Deep into the bison's eye

The Cave at Altamira

June 9, 2000

Stories - true or false - do not come much better than the 1879 discovery of the paintings in the Altamira cave: the innocence of the child crying "Look Daddy, oxen", as her father, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, scrabbled in the dirt looking for artefacts; his pioneering recognition of the paintings' antiquity; the arrogant refusal of the academic establishment to countenance such a claim; the paintings' relegation to oblivion for 20 years; Emile Cartailhac's famous "mea culpa of a sceptic" publication in 1902, the year he finally deigned to visit the cave, only to find that Sautuola had tragically died in 1888. Christened in 1906 as the "Sistine ceiling of Quaternary art" on account of the bison panorama on the vault of the first chamber, Altamira has occupied a critical place in the history of palaeolithic studies ever since.

This book successfully melds together a new academic study of the cave with a celebration of its art. It follows hard on the heels of equally luxurious publications about Chauvet and Cosquer caves from Abrams. But whereas those books were about recently discovered caves and provided the first opportunity for many to see the paintings within them, the paintings at Altamira are already familiar. Yet Pedro Saura Ramos's photographs throw new light on them, capturing an astonishing level of detail and enabling one to appreciate their context within the cave far more effectively than in previous reproductions. That is, of course, the immense challenge of works such as this: to narrow the disparity between what one sees in a book and reads in the comfort of one's armchair, and the real thing experienced within the cave. As books become glossier and smarter - and they cannot come much more elegant than this - one is further detached from that raw primitive sensation of line, colour and form, of dank smells, damp feet and cold air, that one gains when visiting a painted cave.

That said, it is difficult to know how Saura Ramos's photographic achievement in capturing the content, quality and atmosphere of the paintings could have been bettered. The most spectacular photograph (on page 97) shows the bison ceiling illuminated by a light source simulating the daylight that would have entered through the cave's mouth. Other chiaroscuro photographs describe how the Altamira artists exploited the natural humps, bumps, cracks and crevasses of the rock walls to create naturally sculptured paintings. His photographs of the "masks" in the rear part of the cave named the Horse's Tail - natural rock protrusions subtly painted as bison and human-like faces - demonstrate more effectively than any text how for these stone-age artists the boundaries between human and animal, inert rock and living bodies, are likely to have been quite fluid.

The photographs are accompanied by six short essays, together with a brief statement from Saura Ramos recalling his first visit to Altamira more than 30 years ago (I would have liked a lot more from him about his methods and experience of photographing the paintings). The first is a short introduction by editor Antonio Beltr n, which skips through the discovery of the cave, authentication of the paintings and the history of interpretations. José Antonio Lasheras Corruchaga then describes the cave and its surroundings, accompanied by luscious photographs of the local town of Santillana del Mar and rolling limestone landscape. Here the story of the cave's discovery is lovingly retold as "a genuine historical milestone that encompasses a curious mixture of anecdote, coincidence and calculation".

Federico Bernaldo de Quirós's essay is rather longer and takes the reader through the cave, beginning with the polychrome chamber with the bison ceiling, and then through the adjoining rooms and galleries that stretch for almost 300 metres into the hillside, all of them decorated with paintings and engravings. His essay continues with the history of excavations within the cave, the most important being those of Hugo Obermaier in the 1920s, and how the finds of artefacts, animal bones and decorated objects have been interpreted. He explains how Altamira was crucial to Henri Breuil's first attempt at establishing a chronology for palaeolithic art, and how Andre Leroi-Gourhan developed this by recognising the parallels between wall paintings and movable objects, and paying attention to the stratigraphy with the cave.

It was not until the application of accelerator mass-spectrometer radio-carbon dating in the 1990s, however, that we gained a detailed understanding of when the paintings were made. The direct dating of minute samples of charcoal removed from the paintings demonstrated that they had been made between 16,500-14,500 radio-carbon years ago (which in calendar years is likely to be between about 20,000-17,500 years ago).

The core essay is that by Matilde MNozquiz Perez-Seoane, which deals with the specific techniques used by the Altamira artists when creating the painted ceiling. She draws on experimental replications of the bison polychrome figures, and a detailed knowledge of the originals, to reconstruct the specific decisions the artists - or perhaps artist - made about how to illuminate the paintings, where to place them in light of available cracks and stone protrusions, the postures the artists had to adopt when working and their particular hand movements when painting, drawing and engraving. She explains in precise terms how the polychrome figures were created, concluding with a eulogy to the artist: "His work is the fruit of creative gifts, of knowledge, of intense, sustained effort, and of profound thought." While the claims that the artist must have stared long into the bison eyes, and had a personality as strong as his bold strokes, may be a touch too speculative for some readers, the focus on the individual is a most effective preparation for the bulk of the photographs that follow, reminding us that we are indeed looking at the work of human beings rather than abstract palaeolithic cultures.

The final essay deals with the problems of conservation at Altamira and the plans for a replica cave, exhibitions and visitor centre. Beltr n then provides a conclusion, placing Altamira in the context of the global cultural revolution of 40,000 years ago.

The photographs are works of art in themselves, the book one to drool over, to be valued not just by archaeologists but, in Beltr n's words, "the reader, the scholar, and lover of beauty and history"; and even such aesthetes will appreciate its very reasonable price. But one might say that books such as this truly succeed when they leave readers feeling dissatisfied, wanting to leave their armchairs and travel to France and Spain to see the real thing. It is 15 years since I stood in awe below the polychrome ceiling of Altamira, and never before have I felt more desperate to return.

Steven Mithen is professor of early prehistory, University of Reading.

The Cave at Altamira

Editor - Antonio Beltrán
ISBN - 0 8109 1989 2
Publisher - Abrams
Price - £32.00
Pages - 180
Translator - None / Photographs by Padro A. Saura

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