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What is Franco-Cantabrian Art?
The term 'Franco-Cantabrian art' describes a style of prehistoric art which was practised on both sides of the Franco-Spanish border during the Upper Paleolithic era.
More narrowly, it refers to the cave art found in southwestern France (especially the Dordogne, Lot, Hautes-Pyrénées, Haute-Garonne, and Ariège) and northern Spain (including Cantabria, the Asturias and the Basque Country), between about 65,000 and 10,000 BC.
Many of the caves involved are World Heritage sites.
In France, they are centred on the UNESCO World Heritage site known as the "Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley".
In Spain, they are centred on the Altamira UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Their cave painting and engraving features naturalistic pictures of animals (notably bison and horses), a few depictions of human and therianthropic figures, and a large quantity of abstract signs, from simple linear markings to complex 'Spanish tectiforms'.
Most of the decorated caves were not occupied by humans, but were used - it is thought - as sanctuaries for ceremonial, ritualistic or spiritual purposes. What purpose the parietal art played in these activities, remains unknown.
Upper Paleolithic art from the Franco-Cantabric region displays a high degree of homogeneity, possibly due to the location of the caves in clusters close to important rivers like the Dordogne, Lot, Ariège, Gers, Tarn and Garonne, and along the foothills of the Cantabrian Mountains in Northern Spain.
The abstract signs and symbols used by Franco-Cantabrian artists are especially useful in helping us to make connections between regions.
Only about 32 non-figurative motifs were used in paleolithic art, many of which were used in France and the Iberian peninsula. This clearly demonstrates the links between cave sites, both within and between the two countries.
Overall, the Franco-Spanish region is one of the oldest and most important centres of Stone Age culture in the world.
Effects of Climate Change
An important trigger for the growth in art and culture across the Franco-Cantabrian region, was climate change.
Evidence indicates there was a significant decline in population in northern Europe, during the whole of the Gravettian (30,000-20,000 BC), as the ice sheets advanced, forcing down temperatures and making life in northerly areas unbearable.
By contrast, the population in the more temperate region of SW France rose throughout the Gravettian (it peaked during the Solutrean), with a marked increase in the number of habitation sites, compared to those present at the start of the Aurignacian.
In the face of this remorseless climate change, culminating in the Last Glacial Maximum (20,000-14,000 BC), Homo sapiens abandoned the more northerly part of Europe and collectively withdrew to an area of refuge in the south.
Later, during the Magdalenian culture, the ice sheets retreated northwards as the climate warmed, taking the reindeer herds with them. It caused an existential crisis for hunter gatherers in the region, from which they never recovered.
Types of Franco-Cantabrian Art
Art forms common to the Franco-Cantabrian zone, include:
Primitive Forms of Expression
Examples include: finger fluting (Chauvet, Cussac Cave, Altamira, El Castillo, Las Chimeneas); handprints (Chauvet, Cosquer, Pech Merle, Grande Grotte d'Arcy-sur-Cure, El Castillo) and hand stencils (Chauvet, Cosquer, Gargas Cave, Trois Frères, Altamira, Maltravieso Cave, El Castillo).
This category includes all figurative cave painting and charcoal drawings. Subjects include animals as well as human and part-human figures.
Examples of black paintings can be seen at Chauvet (dangerous animals) and Niaux (bison, horses, ibex).
In Spain, they are present at Las Chimeneas, Santimamiñe and Tito Bustillo.
Polychrome animal paintings, using one or more ochre pigments, are exemplified by Lascaux, Font-de-Gaume and Altamira.
There are robust traditions of rock engraving on both sides of the border.
In France, the finest examples can be seen at: Lascaux, Les Combarelles and Trois Frères, while in Spain the best sites include: Aitzbitarte Caves, Altxerri, Atxurra and Tito Bustillo Cave.
Animal Subjects Depicted
Subjects in Franco-Cantabrian art are broadly similar but not symmetrical.
Horses, for instance, are depicted most often (60 percent of Lascaux's animals are horses), though they can be outnumbered occasionally by rhinos and lions (Chauvet), or mammoths (Rouffignac), or bison (Altamira), or reindeer (La Pasiega).
As a whole, dangerous animals (rhinos, mammoths, lions, cave bears) predominated during the Aurignacian or early Gravettian (e.g. Chauvet and Grande Grotte d'Arcy-sur-Cure), while prey animals like bison, reindeer or horses predominated during the Solutrean and Magdalenian.
