Tag Archives: neolithic

Trekking Inside Spain’s Prehistoric Caves

It’s a short drive down into Ronda’s ravine, then back up a small mountainside by foot to get to the new entrance of La Pileta Cave. There are roughhewn stairs set into the hill to help travelers find the entrance the site where, 500m into the rock face, our prehistoric ancestors once dwelled. But it wasn’t an easy hike, especially considering I’d already hiked the ravine back in Ronda the day before.

filename-p1090399-jpg

But I make it to the top, to an unceremonious iron gate that looks something between a Resistance friendly steam tunnel entrance and a bootlegger’s storehouse. It is actually there to bar people from getting in to the cave without supervision, and is the entrance to the office and the gift shop. Both are inside the cave, which I find a clever economy of space.

800px-Entrada_pileta

Our guide that day speaks good English and informs us to please watch our step – where we’re going, there’s no natural light. Before we go much further, he lays out some ground rules – everyone must carry a lantern, which he passes out to us. No touching anything, an unsurprising and standard rule inside caves (even touching just the rock face can leave oil and damage the tracks the water takes to form stalactites. These caves are heavy and the open space is vast, he tells us, and one day it won’t be able to support its own weight anymore. We would like to delay that as long as possible).

There will be no photography, either. Not only is it bad for the art, the same reason museums have this policy, but the sensors are bad for the many hundreds of bats who are in residence. So we pocket our phones. After all, we’re in their home, it wouldn’t do to be rude.

Pileta_plano

Though it’s mid-September, and in Andalucía that means just this side of roasting hot, as soon as we start into the cave I start feeling clammy. I see why Jose – that is, our guide – told us to watch our step; everything, every surface of the limestone is slick with a slight and slippery alkaline water sheen. We move slowly up the carved stairs, which had been cut into the rock during previous periods of exploration and excavation.

webcuevasgratis.jpg--575x323

One of the first caves we come to is called the Gallery of Bats. The ceiling is far too high to see any of them, but we are assured that they are there. As they are asleep at 3pm, as good little nocturnal creatures should be, we don’t even hear them chittering. For some guests that is probably a good thing.

The next room on the open circuit (we pass a few small tunnels that Jose tells us are restricted access due to slipping or rock slide hazards), is the Castle Room. It is named for the incredible rock formations that do honestly look like castle turrets. I wonder who could have lived here before? It’s already growing cold and so dark I feel miles beneath the earth. In reality, we’ve only gone in about a hundred meters.

They call this cave Pileta, meaning pool, and in the third ‘room’ I see why. To my right, over a flimsy rope strung along precariously posted rebar, is a deep cave pool. The water is dark, until I shine my lantern over it, and I see that the water is perfectly clear. But the lantern only penetrates so far, and beyond the weak reach of the light I imagine eyeless fish sliding around unseen. Jose tells us there are no fish in these waters, but with the echoes of water dripping and the occasional groaning of the rock, the darkness and the awareness of vast, empty, cold space around me, I find it easy to perceive some eldritch monstrosity waiting in the caverns. I shiver – but it’s mostly with delight.

banos

It’s about this time that we start to see cave paintings. Running animals, symbols no one can discern the true meaning of. Like all prehistoric caves, animals, especially in motion, is a continued motif. In the central nave there are several depictions of what appear to be horses. As to what the symbols mean, well, the automatic go to is fertility. It’s always the easiest to assume that, the guide explained, but realistically there is no hard evidence.

7paleolitico3

Benaoján. Málaga. Andalucía. España. Cueva de la Pileta.

tipos

The paintings are red and black and caper across the walls haphazardly. The guide informs us that most of these paintings probably date to the Solutrean period, that is, the Upper Paleolithic about 25,000-20,000 years ago. These paintings are the origins of art. One has to wonder, were they for didactic purposes? Showing the youngers how to hunt and forage? Warnings? Or just for the pure fun of drawing them?

