The Japan Times
August 13, 2000

Cave replica takes heat off mankind's first art

ALTAMIRA CAVE, Spain (AP) Five visitors stand in the bright daylight outside the cave. A guide switches off the yellow floor lights and slams shut the heavy metal door, sealing the entrance for another day.

Rid of body heat and contaminating breath. Pitch black. Cool. The only sound water dripping from stalactites. The cave is at rest again, just as it had been for 14,000 years until a hunter stumbled upon the entrance 132 years ago.

Safely sealed in the dark is the Sistine Chapel of the Paleolithic Age: the Chamber of the Polychromes, with its 21 magnificently painted bison outlined and shaded in black, red bodies engraved in the glistening, creamy limestone. They crouch, lie down, shake their manes, charge across the ceiling, heads turned, tails flying, drilled eyes dark as coal.

Mingling with the bison are a giant red deer measuring more than 2.5 meters from nose to tail, a wild boar, black goats, human bodies with animal-like heads, and red-slashed abstract designs of yet undeciphered meaning.

The cave was first explored in 1879 by Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, a nearby landowner who was fascinated by archaeology. On his second visit, Sautuola was sifting floor debris for fossils and flints, while his 8-year-old daughter, Maria, entered a chamber just off the main entrance. Following the dim light of her carbide lantern, she glanced up.

"Papa, bueyes (oxen)!" she cried. Sautuola joined the child, crouching under the low ceiling just like the original artist who could only get a panoramic view of the bison by lying on his back.

Sautuola, and eventually the world, was dumbfounded at what he saw. It took scientists 20 years to accept the truth of the paintings: that primitive man had a brain capable of sophisticated artistic expression.

You can feel something of Sautuola's thrill when visiting the cave, which in the summer months restricts admission to two groups of five visitors daily. Once it attracted hordes of visitors, 177,000 in 1973 alone. To ensure its conservation, it was closed to the public for five years, reopening in 1982 to the present severely limited numbers. There is a three-year waiting list.

To make the experience available to a wider public while simultaneously attracting tourist dollars to the northern province of Cantabria, a museum is being constructed featuring a virtual cave, which will use the later, computerized digital-transfer technology. The replica of the cave, including the Ceiling of the Polychromes, will accommodate hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.

Originally budgeted at $14 million, the project got under way three years ago and is expected to be completed next year. The replica, known as the "neocave," may open before the rest of the museum, perhaps late this fall.

The real cave is 270 meters deep, cool, humid, very pleasant. Temperatures naturally hover around 14 C. Dark passageways branch off toward hidden vaults, reminiscent of the dim, barred side chapels in Spanish cathedrals.

Scientists divide the cave into 10 sections. All contain drawings, and some are so dangerously narrow there is room for only one person at a time to squeeze close enough to see them. In the low-ceiling room of the bison, known as the Polychrome Chamber, the colors are bright, the reds shining with dampness, as if painted yesterday. The paintings are sharp — nothing like the dull, 30-year-old replica at the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid.

Bison dominate the room. Ranging from 1.5 to 3 meters across, they are sharply outlined in charcoal and painted with a mixture of ocher and water. One bison's eye seems to stare directly into yours.

Nearly every bit of the 162-sq.-meter limestone ceiling is covered with drawings. Some bison protrude from the ceiling, their bodies wrapped in relief around natural rock bulges. In the dim far corners scientists have found what appear to be mysterious graphic designs and drawings of humans with animallike heads.

On the ceiling, the red print of a human hand is as dramatic as finding a Greco or Goya signature on a painting in some dark attic. It is a hand reaching across 14,000 years from an artist with a brain as modern as ours.

High symbolic value

"What we discover in Altamira is our own infancy; we find ourselves," wrote French scientist Teilhard de Chardin, because the art reflects "the same basic aspirations that spring from the bottom of our souls."

Chardin is quoted in a guidebook written by Miguel Angel García Guinea, director of the Sautuola Institute of Archaeology in nearby Santander.

"The scientific value of this discovery is self-evident. It bridged the gap between us and that unknown mentality of Western man and the culture of his time," García Guinea says.

José A. Lasheras, who as director of the Altamira Museum and Investigation Center administers the cave, says the paintings are masterpieces not only of prehistoric art, but also of art itself.

"Their sheer artistic quality was to be the reason why their discovery would arouse such great confusion and mistrust," he wrote in an article published in a guidebook.