Curiously, far fewer horses were eaten during the Magdalenian, than (say) reindeer or bison, yet the horse remains the number one subject.
In Spain, the depiction of dangerous animals is different. Only Altxerri cave, for instance, seems to include images of these fiercesome animals (one bear, one feline).
Which means either, there are far fewer Aurignacian sites in Spain; or else the fauna were radically different; or else Spanish artists had different objectives.
Fish in Franco-Cantabrian Art
Fish and marine creatures are exceptionally rare in prehistoric art, but examples exist in both French and Spanish caves.
The bas-relief of a salmon at Abri du Poisson is matched by a charcoal drawing at Ekain.
Two pike - at Pech Merle and at Grande Grotte Arcy-sur-Cure - are matched by the large charcoal halibut at La Pileta Cave. There is also a trout at Niaux Cave in the French Pyrénées.
Rare examples of seals are present at the caves of La Pileta, La Peña de Candamo, and Nerja, and in France at Cosquer, near Marseilles.
There are very few human-like figures in Franco-Cantabrian art. Rare examples include:
- Two wounded men at Cougnac Cave.
- Silhouettes of female figures in Cussac Cave.
- The Dead Man in the 'Shaft scene' at Lascaux.
- The engraved Sorcerer at Les Trois Frères.
- A third wounded man at Pech Merle.
- Several anthropomorphs at La Pasiega.
- Part-human figure at Covalanas Cave.
- Human-like figures at Altxerri.
- Red ochre anthropomorphs at Tito Bustillo.
Abstract Signs and Symbols
Abstract symbols present in both French and Spanish caves include: tectiforms (so-called 'Spanish tectiforms' are more diverse and complex than regular tectiforms), claviforms (club-shaped), dots, lines, penniforms (feather-shaped), scalariforms (ladder-shaped) and triangles.
The best displays can be seen at: Chauvet, Lascaux, La Pasiega and La Pileta.
Archaeoacoustics is a relatively new field which examines the use of sound at archaeological sites. For example, at some paleolithic caves within the Franco-Cantabrian region, researchers have discovered that paintings were located at spots with exceptionally strong sound resonance.
Why? Because it is thought that art and sound were combined to enhance the impact of ritual and shamanic ceremony in the caves.
Prehistoric sculpture has contrasting appeal in France compared to Spain.
In France, while far less prevalent than rock engraving, it appears in the form of bas-relief sculpture (Abri du Poisson salmon) or haut-relief sculpture (friezes at Roc de Sers, Roc aux Sorciers and Cap Blanc).
In Spain, however, there is no tradition of paleolithic relief carving and no venuses.
Main Franco-Cantabrian Caves
The most important prehistoric sites of Franco-Cantabrian art in France, are as follows:
- Abri du Poisson (Dordogne)
Highlights include a 1-metre male salmon carved in bas-relief on the ceiling, plus hundreds of images which look like animal silhouettes, as well as a large quantity of abstract symbols (red and black dots and lines). Dates to 23,000 BC.
- Cap Blanc (Dordogne)
The leading example of Magdalenian rock carving. Its 13-metre long limestone frieze of relief sculpture includes figures of horses and bison, some of which are up to 2 metres long. Dates to 13,000 BC.
- Chauvet Cave (Ardèche)
Discovered in 1994, Chauvet is the utterly awesome benchmark for Aurignacian Art. Consists of two main parts. In the first, most pictures are red, while in the second, the animals are mostly black and date to 34,500 BC. Highlights include the Horse Panel and the Panel of Lions and Rhinoceroses. Abstract signs abound, including finger tracings. See: Chauvet Cave Paintings.
- Cosquer Cave (Marseille)
Now mostly submerged by a rising Mediterranean, it contains 500 images, a good half of which depict animals (including some fine black horses and a variety of sea creatures, inc. seals), plus 220 geometric designs, 65 hand stencils, and some small animal engravings next to a submerged shaft. If Cosquer had remained dry, it would contain 800 animal images alone, and would be comparable to Lascaux or Altamira. Created in two phases - Gravettian and Solutrean. Dates to 25,000 BC.
- Cougnac Cave (Lot)
Famous for its two images of wounded men - one with three spears sticking in him, the other with seven. In the same gallery there is a carefully prepared frieze of red ochre animal paintings, including a beautiful image of a long-haired ibex. Also has several strange aviform signs (Placard signs). Dates to 23.000 BC.
