Category: prehistoric art

July 7, 2008: Three Basque Caves Declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO

On July 7, 2008, UNESCO declared three Basque caves–Santimamiñe in Bizkaia and Ekain and Altxerri in Gipuzkoa–to be World Heritage Sites. The Basque Country is at the epicenter of arguably the most important cave complex in Europe, an area framed by the world famous caves of Lascaux, Dordogne in southwestern France and Altamira, Cantabria, in northern Spain. Their designation as World Heritage Sites implied official international recognition for the cultural value of the cave art discovered in the three sites.

In order to preserve the cave art in these locations, they are, naturally, closed to the public. However, we can still get a flavor of what treasures lie deep within their walls. As regards Santimamiñe, one can undertake an amazing online virtual visit (click here to start) as well as view a great photo gallery of the cave and its surrounding area (click here to see).  And when it comes to Ekain, as well as the option of a virtual visit (click here to start), those of you lucky enough to actually set foot in the Basque Country (congratulations by the way, it will be an unforgettable experience!), a replica of the original site exists, Ekainberri, which offers a unique opportunity to experience what it must have been like to live deep underground. Click here to visit the Ekainberri website.

If you’re interested in this topic, check out Selected Writings of José Miguel de Barandiarán: Basque Prehistory and Ethnography, the only text in English that summarizes the key works of the most important Basque ethnographer of all time. Reflecting on the relationship between humans and animals, that intimate connection that underpins much of the cave art, Barandiarán observes (p. 148):

Among the species that inhabited the Basque Country during the Neolithic were cows, horses, deer, mountain goat, roebuck, chamois, wild boar, fox, mountain lion, the weasel, and the martin. Deer and especially wild boar were the animals most hunted by man.

Sheep already existed in Bizkaia, as we know from their remains in Santimamiñe; this is an indication that the practice of domesticating and using them had already reached this part of the Pyrenees.

*Images

Top: A horse depicted in Santimamiñe, image by ETOR Entziklopedia, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Bottom: The neck and head of a saiga antelope looking left. A bit more to the right is the beginning outline of another antelope and its horn. Image by GipuzkoaKultura, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 

Major new find of millennial rock engravings in Lekeitio

The Provincial Council of Bizkaia has just announced a major new find of possibly 14,000-year-old rock engravings in Lekeitio. Remarkably, these engravings, which total about 50 in all, have been discovered within the town of Lekeitio itself, approximately 165 feet deep into the Armintxe cave well-known to local residents. The discovery was made in May this year by the ADES speleology team from Gernika and the Agiri archaeological association from Kortezubi, and follows another major find this year in the Atxurra caves near Berriatua, Bizkaia, which we covered in an earlier post here.

These images depict, among other things, 18 horses, 5 goats, and 2 bison. Aside from the striking clarity of the representations the find is also significant in that the engravings also include 2 lions – a completely new feature of paleolithic art discovered to date in the Cantabrian region. Alongside the animals there are also semicircles and lines making up calviform or club-shaped features, the first example of this type found within the Iberian Peninsula itself and more reminiscent of shapes found in the world famous caves of the Pyrenees.

The engravings are of an exceptional quality and experts speculate they were made using a novel technique of carving by means of dragging the carving instrument along the rock and hoisting up at the last moment to create a groove in the surface, creating a kind of scaling effect. There is still some doubt as to their exact age, with suggestions dating the find somewhere between 12,000 and 14,500 years. But whatever the case, this would appear to be a significant discovery. Check out the video below highlighting this amazing discovery!

Check out more on the story here.

September 11, 2008: Ekainberri replica cave site opens

 

640px-Ekainberriko_zaldiak_(Pottoka)

Exact replica paintings, based on the originals in Ekain, in Ekainberri. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On September 11, 2008, the Ekainberri replica cave site in Zestoa, Gipuzkoa, opened to the public for the first time. It is a replica of the Ekain cave in Deba, Gipuzkoa, which is included in UNESCO’s “Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain” World Heritage Site.

Ekainberri outside view

Outside view of Ekainberri, from the museum website.

Ekain was discovered in 1969 by Rafael Rezabal and Andoni Albizuri, who on entering the cave came across intricate paintings–33 horses, 10 bison, 2 bears, 2 deer, 4 goats, and 2 fish as well as other nonfigurative marks–that would eventually be dated back to between 10,000 and 14,500 BCE. That same year, José Miguel de Barandiarán and Jesús Altuna began work on excavating the site, a task that lasted until 1975. Their findings were published in 1978 and updated in 1984. In short, they revealed one of the finest examples of cave paintings associated with the Magdalenian culture of the Upper Paleolithic period, on a level equal to that of the renowned paintings of Altamira and Lascaux.

Ekainberri exhibition hall

Exhibition hall in Ekainberri, from the museum website.