From the central nave to the Hall of the Fish, as they call it, we see many more drawings, and other evidences of human occupation. It seems to me, and the guide confirms, that the occupation was aggregate, meaning it was not only one people at one time that used this cave for shelter. There is evidence of bone disposal and rock deposits – the kind you find when early peoples make stone tools and discard the flakes they don’t need. There is also evidence of fires having burned in alcoves, and some smoke residue still on the walls. Somehow the atmosphere of the cave has preserved all of this, and it’s aweing.

cueva.revista

We’re almost 400m back now and it has taken us a while, carefully stepping, sometimes slipping, to navigate our way back here. We would have been in total darkness had it not been for the lanterns. I try to imagine any diurnal creature living in here, indeed, ones that make art and share meals. The space is certainly big enough to house a whole community, but how could anyone bear living in this kind of dank cold? It’s Tolkienian. I expect something slinky to coalesce beside me and ask me riddles in the dark.

Finally we arrive at the last chamber of the cave, well, the last one we’re able to visit. The final chamber, Jose says, is too dangerous to go into, the same as the subterranean caves that run beneath us (at several points during our 45 minute long trek I have had creeping moments of realization that there is only one layer of rock between us and the yawning caverns beneath the ones I’m already in. The weight of the mountain bears down on me in those moments). In this final chamber we see the famous Fish. It’s a pretty good rendering. Even though some of these drawings seem crude, the sense of motion and proportion is not bad, especially considering they’re drawn on uneven limestone. Probably better than I could do!

cortijo-el-guarda-fish-piletacueva_pileta_03

The Fish solidifies the idea that these caves are from the Solutrean period, which was around the time fishing as a human practice was beginning to develop. There are other depictions of fish across southern Spain in caves near to this one from the same period. But none as big and as well preserved as this one.

Around the Fish (as you can see) are a lot of hash marks. The other animals have them too, some that seem to correspond with the animal drawing, some that are simply hash marks by themselves. Common postulation is a numerical notation, or a calendar. Seems logical enough.

6a00d835494ab953ef0147e3e212f3970b

There is also an alcove that is wall to wall, floor to ceiling covered in rough depictions of what appear to be female genitalia. ‘Fertility’ the guide says again. Fertility is always the going theory. Someone asks whether or not this could be seen as a form of religion. The guide, nor I, am completely convinced. Begging for luck or associating symbols with a human event (such as drawings of female genitails with healthy childbirth), does not a religion make (despite a ‘venus’ having been found in the Gallery of Bats. It is an hourglass shaped creation that looks more like a bowtie than a venus, so it’s intention is much more debatable than the obvious alcove of genitalia). There isn’t any hard evidence of religious practice, so it might be a stretch to call this, ah, coital corner a belief in a Goddess. Could it have been? Could it have been the precursor to a more complex and fleshed out belief system? Anything’s possible, but no one really knows.

CaveRecordingsCoverTest1front-720x380

As the guide is explaining this someone next to me nudges me. Jose’s got a flashlight, not a lantern, and it’s resting on his shoulder, the beam pointed up. It spotlights on the end of a stalactite, where a tiny bat yawns and stretches out one wing. It’s about three feet up from Jose’s head. Turn off the lights, it seems to say, don’t you know what time it is?

It’s time to be heading out, the tour is ending. We carefully make our way back through the caves, two people slipping but thankfully not falling. Sturdy shoes are a must for this adventure. Once we’re back to the gift shop area, there are books about the cave paintings, in Spanish and in English, and postcards with some decent photographs of what we couldn’t take pictures of. None of it is expensive, and the cave needs the money for upkeep. One of these days, Jose says, they want to do more exploration of the lower chambers. But that takes grant money and a lot of equipment.

It is a shame they haven’t excavated the rest, because there seem to be more skeletal deposits and perhaps other paintings in the caves below. Still, there’s time. The cave might eventually collapse in on itself as Jose told us, but something tells me it’s going to be around, at least for a little while longer.

Many thanks to the Bullón family for the tour and the photos.

Interested in the Cuevas de la Pileta? Check out our trips to Ronda or contact us to build your own trip that includes this prehistoric wonder.

7 Major Archaeological Sites in Spain

Ready for a viritual tour of our country’s archaeological sites? Let’s rock.