- Cussac Cave (Dordogne)
Noted for its paleolithic engravings of animals (mammoths, bison, rhinos, horses, ibexes), as well as some birds (geese), AND an unidentified animal with an open mouth and elongated snout. Silhouettes of female figures, plus a few schematic images of vulva, are also present, along with numerous examples of shapeless finger-fluting. The cave's oldest works date to 26,500 BC.
- Font de Gaume (Dordogne)
An outstanding showcase of Magdalenian art from the final period of the Paleolithic, second only to Lascaux as a centre of high quality polychrome painting in France. Highlights include: The Licking Reindeer, The Leaping Horse and the Bison frieze. Dates to 14,000 BC.
- Gargas Cave (Hautes-Pyrenees)
Famous for its gruesome collection of over 200 hand stencils, in red and black, many of which appear to be missing finger-parts. Also contains over 100 outstanding animal engravings. Highlights are the Panel of the Great Bull and the Panel of the Mammoths. Dates to 25,000 BC.
- Grande Grotte d'Arcy-sur-Cure
Contains a diverse collection of about 282 paleolithic paintings. Includes animal pictures, 70 percent of which feature dangerous species like mammoths, woolly rhinoceros, bears and lions, as well as abstract signs. Highlights include a giant deer or Megaloceros (now extinct) whose antlers measure 4 metres across, and several rare examples of fish (especially pike). Numerous animal paintings are decorated with dots, rods, scrolls, and other ideomorphs, including trapezoidal figures not unlike 'Spanish tectiforms'.
- Isturitz, Oxocelhaya, Erberua Caves
This cave network in the French Basque region is famous for its Aurignacian bone flutes, and for its Magdalenian engraved pillar and abstract signs.
- Lascaux Cave (Dordogne)
Lascaux is "the" French showcase of Magdalenian art, although its earliest art dates to 19,500 BC. Famous galleries include the Hall of the Bulls, the Axial Gallery, the Apse, the Nave and the "Shaft" with its famous drawing of the dead man, the bird and the bison. Many archaeologists consider Lascaux to be the apogee of Franco-Cantabrian art. The cave also has a large variety of abstract signs. See also: Lascaux Cave Paintings.
- Les Combarelles (Dordogne)
Contains 600–800 highly naturalistic engraved drawings of animals, some of which are also outlined in black. Also has 50 human-like figures, and a quantity of tectiforms. Its best-known image is the Drinking Reindeer. Dates to 11,700 BC.
- Mandrin Cave (Rhone Valley)
An important archaeological site with the earliest traces of modern humans in Europe, including modern stone tools (Neronian industry). Dates to 54,000 BC.
- Niaux Cave (Ariège)
Famous for its black paintings, Niaux highlights include its Salon Noir imagery, and unique weasel drawing. The cave also contains a collection of geometric symbols, including more than a hundred red and black dots, dashes, bars and lines, some created with paint 'brushes', others with fingers. Dates to 13,000 BC.
- Pech-Merle Cave (Lot)
Decorated between 27,000 and 13,000 BC, highlights include: The Spotted Horses of Pech-Merle (accompanied by several hand stencils); The Black Frieze, featuring bison and horses; and the "Wounded Man" accompanied by several Placard-type aviform signs. Dubbed the 'Sistine Chapel of the Lot' by Abbé Breuil.
- Roc-de-Sers Cave (Charente)
Roc de Sers is the benchmark for Solutrean prehistoric sculpture, especially regarding artistic form and technique. It is famous for its fourteen sculpted, engraved and painted limestone blocks, decorated with fifty rock engravings and low-reliefs of animals. Dates to 17,200 BC.
- Rouffignac Cave (Dordogne)
Known as the 'cave of the hundred mammoths', it contains five miles of underground passages, and more than 250 animal images, in the form of black drawings or engravings. Also has a variety of symbols, including serpentiforms and tectiforms. Dates to 11,000 BC.
- Trois Frères Cave (Ariège)
Famous for its extraordinary painted and engraved image of the The Sorcerer, a human with the features of several different animals, which is believed to depict a shaman or magician. Located next door to Tuc d'Audoubert with its famous relief sculpture of two bison. Dates to 13,000 BC.
- Tuc d'Audoubert Cave (Ariège)
Best known for its relief sculptures of two bison about to mate, carved in soft clay on the floor of an exceptionally remote chamber of the cave. Dates to 13,000 BC.
The key sites of Franco-Cantabrian art in the region of Cantabria, are as follows:
- Altamira Cave (Cantabria)
The first major prehistoric cave to be discovered. Its cave painting was produced over a period of 21,000 years, from roughly 34,000 to 13,000 BC, though its fame rests largely on its Magdalenian multi-coloured bison ceiling. Its oldest art is a large red claviform sign dating to 34,160 BC.
