Posts Tagged ‘Magdalenian’

Yesterday the news about a recent discovery of a new Paleolithic rock-art site were disseminated in the media. The cave of Armintxe, with its beutifully and masterly carved panel full of animal figures, was presented to the public. The archaeologist and speleologist are still working on it, but the first results are quite relevant.

I was told about this discovery the same day it happened. Two of the speleologist working, with Diego Garate and miself, on the archeological work at Atxurra, were involved in this finding. In fact, Iñaki Intxaurbe, who was the one who identified the first figures at Atxurra, saw the first engravings. More of them were quickly identified by the team formed by ADES speleologists and AGIRI archaeologists, and inmediatly the discovery was communicated to the local authorities and the cave was closed. During the last months some work has been done by the proffesor of Cantabrian University, Cesar Gonzalez, and Juan C. Lopez-Quintana from AGIRI, helped by ADES and supported by Bizkaia regional government.

The first results have shown a big panel crowded with figures, displayed in a complex composition. Some of the figures are quit big, but many of them are relatively small, suggesting some sort of perspective. Some of the figures are represented in natural position, while others have been vertically designed. All of them have been engraved with the same technique, scratching the soft limestone with the fingers of with a dull point, resulting in very detailed and easy to see figures. The animals are represented with high detail, typical from Magdalenian art style, with hair, mouths, eyes, etc. carefully traced. Represented animals are horses, bisons, ibex and some carnivores. One of this carnivores has been undoubtly interpreted as a lion, which is an animal rarely present in Magdalenian art, albeit there are such representations in the Iberian Peninsula (Castillo and Casares for example) or in the Pyrenees (Istuitz, Erberua, Trois Freres, Tuc d´Audoubert and others). Besides, several sings, including clear claviforms, have been found there. The conventions used for representing animals and the presence of claviforms suggest that the figures could be related to the Late Magdalenian art. Armintxe has a close simmilarity with Tuc d´Audoubert  french cave, having this one a bigger and more complex art repertory.

The cave of Armintxe is situated in the coastal town of Lekeitio, in the Basque Country. In fact it is part of the same karstic complex then the cave of Lumentxa, where four years ago Diego Garate and myself found two bisons and a horse head painted in red, also of Magdalenian style. In Lumentxa it was an important Magdalenian site, excavated by J. M. Barandiaran, and very close the site of Santa Catalina, also with rich Magdalenian levels, was excavated by E. Berganza and J. L. Arribas. Close to Lekeitio it is situated the cave of Atxurra, wich has a rich Magdalenian sequence and the most important rock-art assemblage of the peninsular Basque Country. And above Atxurra, it is located the cave of Goikolau, with probable late paleolithic engravings. Considering this, in less than four years, a region with no (almost) evidence of Paleolithic rock-art, is now one of the most relevant places for the study of the Magdalenian complex in all the Cantabrian Region.

The new findings of rock art sites in the Basque Country, that happened in the last decade, are the result of intense explorations made by archeologists and and speleologist, most of them initially done without any funding from public institutions. Grace to this work 6 new caves have been identified in Bizkaia, 6 in Gipuzkoa, and one in Navarre, ranging from Gravettian to Magdalenian. These new findings have substantially changed our views about Paleolithic occupations in the Basque region, and are opening new venues for research.


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In 1930 the French spelunker N. Casteret discovered several parietal engravings of Palaeolithic age in Alkerdi cave. Later on in 1974 a detailed study of these engravings was made by I. Barandiarán, who also, more recently, has excavated the cave. In 2014 more than twenty new figures were discovered by D. Garate and O. Rivero in an almost unknown sector of the cave called ‘Galería de los Bisontes’.

One year ago I helped Diego Garate to the cave We went to make photos and document the rock art. Diego told me the nature of the findings, but the reality exceeded any description. The Gallery was narrow, so tight that it was impossible for two persons to stay one beside the other. We entered creeping, pushing ahead all the equipment, then we stopped in front of the left wall.

