cosquer. All of them share very specific graphic conventions that correspond to human occupations assigned basically to the Gravettian cultural complex. The new discovery implies the need to reformulate the iconographic exchange networks currently accepted, as well as their correspondence with other elements of the material culture at the same sites. Thus, we have carried out a multiproxy approach based in statistical analysis. The updated data reveals a greater complexity in artistic expression during the Gravettian that had not been considered so far, and also challenges the traditional isolation that had been granted to Cantabrian symbolic expressions during pre-Magdalenian times.
Iñaki Intxaurbe Alberdi
added a research item
Since the discovery of Altamira Cave in 1879, the archaeological record of Palaeolithic parietal art has expanded steadily across Western Europe but with an unequal distribution. Discoveries have often been made by chance, but at other times as the result of painstaking searches by archaeologists and/or speleologists, eventually reaching some 500 sites currently known. The present study proposes a selective surveying system based on the current characterisation of parietal ensembles in the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country (North Spain) but applicable to any other territory or region in the world. In this way, by employing multivariate statistical analysis and GIS, we have designed a predictive model that focuses fieldwork on the areas with the greatest potential of containing caves with Palaeolithic decoration. The positive results of applying this approach to survey in the North of Spain from 2018 to 2020 have validated its efficacy.
Diego Garate
added a research item
A detailed geomorphological study was performed in the Atxurra‐Armiña cave system (northern Iberian Peninsula) to decode landscape evolution, palaeoenvironmental changes and human use of a cave within an Inner Archaeological Context. The results show an average incision rate of the river of <0.083 mm a–1 for at least the last 419 ka, with interruptions due to sedimentary inputs. Moreover, allostratigraphic units comprising fluviokarstic deposits at the base and flowstone formation at the top have been shown to be climatically controlled, formed either during glacial–interglacial cycles or during interstadial cycles. Finally, when the cave was used by humans in the Late Magdalenian, the lower entrance was closed, and they must therefore have entered the cave through the upper entrance. To reach the sectors selected to decorate the panels, they probably travelled from the upper cave level, as the current crawlway was wider than today, according to our U/Th dating. Once these visitors reached the panels, the floor in the main gallery would have been around 15 cm lower than at present. However, the morphology of the conduit was similar; this has significant implications for understanding and interpreting the human use of the cave during the Palaeolithic.
Diego Garate
added a research item
The discovery of Palaeolithic parietal art in the cave of Atxurra took place within an archaeological surveying project that has been carried out over the last decade in the eastern Cantabrian region. As a consequence of this project, the number of caves with parietal art known in this region has tripled. The case of Atxurra Cave is a remarkable contribution because of the number of parietal representations and the presence of a related external and internal archaeological context. Through this contribution, we present the main data derived from the cave study project that is currently underway, as well as its implications for the reformulation of symbolic interaction during the late Upper Palaeolithic.
Iñaki Intxaurbe Alberdi
added a research item
This work presents the discovery and subsequent study of red marks of Paleolithic style in the cave of Baltzola (Dima, Bizkaia). The authors identify a small set of decorations that include an ideomorph that is difficult to characterize. It may be either "Cantabrian claviform" (present in caves such as Altamira, Tebellín or La Pasiega B and C) or as a "quad-rangular sign with appendix" (identified in caves such as La Pasiega A or El Castillo). The rigid typology hitherto used to classify these ideomorphs does not take into account the existence of diffuse limits between them. The Baltzola marking is in any case a sign hitherto unknown in eastern Cantabria Cornice. The cave of Baltzola can be compared others in the west-central Cantabria whose precise chronological attribution is difficult in the absence of direct dating.
Diego Garate
added 34 research items
In a previous publication on Altxerri B Cave, we explained a chronological hypothesis which proposed that the graphic activity in the site dates to an early Aurignacian phase. This paper presents a complete study of the parietal ensemble, including descriptions of the graphic motifs and other anthropic evidence that has been documented. The number of figures identified in the only panel documented in previous studies has been increased considerably, while several previously unpublished panels in other parts of the cave are described. The iconographic and stylistic characteristics of the rock art, far from contradicting our first conclusions about the chronology, support these and link the art in Altxerri B with other European Early Upper Palaeolithic graphic ensembles.