- La Pasiega Cave (Cantabria)
Contains more cave art than any cave in Spain. It has more than 700 different images, 280 of which are animal paintings and 100 are petroglyphs. The rest are abstract symbols, which include: dotted signs, linear signs, claviforms, polygonals, 'Spanish tectiforms' - the most abundant type of symbol in Spanish caves - plus a collection of unique motifs and anthropomorphs. Also contains a famous panel of abstract pictographs, known as "The Inscription". Its oldest art is a scalariform sign created by a Neanderthal artist, dated to 62,000 BC.
- El Castillo Cave (Cantabria)
Best known for its its panel of red discs, a cross-shaped sign made up of almost 200 red dots (one of which dates to at least 39,000 BC), a number of fine engravings of horses in the Rotunda chamber, and the cave's famous vertical bison-man.
Other noted Cantabrian caves include:
- La Garma Cave complex (Cantabria)
Contains about 100 red ochre paintings of animals, a number of geometric signs and red dots, about 40 negative handprints and various items of mobiliary art - mostly bone carvings. These works were produced during two main periods: Gravettian (around 24,000 BC) and Magdalenian (around 13,000 BC).
- Covalanas (Cantabria)
Contains over 20 animal paintings in red ochre which are famous for their stippled outlines (made with the fingers). It also has a part-human figure, as well as a quantity of geometric symbols, red and black dots, and lines. The parietal art was produced during the Solutrean and Magdalenian periods, between 18,000 and 12,000 BC.
- Chufin (Cantabria)
Contains painted and engraved images of animals (bison, horses, deer, and goats), mostly dating to the Magdalenian between 16,000 and 11,500 BC.
- Hornos de la Pena (Cantabria)
Known for its paintings of horses, bison, aurochs, ibexes and other animals, dating to between 15,000 and 12,000 BC.
- Cave of El Pendo (Cantabria)
Has a quantity of red ochre animal pictures dating to about 15,000 BC.
- Las Chimeneas (Cantabria)
Located on Monte Castillo close to La Pasiega and El Castillo, the Cave of the Chimneys contains various panels of macaroni-type finger tracings - known as finger fluting - in the soft clay. In addition, it has a number of black animal paintings, together with some quadrangle symbols. Its oldest art in the cave (a sign) dates to 15,000 BC, while a deer image dates to 14,000 BC.
The most important sites of Franco-Cantabrian art in the Basque Country, include:
- Aitzbitarte Caves III, IV, V, IX
Discovered in 2015, in the easternmost part of the Cantabrian region, these three caves contain a collection of engraved animals, mainly bison, with characteristics not seen before in Spain. But parallels exist in French caves, including Gargas, Cussac, Roucadour and Cosquer. The oldest art dates to 25,000 BC.
- Altxerri Cave
Its upper gallery contains Europe's oldest animal paintings, dating to 37,000 BC. A lower gallery, decorated about 25,000 years later, is noted for its Magdalenian art - mostly engravings. In total there are about 140 images, including animals (92 images, inc. 53 bison) and abstract signs. It also has a number of human-like figures.
- Atxurra Cave
The most extensive site of Madalenian art in the Basque region. Its cave murals (all engraved) feature 113 separate rock engravings - many accentuated with black paint (much of it worn away) - with occasional red markings. The most commonly depicted species are horses and bison. Highlights include two huge horses, a bison riddled with arrows, and a mysterious composite creature with bear and reindeer characteristics. The engravings date to between 12,500 and 10,000 BC.
- Ekain Cave
Noted for its prehistoric cave painting, in particular its pictures of horses, which rank among the greatest examples of Franco-Cantabrian art of the Magdalenian era. The main highlight is the Great Panel of Horses which was described by the French archaeologist André Leroi-Gourhan as "the most perfect group of horses in Quaternary art". Ekain has a total of 70 animal figures, of which 64 are painted and 6 engraved. Some of the paintings are outlined in charcoal. Others are also modelled in black. A few are drawn in black and red.
- Santimamiñe Cave
Noted for its lengthy occupation by Neanderthals, dating to the Mousterian culture, and by Cro-Magnons during the Aurignacian, Santimamiñe is best known for its prehistoric art of the late Magdalenian period (black charcoal drawings of horses, ibex, bison, and deer), dating to about 12,000 BC. In all, it has 50 separate animal figures, 32 of which are bison. Ten of the figures are engraved, or engraved and accentuated in black.