Diego Garate taking photos at Alkerdi's 'Galeria de los Bisontes'

Diego Garate taking photos at Alkerdi’s ‘Galeria de los Bisontes’

I was able to see some faint bluish lines, but until Diego started pointing the engraved lines with his finger I was unable to realize that I was in front of a big bison. The figure was impressive, 67 cm long, with the eye, the horns and the snout carefully represented. Three lines drawn in the flank of the animal represented nailed spears or arrows. The animal, with his tongue sticking out, seemed hurt, almost agonizing. I was shocked by the strength of the representation but then Diego started pointing the different figures and I realize the beauty and the relevance of the discovery he made.

Tracing of the B5 bison

Tracing of the B5 bison (Garate and Rivero 2015)

The cave of Alkerdi is located in Navarre, just beside the actual frontier between Spain and France. It opens in the slopes of Arleun mountain, where are also located other archaeological caves as Alkerdi 2 or Beroberria, which has a Late Upper Palaeolithic sequence excavated by I. Barandiarán.

Detailed map of Alkerdi cave (Garate and Rivero 2015)

Detailed map of Alkerdi cave (Garate and Rivero 2015). The sector marked with letter D is the new decorated sector.

Alkerdi is a relatively small cavity which can be divided in different sectors. The entrance chamber has a very low ceiling and here were made the archaeological excavations of a single Gravettian layer. At the end of one narrow passageway which starts from this entrance chamber is located the already known decorated sector. After the main chamber, a second one is present at the back of the cave. Here, also a small passageway opens on the left wall. In this narrow place is where the new figures have been found.

The narrow passageway where the recently found rock-art was found

The narrow passageway where the recently found rock-art was found (Garate and Rivero 2015)

These new figures have been studied with innovative methods of photography, photogrametry and 3d laser scanning. Also advanced methods of image editing and infographics have been used to record and show the engravings.

The figures were made with superimposed faint engravings, probably due to the hardness of the wall, creating complex lines which nowadays are still clearly visible. The figures are small and adapt to the narrow space where they are represented. In fact it is quite surprising that such a narrow space was used, but similar examples have been found at Mas d’Azil or Etxeberri. The most represented animal is bison, followed by horse. There are also some less clear figures as a possible doe and a wolf. Bisons have been represented in great detail following the conventions that are typical during the Middle Magdalenian at the Pyrenean region: S profile horns, beard and hump represented with parallel tracings, representation of eye, ear and snout; occasional representation of tongue, hoofs and hooks, sex, etc. Horses have also typical conventions as the detail of anatomical parts or the representation of the mane with parallel tracings.


Tracing of the A6 horse (Garate and Rivero 2015)

The rock art discovered at Alkerdi cave is clearly related with the rock-art sites found at the close Gaztelu hill (Isturitz, Oxocelhaya and Erberua). Also, the ‘pyrenean’ style of the representations is related with classic sites as Niaux, Fontanet or Tuc d’Audoubert. This discovery enhances the knowledge of the rock art at the region and offers new data to assess the mobility of Middle Magdalenian populations, helping to understand the existence of a ‘global’ art expression in Western Europe 14.000 years ago.


Garate Maidagan, D., Rivero Vilá, O., 2015. La “Galería de los Bisontes”: un nuevo sector decorado en la Cueva de Alkerdi (Urdazubi/Urdax, Navarra). Zephyrvs 75, 17–39.

Also in Academia

Additional references:

Barandiarán Maestu, I., 1974. Arte paleolítico en Navarralas cuevas de Urdax. Principe de Viana 134-135, 9–48.

Cava, A., Elorrieta, I., Barandiarán Maestu, I., 2009. El Gravetiense de la Cueva de Alkerdi (Urdax, Navarra): análisis y contexto de su industria lítica. Munibe 60, 51–80.

Garate, D., Rivero, O., Ruiz-Redondo, A., Rios-Garaizar, J., 2015. At the crossroad: A new approach to the Upper Paleolithic art in the Western Pyrenees. Quaternary International 364, 283–293.

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