The cave of Isturitz is one of the most important archaeological sites of the prehistory of Western Europe. Human occupations followed each other in the cavity from at least the Middle Paleolithic to the Roman age. In 1913, Passermard started archaeological excavations there, and a calcite pillar was discovered next to the original entrance that was sculpted with a dozen of animal representations. In this excavation, the Magdalenian levels yielded a considerable quantity of portable art objects. In the last few years, several workers have resumed the study of those pieces. Since 2011, we have created a research team for the study of the parietal figures of the cave, as well as other elements, for example the objects embedded in the walls. We present here our first results, which improve in the understanding of the artistic activities of Upper Palaeolithic peoples by shedding light at the art analyzed in Isturitz.
Diego Garate
added a research item
The geographical distribution of Upper Palaeolithic cave art in Western Europe has changed throughout the history of research. In addition to the initial nuclei that gave rise to “Franco-Cantabrian” art (Cantabria, Périgord and Pyrenees), new regions with remarkable concentrations, such as the Rhône in France or Andalusia and the Iberian Plateau in Spain and Portugal, have now appeared. This new reality favouring the emergence of other territories is probably the reason for certain lack of attention to the classic regions in the last two decades. However, since the beginning of the 21st century new discoveries especially on the Cantabrian side of the Pyrenees (Atxurra, Armintxe, Aitzbitarte IV, etc.) but also in the Périgord (Cussac), together with the revision of the Pyrenean “great sanctuaries” (Tuc d'Audoubert, Trois-Frères, Marsoulas, etc.) and large collections of portable art, have forced a reformulation of artistic interactions between these territories around the Bay of Biscay, during the whole Upper Palaeolithic.
Diego Garate
added a research item
Rock-art recording has been significantly improved in recent years by new technologies. Nonetheless, accurate documentation of certain engravings is a challenge for these cutting-edge technologies, specially the extremely thin incised lines used in many Palaeolithic engraved motifs. In this paper, we propose a new methodology for recording these engravings with the objective of producing results comparable to the information available for Palaeolithic portable art. We are currently testing a multi-scale modelling methodology for these engravings. The objective is to produce affordable ultra-high resolution 3D models. Our methodology is completely built around close-range photogrammetry techniques, capturing scenes in increasingly higher resolutions and with different light settings. These entities are referenced to a local coordinate system allowing the overlapping of the different captures. Finally, the detailed tracings achieved from the independent higher resolution 3D models can be accurately gathered in an overall 3D model of lower resolution without geometric distortions.
Joseba Rios-Garaizar
added a research item
The cave of Armiña is part of the same karstic system than Atxurra cave, which has an occupation site in the entrance, covering from Gravettian to Late Magdalenian, and numerous evidences of Paleolithic rock-art in the inner part of the cave. The current entrance of Armiña was discovered at the end of XIX century when the road between Markina and Lekeitio was opened, but there is no previous indication that the cave was open before the limestone hillside was excavated. Since its discovery, Armiña has been explored by A. Galvez Cañero, J. M. Barandiaran and J. Altuna, finding only scattered evidence of human and animal occupation (Garate, 2012). In 2014 a new archaeological project started in the Atxurra-Armiña system. The site of Atxurra was re-excavated between 2014 and 2015 revealing a long and well-preserved sequence comprising the Early Gravettian, Lower and Late Magdalenian. In 2015 the rich rock-art of Atxurra was discovered in the deepest part of the cave (Garate et al. 2016). Most of this art can be confidently attributed to the Magdalenian. In 2016, several test pits were made in Armiña cave, founding archeological evidence in one of them. In 2017 the excavation of this latter pit was extended to 6 m2. The stratigraphic sequence was sealed by a succession of sterile units (Ia-Ic) with no archaeological or faunal remains. At the bottom of this sterile unit a continuous flowstone separate it from level III, an almost sterile unit containing few transported bones and charcoal fragments. Immediately under this unit, the first archaeological remains were found. They are few bone fragments and lithic tools associated to a small fireplace and an ocher stain. Interestingly, many of the lithic remains are retouched tools, some of them made on exotic raw materials (≈80 km). In the units under this archaeological layer only faunal remains were recovered. The available archaeological evidence, and the first results of the ongoing multiproxy analyses suggest that the studied site is the result of a very short occupation event or even shorter visits to this spot inside the cave. These visits were more or less contemporaneous the occupation levels from Atxurra and probably corresponding chronologically to the artistic activity. However, although Armiña cave is very suitable for human occupation, only a limited occupation has been recognized. This could partially be related to the morpho-topographic conditions of the cave which would imply that the external access was closed during this occupation. Thus, it would be possible to define the occupation site as an inner archaeological context (I.A.C.). Therefore, our main hypothesis is that this short term occupations were activities spots of Magdalenian explorers inside the cave, in where the developed activities were not exclusively related to technological and subsistence practices given the particular nature of the findings (ocher stain and exotic materials).