Tarraco

image

Tarraco, just outside modern Tarragona, Cataluña, was one of the biggest and more important Roman settlements on the Iberian Peninsula. Though the exact date of its founding is unknown, its first official mention was in 218bce, and so it was likely established, at least as a fully Roman settlement, at some point during the Second Punic War.

image

Tarraco served as a winter base and resupply area for soldiers at war with the Celtiberians during the Republic, and later as a base of operations and port under the rule of the High Empire. Eventually it would be taken over by the Visigoths once the Roman Empire fell and their hold on Hispania was broken, but the site very much retains an early Roman flare to this day.

image


Numancia

Numancia, located in Soria,was one of the last but most famous Celtiberian settlements in Spain. It was besieged by the Romans in 133bce, who had been in conflict with the settlement for nigh on 20 years by that point.

image

Rather than giving in to the Roman army, the Numantinos decided to die free than live as slaves, and burnt their city to the ground.

image

As many Celtiberian settlements were, Numancia was built on a high hill. This meant no shelter from the rather harsh winters in Soria, but it also meant a highly defensible high ground that managed to repel the Roman army for several decades.

Itálica

image

Situated just outside of Seville, Itálica is a fabulously preserved Roman city. It was founded around 206bce and was originally settled to treat Roman soldiers wounded in the nearby battle of Ilipa, where they defeated the Carthaginians during the Second Punic War.

image

Aside from being almost fully excavated and very well cared for, the archaeology isn´t the only reason that Itálica is one of the most frequently visited sites in Spain; it is also host to the Cross Internacional de Itálica, which is an international cross country running competition.

Dolmen de Viera

image

The fabled Dolmen de Viera is a single chamber monolithic tomb outside of Antequera, Málaga. It dates to the copper age, being somewhere between 4,500 and 5,800 years old. Though it is presumed to be a burial chamber, as are most dolmen, not much was found inside except a few grave goods and bone tools.

image

Also, like most Iberian tombs of its kind, it faces just slightly south of due east, so that daybreak illuminates the burial chamber.

Atapuerca

image

The archaeological site of Atapuerca is one of the most important in Europe, because it has traces of hominid life in the area from at least 400,000 years ago. The site lies in the small municipality of Atapuerca, about 20 kilometres north east of Burgos.

image

This site represents some of the greatest evidence available for many different generations and evolutions of early man, evidence of their habits including tools, food sharing and cultural activities, and some of the most intact skeletons ever retrieved from the Middle Pleistocene era.

Reccopolis

image

Because I can´t very well do an archaeology of Spain summary without mentioning them, Reccopolis, near Guadalajara, is one of the better preserved settlements of the Visigoths. It is one of only four cities in Europe to be newly founded and settled between the fifth and eighth centuries.

image

As they coincided with the Moorish rule, the Visigoths were more than willing to let their Muslim counterparts come oversee the settlement in the end of the eighth century. Thus, the site has Moorish influence as well, though the Moors did not keep a hold of it for long, abandoning it at the end of the tenth century.

Medinat Azahara

image

An archaeological tour of Spain would not be complete without a visit to the Moors. The Medinat Azahara is from the 10th century, during the Umayyad Caliphate, and was originally built as a small city apart for the Caliph to receive guests.

image

Spanning approximately 112 hectares (of which only 11 have been fully excavated), it boasted several living quarters, for the Caliph, as well as the aristocracy and serving staff, a mosque, several gardens, and an administrative district among other things.  Though it is currently still under excavation, you can tour the area.

Archaeology 101: The Dolmens of Antquera

First of all, let’s ask, what is a dolmen, anyway?

Dolmens are single chamber, megalithic funerary structures that generally consist of two or more standing stones (called orthostats) with a capstone on top. They were often set into hills or covered in earth to form barrows.

image

Most of these structures, which are peppered all over Western Europe, are from the Early Neolithic, that is, 4,000-3,000 bce, or around 6,000-5,000 years ago, though some are from as late as the Early Chalcolithic.

image

Before talking about the dolmens themselves, let’s talk about the area of Antequera. It is in a lower lying depression, surrounded by El Torcal National Park to the South (a varied range of Karst mountains), La Peña to the East (which I will discuss later), and then several series of high hillocks to the North and West. The area would have been very different 5,500 years ago, around when the dolmens were built. Paleoenvironmental evidence from the area suggests there were many lakes and ponds, and dense pine and oak forests. Many types of herbs and flowers flourished in the damp climate, and pastures and dry copses of olive trees like the picture above were much rarer at the time.