Given the obviously delicate nature of the original site it was impossible to allow full public access to these marvelous paintings. The various public authorities involved therefore decided to create a replica site, Ekainberri (“new Ekain”) as near as possible to the original, which would serve as a museum and information center about the people who inhabited these caves and the natural environment in which they lived. Although relatively new, Ekainberri has quickly become a landmark destination for visitors to the Basque Country.

Ekainberri replica

The actual replica of the Ekain cave in Ekainberri, from the museum website.

See the official Ekainberri site here.

The Basque Country is blessed with numerous cave sites. If you do get the chance to visit and are interested in these remarkable testaments to the remote human past, as well as Ekainberri be sure to set some time aside for a trip to the Cave of Zugarramurdi in Nafarroa and/or the Caves of Sara in Lapurdi.

If you’re interested in the topic, check out the Selected Writings of José Miguel de Barandiarán: Basque Prehistory and Ethnography, with an introduction by Jesús Altuna.

Our very own Joseba Zulaika, who grew up near Ekain, also talks about the cave and its resonance in Basque culture in his classic study, Basque Violence: Metaphor and Sacrament.

 

 

14,500-year-old animal paintings discovered in Basque cave

A team of archaeologists recently came across a major series of animal paintings, dating from up to c.14,500 years ago and including horses, bison, goats, and deer, in the Atxurra caves near Berriatua, Bizkaia. There are about 70 etchings in total dating from the Upper Paleolithic era that were previously unknown to modern researchers, most likely due to their remote location, approximately 1,000 feet deep, inside the cave system. The paitings may have contained black coal dust and were made using flint tools.

Check out a report on the findings here. See also a detailed first-hand report on the discovery (in Spanish) here.

The Atxurra cave was first discovered in 1929 and was excavated between 1934 and 1935 by Jose Miguel de Barandiaran, still considered to be the greatest Basque ethnographer of all time. For some wonderful traditional folk tales as well as detailed accounts of many of Barandiaran’s excavations, see Selected Writings of José Miguel de Barandiarán: Basque Prehistory and Ethnography.

Race to save wild Basque cattle in Iparralde

A report (in French) in Sud-Ouest on October 24 notes that the Iparraldeko Betizuak association, an organization dedicated to protecting the remaining wild Basque cattle or betizuak in Iparralde, has been officially dissolved by its head, Iban Seiliez, in an attempt to “make the state and [different] bodies face up to their responsibilities.”

Betizu_sur_le_massif_du_Xoldokogaina

A betizu on Mount Xoldokogaina, Biriatu, Lapurdi. Photo by Seiliez, via Wikimedia Commons

The betizu–from the Basque behi izua or “elusive cow”–is a breed that still inhabits parts of the Basque Country, mainly in Iparralde and Navarre, numbering perhaps 600 in total truly wild cattle (there are domesticated betizuak throughout the Basque Country). In Iparralde, where there are around 100, they are to be found mainly on the slopes surrounding  Mount Larrun (or Larhun; La Rhûne in French), the Ibardin Pass and Mount Arranomendi (Mondarrain in French), two areas of southern and southastern Lapurdi. According to Seiliez, “it’s one of the oldest breeds in Europe. It was almost made extinct in the 1920s because wild cattle were slaughtered during construction of the Larrun train.” Its characteristics are described here.

For Seiliez, “I think the objective of the association’s goal, which was to promote coexistence between the betizu and other mountain users, has not been achieved. Instead, we have disempowered the authorities.” He thus found it necessary to dissolve the association as a means of forcing more involvement from the authorities. “The betizu is unique in Europe,” he concludes,  which “needs a sustainable management plan and a proper status . . . the authorities must assume this responsibility.” The provincial government of Navarre, for example, established a conservation plan for the breed, ceding land from an abandoned farm in the Urraulgoiti Valley for 45 animals to live in at least “semi-freedom.”

Betizu cattle, known alternately as behigorri (red cow), zezengorri (red bull), and txahalgorri (red calf), were important in Basque mythology as spirits that took animal form in order guard important caves. There are theories, moreover, that link this breed to those cattle represented in the parietal art or cave paintings of Europe’s most famous sites (though many of these paintings actually depict a now extinct type of bison, in some sites there are representations of bulls portrayed in a noticeably reddish color reminiscent of the betizuak). Regarding this mythological status of the betizuak, as noted in the Selected Writings of José Miguel de Barandiarán: Basque Prehistory and Ethnography:

They did not allow anyone to enter their dwelling place. In certain cases they kidnap young people who have been the target of some curse and hold them captive in their underground dens . . . It is useful to recall that the same figures that are situated by Basque mythology in caverns also appear painted or engraved by men of the Magdalenian period and earlier on the walls of some of the caves of our country.

In short, these are animals that have been extremely important in Basque culture for thousands of years. One can only hope that a solution is found to help them survive in what is their land as well.