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Coliboaia Cave

Prehistoric drawings, engravings
Pietroasa, Romania: 30,000 BC

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Speleothem formations in Coliboaia Cave, home to the earliest known cave art in Central Europe
Coliboaia Cave, in Apuseni Natural Park, Romania, contains the oldest known cave paintings of Central Europe. Image by Tommy from Arad. (CC BY 2.0)

Coliboaia Cave Art

The main examples of Stone Age rock art in Europe have been concentrated in France and Spain, with little attention being paid to central or Eastern Europe.

This, despite instances of artistic achievement, like the Czech Venus of Dolní Věstonice (29,000 BC) and the Dolní Věstonice Portrait Head (24,000 BC); the Romanian Cuciulat Cave paintings (17,000 BC); and the Vela Spila cave pottery (15,500-13,000 BC).

But things may be about to change, following the discovery of the paleolithic art at Coliboaia Cave, in Apuseni Natural Park, Romania.

It consists of a series of cave paintings and rock engravings from the Aurignacian and Gravettian periods - which date to 30,000 BC. This date makes these works the oldest art in Central or South-Eastern Europe.

The cave has been accorded conservation status and is now under the protection of the Romanian Federation of Speleology. It is under the archaeological authority of the Cris Lands Museum of Oradea and the Bihor County Council.

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Location & Layout

Coliboaia Cave lies ten kilometres south-east of Pietroasa, at an altitude of about 550 meters on the western slope of Sighistel Valley, within the Apuseni Natural Park in North-West Romania.

The area is mountainous with plenty of forests, caves and sinkholes due to the karst topography.

The cave is entered through a 2-metre high opening, set into a limestone cliff, which leads down a steep incline into the first chamber - a large cavern some 15 metres wide and 40 metres long.

This in turn continues into a large decorated chamber with a stream running through it.

Flooding is a regular problem for the cave, although luckily the drawings are well out of reach. In total, the cave stretches for about 750 metres.

Discovery

The Coliboaia Cave was known and written about during the early 19th century, but it wasn't until the early 1980s that an extensive examination of the site was undertaken by archaeologist Gabor Halasi.

Even then, due to the waterlogged state of the site, no parietal art was found.

It wasn't until 2009 that it was discovered, by accident, during a routine exploration by a group of amateur cave explorers (speleologists), namely, Mihai Besesek, Marius Kenesz, Valentin Alexandru Radu, Tudor Rus, and Roxana Laura Toiciu.

The importance of the prehistoric art found at Coliboaia was confirmed the following year by a team of French paleontologists led by Jean Clottes, a world authority on Stone Age culture and an advisor to UNESCO.

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Coliboaia Cave Art: Characteristics

According to documentation by Jean Clottes, Coliboaia's cave art consists of eight black paintings - charcoal drawings executed in a style very similar to that used by Aurignacian French artists in the decoration of Chauvet Cave in the Ardeche Valley.

Coliboaia's images feature a variety of animals, or parts of animals, including:

Identification of the imagery is sometimes vague, because of erosion.

To make matters worse, some images have been almost completely obscured by a film of calcite, similar to the situation at Les Combarelles Cave in the Dordogne.

In addition to the black charcoal drawings, at least two engravings were found: one depicts a female torso; the other is too ill-defined to be identified.

No abstract signs, hand stencils, finger-fluting, or mobiliary art were found in the cave.

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Dating

In order to date the cave art, the French team resorted to comparative analysis, a method which involved comparing the style of the prehistoric art at Coliboaia with similar imagery from elsewhere.

This showed that Coliboaia's art is stylistically similar to certain paintings at Chauvet, which indicates a date of about 30,000 BC.

It's also similar in style to the cave art at Grande Grotte d'Arcy-sur-Cure, in the French Yonne, which dates to 26,700 BC.

To pinpoint a more accurate date for Coliboaia, a new study was conducted using radiocarbon dating. This tested charcoal specimens from several different locations in the cave.

The study produced dates between 34,324 and 24,605 BC.

The new research raised two hypotheses:

In either case, Coliboaia Cave is home to the oldest art of Central Europe, and for this reason alone represents one of modern man's most important Aurignacian achievements, alongside the Chauvet Cave paintings in the French Ardèche.

Note: For information about dating techniques applicable to charcoal painting, see: Dating Methods in Archaeology.

Significance

Until now, only one example of Upper Paleolithic art had been discovered in Romania - two animal drawings at Cuciulat Cave, which were discovered about 40 years ago.

The only other Stone Age cave paintings or drawings found this far east are those in the Kapova Cave, in the Ural Mountains of Russia, which date to 14,500 BC.

To see how Coliboaia Cave fits into the evolution of art during the Upper Paleolithic, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

References

(1) "An exceptional archaeological discovery — the "Art Gallery" in Coliboaia Cave, Apuseni Mountains, Romania." C. Ghemis, J. Clottes, B. Gély, F. Prud’homme 2011. AAC 46. academia.edu
(2) "Peştera Coliboaia (Campani, Bihor) grotte ornée aurignacienne de Roumanie, État d‘avancement des études pluridisciplinaires." (2009-2014) Bernard Gély, Didier Cailhol, Jean Clottes, et al. researchgate.net

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