Humans left their mark on the area, as several other sites have been found surrounding the two main dolmens, though whether or not all of these sites are contemporary to each other is still unknown. The point being, it was a rich area that saw quite a bit of human activity and modification during the mid Neolithic era.

image

The Dolmen de Viera is the older of the two dolmens we are going to talk about here. When it dates to is unclear, but experts say between 5,800 to 4,500 years ago. As with the majority of European megalithic tombs, this dolmen is oriented just south of the summer rising sun (azimuth of 96 degrees).

As with many neolithic, so termed ‘animist’ societies, this type of concordance with solar activity was common, and not only seen with megalithic structures. The question always asked is ‘why?’ when examining these orientations, but that is a very complicated answer, and we will leave it for another article. Suffice to say that the Dolmen de Viera follows the same kind of pattern that is expected from a society that viewed its world as cyclic and reccurrent as opposed to linear.

image

As you can see the interior of the structure is lintelled and high enough for an average height person to walk down. It is (conincidentally enough :p ) considered a corridor tomb which ends in a funerary chamber. In short, it is a giant, elongated container under a mound of earth.

The tomb was found empty and looted, however since megalithic funeral rite across the continent was ritualized and strictly repetitive down to details, we can make some assumptions about what Viera was used for; burials at this time were collective and often times dozens of skeletons are found inside these chambers. However, it is not necessarily that they were all interred simultaneously, but also possibly of varying generations. Bodies were laid out on the ground, other, older skeletons often shoved out of the way to make room for the newly dead. These corpses were always accompanied by grave goods, from tools to shoes to arrows and knives or bowls.

image

If the Dolmen de Viera is typical of the structures across the continent, then the Dolmen de Menga is the complete opposite. It is still a corridor tomb that is under a barrow mound with a chamber at the end, but that is where the similarities end.

First of all, it is huge. The slabs used to create this dolmen are positively enormous and the amount of labor that must have gone into its construction moreso, especially considering it was built in the 3rd milennium bce. It reaches a height of 3.5m in the atrium, truly impressive, and also boasts three large pillars, presumably to help bear the weight of the capstones. But they also give the space more the feel of a temple, and experts are currently postulating on Menga’s possible other uses aside from only the funerary.

image

Second of all, in the atrium we can find an almost 20m deep shaft dug into the sandstone that is in alignment with the three pillars.

image

It is unclear what the purpose of this shaft would have been. It is a rather unusual element in a megalithic structure such as this. But, also, as this dolmen was previously excavated to some degree in 1847, it is not clear if the shaft was explored by or caused by the previous excavation.

Lastly, this dolmen faces Northeast (azimuth of 45 degrees) unlike most of dolmens. This notable difference from other similar structures is due to the presence of La Peña, which dominates the skyline and is directly in front of the mouth of the Dolmen de Menga.

image

It is assumed that La Peña, due to its distinct appearance as a human face and also the positioning of the Dolmen de Menga, played a large role in the area’s prehistoric culture. In the ‘chin’ of the mountain archaeologists have also uncovered a post paleolithic cave which has a myriad of early human drawings.

image

It does seem that the opening to Menga faces directly to this cave, but whether or not the neolithic society who made the dolmen were aware of this cave is unknown.

There is a third structure, the Dolmen del Romeral, but that is a very different structure that is almost 1,500 years later than the two dolmens we have visited here, and so, we will visit it another time.

For now, stay megalithic my fellow archaeologists.

If you want more information about the Dolmenes de Antequera, you can visit the website of the Conjunto Arqueolóico right here.

Do you want to visit these incredible dolmens? Well now you can, with Colorfully Spain’s new Fall & Winter programming package to Andalucia. Click here for more details!