The main sites of Franco-Cantabrian art in the Asturias, are as follows:
- Tito Bustillo Cave (Asturias)
Renowned for its red and black paintings of horses, notably those in the "Galeria de los Caballos", and its unusual use of red and dark violet colour pigments. Also noted for its engravings of reindeer and horses. Highlights include the Chamber of Vulvas, the Anthropomorph Gallery, and the Gallery of Horses. Its oldest art - one of the red ochre human-like figures - was dated to at least 34,000 BC, using Uranium-Thorium technology. The remainder is believed to date from the Solutrean and Magdalenian periods.
- La Peña de Candamo Cave (Asturias)
Highlights here include painted engravings of bison, deer, horses and ibexes, the mural of horses on the Talud Stalagmite, and the Hall of the Red Signs (dots, lines and other geometric symbols). The most famous engraved drawing is that of a large stag pierced by several spears. The oldest art in the cave dates to around 24,000 BC.
- Cueva del Pindal (Asturias)
Contains numerous paintings of horses and bison, plus fish and mammoths, as well as abstract symbols. Both red and black colours are used. The cave art dates to between 16,000 and 11,000 BC.
- Other Stone Age shelters in the Asturias region include: the Cuevona de Ardines in the Ardines massif, the La Covaciella in Cabrales, and the Cave of Llonin in Penamellera Alta.
Rest of Spain
Stone Age art is also found in a number of other sites across the Iberian Peninsula. The most important ones are as follows:
- La Pileta Cave (Málaga)
La Pileta contains some 400 paleolithic images, including a host of abstract symbols as well as animal paintings (horses, goats, bulls and ibexes) painted in yellow, orange, red, white and black. There are no engravings. Highlights include a drawing of a giant fish and a pregnant mare with red dot signs. The range and variety of the paleoart resembles that of La Pasiega. The cave's large collection of abstract signs, include: crosshatch patterns, meanders, cruciforms, serpentiforms, spirals, 'Spanish tectiforms', zig-zags, and other motifs. In addition, there are a number of strange corral-shaped signs. Like the site at Nerja, the cave art at La Pileta is dominated by abstract signs and geometric symbols. La Pileta's oldest art dates to at least 18,000 BC.
- Ardales Cave (Málaga)
Contains around 1,000 painted images - including red and black animals, linear signs, geometric shapes, hand stencils, and handprints. Its most imposing animal painting is the Great Black Deer (Gran Cierva en Negro), which is depicted in black with a red blot over its heart. However, Ardales is probably best known for its primitive Neanderthal artworks (lines of red ochre) which date to at least 63,000 BC, placing them among the oldest art in Europe.
- Nerja Cave (Málaga)
Discovered in 1959, it is best known for its paintings of seals.
- Maltravieso Cave (Extremadura)
Contains animal paintings as well as abstract signs, but it's the 70 or so hand stencils outlined in red pigment, that dominate. They are also exceptionally old, and are Uranium-Thorium dated to at least 64,700 BC. This makes them the oldest cave art in Europe.
- Gorham's Cave (Gibraltar)
Best known for its crosshatch sign, which was dated by accelerator mass spectrometry to 37,000 BC. The cave highlights the question: who produced art first - Neanderthals or modern man?
- Collections of Iberian rock art can be seen outdoors at Siega Verde in Salamanca, and at Côa Valley across the border in Portugal.
End of Cave Art
Beginning around 20,000 BC, the Ice Age reached its maximum and the Earth started to defrost and get warmer.
For example, around 17,000 BC, sea levels started to rise as the huge ice sheets began melting. From 17,000 to 4,000 BC, sea levels rose on average by 10 metres every thousand years.
By 10,000 BC, major warming began to drive the great herds of reindeer northwards, destroying the Magdalenian hunter-gatherer economy and culture, and giving its cave art the death-blow.
By 8,000 BC, it was all over. No more sublime cave painting, or engravings or complex abstract signs.
Later artists, during the era of Mesolithic and Neolithic culture, produced one or two exceptional works, but mostly limited themselves to a range of hunting scenes populated by matchstick men and animals.
Paleolithic hunter gatherers gradually morphed into Neolithic farmers and smallholders. The caves lay empty and decayed, explored only by the curious.
Luckily, certain sites of Franco Cantabrian art, like Chauvet Cave, were sealed by rock falls which preserved their art and culture for the benefit of later generations like us.
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