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Atxurra Cave

Magdalenian Painted Engravings
Berriatua, Biscay: 12,500 BC

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Photo of the engravings gallery in Atxurra Cave, showing dozens of finely engraved pictures of horses
The engravings gallery in Atxurra Cave, one of the oldest decorated caves in Europe. The rock surface on the right is covered with fine engraved drawings of horses. Image by AdesSpeleo. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Petroglyphs in Vizcaya

Atxurra Cave - also referred to as "Cave of the Errecas", "Cueva de Amoroto", "Cueva de Berriatúa" or "Armiña" - is the most extensive site of prehistoric art in the Basque region of Spain.

It was occupied by humans (Cro-Magnons) from 27,000 BC to about 10,000 BC, but the only cave art found so far, belongs to the final phase of the Upper Paleolithic - that is, to the period of Magdalenian art, after 12,500 BC.

Atxurra contains more than 113 separate rock engravings - many accentuated with black paint (much of it worn away) - and occasional red markings. There is no cave painting - everything is engraved.

The bestiary is typically Magdalenian: the most common species depicted are horses and bison, followed by ibex, reindeer and aurochs.

Highlights include two huge horses and a bison riddled with arrows.

The numerous discoveries made at Atxurra and other Basque caves in recent years, has helped to overcome the mystery of the so-called "Basque Void" - the lack of rock art found in the Basque Country, compared to other areas within the region of Franco-Cantabrian art in southern France and northern Spain.

The problem - scientists now know - was not a lack of art but the fact it had been overlooked.

Other important sanctuaries of paleolithic art in Vizcaya, include the Aitzbitarte Caves (Gipuzkoa), Altxerri Cave (Gipuzkoa) Ekain Cave (Cestona) and Santimamiñe Cave (Kortezubi).

Altamira World Heritage Site

In 2008, the latter three caves were added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Northern Spain, which is centred on the famous Altamira Cave, in Cantabria.

Other famous Spanish caves in the region, which were added to the UNESCO site, include:

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Location and Discovery

The Atxurra cave is located in the municipality of Berriatua, close to the town of Lequeitio on the coastal corridor between Bilbao and San Sebastián.

It is one of a string of caves on the migratory route from North Africa to France.

The cavity was known about for centuries, not least for its speleothems (stalagmites and stalactites), as well as its large colony of bats, and was investigated several times by the famous archaeologist José Miguel Barandiaran, among others.

Then, in 2015, during a review of the cave by archaeologists Diego Garate and Joseba Rios-Garaizar, a parietal art complex was discovered deep in the cave, with more than 100 engraved and painted animal figures in Upper Magdalenian style.

As a result, the Department of Euskera and Culture of the Provincial Council of Vizcaya announced a five-year multi-disciplinary study, to research the cave.

Atxurra is the second longest cave in the area of the Mereludi Karst.

It has two entrances, one at ground level, and a smaller one seven metres higher up. The lower gallery runs for about 300 metres, and the upper gallery for about 800 metres.

The petroglyphs are located in a dozen different areas of the upper level, and the first examples appear about 235 metres from the entrance.

This distance illustrates why cave art had gone unnoticed in Vizcaya for so long: the archaeologists who could identify the art were not going far enough into the caves; and the speleologists who went everywhere, lacked the training needed to identify the art.

For more about the chronology of cave painting in Spain, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

Atxurra Cave Art

The parietal art at Atxurra consists of about 113 animal figures divided between 14 chambers or sectors.

One of the first is the "Bison Room", which is 235 meters from the entrance. Another is the "Horse Platform"- an 11 metre-long ledge, some 4 metres above ground level - which contains more than 40 engraved drawings of animals, mostly horses.

Other figures depicted include ibex, aurochs, deer and reindeer, as well as a mysterious composite creature which combines bear and reindeer characteristics.

Almost all the rock art at Atxurra is engraved. Variants include scraping, fine incision and deep incision, and are often combined with black paint, which is very poorly preserved.

Fortunately, just like at Font-de-Gaume Cave in the Dordogne, the presence of engraved lines helps to preserve the animal figures when the paint fades.

Curiously, the number of animals brought down with spears and arrows is unusually high - among them a bison pierced by about twenty projectiles - an image previously unheard of in prehistoric art.

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Dating of Atxurra Art

In terms of style, all the figures reveal a remarkable internal coherence that can be assigned, without reservation, to the final phase of Upper Paleolithic art, specifically to the Upper Magdalenian period, between 12,500 and 10,500 BC.

Artist Materials

Archaeologists have discovered a wealth of flint tools and other artifacts used by the engravers and painters at Atxurra, some of which are on display at the Archaeology Museum of Bizkaia, in Bilbao.

The recovered material allows us to understand the tools the artists used to create their art, how they manufactured them and how they used them on the walls.

Also, it tells us from where they extracted the raw material for their pigments, torches and lamps.

For this reason, Atxurra is considered an artists' workshop museum as well as a gallery of Stone Age art.

Cave Lighting

Since no natural light penetrated to where the parietal art was made, the mass of carbonaceous remains recovered from Atxurra, gives us a good idea of ​​the lighting systems developed and used by the artists to make the works of art and, then to contemplate them.

On the "horse platform", for example, four "lighting points" made up of juniper and oak combustion hearths have been found, while in the "bison room" a portable lamp has been located.

Numerous scattered charcoal remains have been recorded in the decorated chambers, indicating the use of wooden torches as another portable resource.

Here we have at least three lighting systems to facilitate the decoration of the cave, in what would have been a highly planned process, involving many people.

Cave Complex in French Basque Region

Located just north of the Spanish border is the Isturitz, Oxocelhaya, Erberua cave complex, which is famous for its Aurignacian bone flutes, and its Magdalenian engraved pillar and abstract cave signs.

Related Articles

Other important sites of paleolithic art in Spain include the following, listed chronologically:

References

(1) "Atxurra is the largest prehistoric sanctuary in Euskadi." The Spanish Post, The Basque People . April 17, 2018.
(2) "The Atxurra cave is the site with the largest number of engravings in the Basque Country with 113 representations." Bizkaimedia. April 16, 2018.
(3) "New Insights into the Study of Paleolithic Rock Art: Dismantling the “Basque Country Void". Maidagan, Diego Garate (2018-06). Journal of Anthropological Research (en inglés) 74 (2): 168-200.

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