Diego Garate
added a research item
This paper sets out a methodology for calculating the potential zone of damage to which an Item of Cultural Interest (ICI) located in a karst environment is exposed. An itemised study of the geological characteristics of the cave environment is proposed: lithological cartography, endokarst and exokarst geomorphology and the study of fracturing of the limestone massif. Based on these data and using a Geographical Information System (GIS), it was possible to calculate the degree of the geological threats on a susceptibility map, according to the vulnerability of the heritage item to be protected and its exposure to the identified hazardous geological processes. By combining these parameters, the existing geological risk was calculated and mapped and the necessary protection area for conservation of the cultural heritage was defined. This methodology was applied in the Alkerdi caves located in the municipal area of Urdazubi/Urdax (Navarre, northern Spain).
Diego Garate
added an update
Solving a Riddle About the Dawn of Art
 
Diego Garate
added a research item
The Vasco-Cantabrian region of northern Spain, together with southwestern France, is one of the richest areas in terms of Paleolithic cave art, but, until recently, by far the highest concentration of sites had been in the central-western sector: the provinces of Cantabria and Asturias. In contrast, the eastern sector, the Basque Country—between the Asón River and the Pyrenees—was thought to have a significantly lower density of cave art loci, and few of them were major “sanctuaries.” The density of cave art sites seemed to increase again in the central French Pyrenees. This unequal distribution was difficult to explain given the homogeneity in the distribution of undecorated (i.e., habitation) Upper Paleolithic sites, as well as the lack of major lithological or orographic differences between the eastern and central-western sectors of the region. In addition, the important geostrategic position of the Basque Country between southwestern France and northwestern Iberia seemed to contradict the marginal role traditionally suggested by the parietal art record. During the past decade, however, research projects aiming to address the issue of the so-called Basque rock art void have led to the tripling of the number of known decorated caves in the eastern sector. Some of the very recent discoveries, notably in Atxurra, Armintxe, and Aitzbitarte IV, fall into the category of major cave art sites. The evidence presented here contributes to a fuller understanding of artistic production, human connections, and settlement dynamics during the entire Upper Paleolithic among the Cantabrian, Pyrenean, and Aquitaine regions, underlining the importance of the Basque Country record.
Diego Garate
added an update
In 2015, six new paleolithic decorated caves where found in the Basque Country. Atxurra is one of them, a major Magdalenian sanctuary.
 
Diego Garate
added a project goal
The Cantabrian region is one from the key territories with Paleolithic decorated caves in the world. That unusual concentration is especially remarkable in the center-western area, with a regular distribution between Nalón and Asón valleys, whereas the Eastern sector, between the Asón and the Pyrenees, presents a significant lower density, which increases again from the central Pyrenees.
This unequal distribution was hardly explainable taking into consideration 1) the noticeable homogeneity in the distribution of non-decorated sites observed during Upper Paleolithic, and 2) also the absence of relevant lithologic and orographic differences. In addition, the important geostrategic position in the space historically occupied by the Basque Country seemed to contradict the marginal role shown by the parietal register.
This lack of evidence in the territory has been highlighted from the beginning of the research in Paleolithic art, but especially in last 20 years. During last decade, some research projects addressing to solve the issue of this “Basque emptiness” (in terms of rock art) have been developed. It highlights the prospections developed by the team of D. Garate and by the Antxieta group initially, and the later integration of the speleologists (especially groups FUE, ADES, Satorrak).
As a result, the number of decorated caves has increased threefold. The data generated have contributed to a better understanding of the graphic activity and the dynamics of settlement during Upper Paleolithic, not only in Basque Country, but also in Cantabrian region, the Pyrenees and the Périgord. On the one hand, it is remarkable the discovery of parietal sites from initial and middle Upper Paleolithic, periods practically unknown before in the regional graphic register, and that offer a new distribution of the graphic territories. On the other hand, the appearance of great Magdalenian parietal sites like Atxurra or Armintxe will allow a better understanding of the contributions, in terms of symbolism, of the different geographic regions.
In conclusion, Eastern Cantabrian region has changed its role from an irrelevant area for the studies of Paleolithic parietal art to become a key territory for the study of the Upper Paleolithic graphic activity.
I will add to this post all the news about this projet (new discoveries, publications, conferences, etc.). Every collaboration is welcomed.