Prehistoric open air engravings
Salamanca, Spain: 18,000-12,000 BC
Siega Verde is one of Europe's largest open air sites of rock art, dating to the Solutrean and Magdalenian eras of the Upper Paleolithic (18,000-12,000 BC).
It lies in the middle-upper valley of the River Agueda as it ﬂows through the municipalities of Villar del Ciervo and Villar de Argañán, in the province of Salamanca (Castile-León), Spain.
Its art consists of around 450 rock engravings, mostly engraved drawings of animals, along with abstract signs and three humanoid figures.
Discovered in 1989, Siega Verde was not the ﬁrst outdoor site with paleolithic art, but it was the ﬁrst major ensemble of panels to be studied methodically. It is the oldest art to be found outdoors in Spain.
The open air Côa Valley rock art site, located some 60 km away in Portugal, was discovered shortly after Siega Verde, in the early 1990s. It was larger and slightly older, and the Portuguese authorities reacted faster.
As a result, UNESCO made it a World Heritage Site in 1998. However, in 2010 UNESCO extended it to include Siega Verde.
Together, the Coa Valley and Siega Verde Heritage Site represent the most remarkable open-air ensemble of prehistoric art in Europe.
Ever since the discovery of the Altamira Cave in 1878, Upper Paleolithic art (40,000-10,000 BC) has been exclusively associated with two things: (1) The arrival of modern H. sapiens in Europe, and (2) Caves.
The first connection is understandable though not always true - see, for instance, Gorham's Cave in Gibraltar. The second is less understandable and has proved to be completely false, as paleolithic art (mostly petroglyphs) has been found in numerous open air sites across the world.
The largest collections are found in Australia, where the best examples include: the Burrup Peninsula Engravings and the Kimberley Rock Carvings in the northern area of Western Australia, and the Ubirr Rock Art in Kakadu National Park, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory.
In Europe, it all began in 1981, near Mazouco (Portugal), when a team from the University of Oporto uncovered the engraving of a horse deeply carved into an outdoor vertical rock surface, on the banks of a reservoir on the River Douro.
After this came sites such as Domingo García (Segovia), Piedras Blancas (Andalusia), Fornols-Haut and Campôme (French Pyrenees), Coa Valley (Portugal), among numerous others.
The outdoor art at Siega Verde was first encountered in 1989, by Professor Manuel Santonja, director of the Museum of Salamanca, during an inventory of archaeological sites in the valley of the Águeda river.
His discovery of an engraved drawing of a horse - identified as paleolithic in style by Ángel Hervalejo - led to further exploration and the subsequent discovery of 91 rock panels containing some 450 ﬁgurative images, all duly documented by the Prehistory Department at the University of Alcalá de Henares, who later published a scientific monograph on the site.
The style of most ﬁgures found so far, suggests they were created between 18,000 and 12,000 BC - in line with what French paleontologist André Leroi-Gourhan (1911-86) described as "Style III". See also the Spanish Solutrean site of La Pileta Cave, in Andalucia.
To see how these Spanish rock carvings fit into the evolution of paleolithic engraving, see: Timeline of Prehistoric Art (from 540,000 BC).
So far as we can tell, the Siega Verde site contains 443 Paleolithic images, of which 244 are engraved drawings of animals, 165 are abstract motifs, and 34 are indeterminate forms and 3 are anthropomorphs.
Of these, 72 percent were produced by pecking the rock, 26 percent by incision, and 1.5 percent by a combination of both.
The most common animals represented are large herbivores selected from the indigenous fauna of the time, such as horses, aurochs (ancestors of the ox), deer, and goats.
Drawings of rarer species also occur - such as woolly rhinoceroses, large felines, foxes, giant deer, bears and fish - but always in much smaller quantities.
All this is in line with the parietal art found in caves of the central Iberian plateau, such as those at Los Casares, La Hoz, and El Reno.
Abstract signs are relatively scarce at Siega Verde compared to most examples of parietal art of the Magdalenian.
Furthermore, simple forms predominate, notably incised lines, which suggests a lower standard of artistic behaviour.
All this is suggestive of Early Solutrean rather than Magdalenian art.
(1) J. J. Alcolea y R. de Balbín: Outdoor Paleolithic Art: The Siega Verde cave site, Salamanca. Archaeology in Castilla y León. Memories, 16. Government of Castilla y León. Salamanca, 2006.
(2) J. J. Fernández y M. Burón (Eds.): Siega Verde. Outdoor Paleolithic Art. Government of Castilla y León. Salamanca, 2011.
(3) C. Vázquez y J. Angulo: Siega Verde. Outdoor Paleolithic Art: Migrobrigenses Study Centre. His Honour. Ciudad Rodrigo Town Hall, Salamanca, 2019.