Spanish artists and professors Matilde Muzquiz Perez-Seoane and her husband Pedro A. Saura Ramos, who painted the replica, are convinced by close examination of the originals and their own experience in imitating the style that a single artist painted all the bison.

No one is certain why Paleolithic cave dwellers, who were Homo sapiens, painted the ceiling. But scientists are convinced that it was not done for fun or entertainment.

"They were, without a shadow of a doubt, manifestations of high symbolic value," Lasheras says. "Cave art comes within the sphere of what we understand as mythical or prephilosophical thought, bordering on or lying within the realm of religion."

Similar cave art has been discovered at about 280 sites, all in Western Europe. The earliest examples are thought to date back 30,000 years.

Altamira was inhabited and painted at the close of the last Ice Age. Animals that no longer live there were abundant, including the bison.

Bears hibernated in the cave before humans moved in 18,500 years ago. Tools dating back 100,000 years have been found in the surrounding area; they belonged to a different species from the artists and us.

The museum will house a library and two large rooms, one for scientific conferences and traveling exhibitions and the other for a permanent exhibition of prehistoric objects from Spain's northern Cantabrian region.

An 800-sq.-meter section of the cave is being constructed as it was 14,000 years ago. The reproduction will include the vestibule inside the entrance (the cave dwellers' living area) and the adjacent bison chamber. The ancient rock fall and modern reinforcements that blocked light from reaching the ceiling will be removed.

Visitors reach the mouth of the cave replica through a passageway containing educational images and texts. A holographic representation of a prehistoric family will suddenly appear around a fire in the ancient hearth. A ramp that passes by archaeological digs and a prehistoric artist's workshop will lead to the polychrome ceiling.

The reproduction is based on a digital model prepared by the National Geographic Institute. The "map" of the cave was transferred to molds. Cast in resin and crushed limestone, sections were pieced together in the museum like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

The neocave will contain every crack and indentation of the original. Other replicas exist, one in Germany and another in Japan, but they are smaller and not as precise.

Some scientists have advocated closing the original cave to the public when the virtual one opens. Lasheras and the Sautuola Institute's García Guinea are among the majority who oppose the idea.

"Altamira belongs to mankind, not just the scientists," García Guinea says. "To close the polychrome grotto to the general public would be like hanging photographs in the Prado and locking up the originals in the basement."

Original instruments

It is impossible to go back in time and interview the original painters, but talking to professors Matilde Muzquiz Perez-Seoane and her husband Pedro A. Saura Ramos is pretty close to the real thing. They have just spent a year and a half re-creating the original paintings, bison by bison, engraving by engraving, charcoal stroke by charcoal stroke.

Their reproductions cover the ceiling of the virtual cave in the museum, located outside the medieval town of Santillana del Mar in the province of Cantabria, only a 30-minute drive from the capital Santander.

The large cave is filled with charcoal drawings, engraved animal figures and mysterious graphic designs, but the world's imagination has been fired most by the 21 red bison that cover the ceiling of the Polychrome Chamber.

Saura Ramos and Perez-Seoane, who earned a doctorate studying the paintings, believe that the red bison are so similar in design and technique that only one artist could have done them, although other artists did other drawings in the cave.

"He was a monster artist — a sculptor, engraver, sketch artist and painter, all in one," says Saura Ramos, who has been photographing the cave for 30 years.

In re-creating the paintings, it was necessary to match the original artist's technique. Using flint tools, the first step was to engrave the form of the bison in the limestone' ceiling. This was followed by outlining and shading the engraving with charcoal. The last step was painting the bodies with a mixture of water and ocher applied by hand, as you would do in finger painting.

The modern painters, taking pains to match the direction and rhythm of the original artist's charcoal and paint strokes, had to take into consideration such details as whether the artist was standing or kneeling when the drawings were executed.

In copying the red hand print left behind on the ceiling like a prehistoric calling card, Perez-Seoane discovered a moving coincidence: She need only coat her hand in ocher and press it against the limestone, because hers was exactly the same size and shape as the original.

"When you go into the cave and see the paintings where they were created, it is as if the spirit of the original artist is still there," Saura Ramos says.

ORIGINAL ART - This painting of a iarge male bison, estimated to be 14,000 years old, is perhaps the best-known figure in the Altamira cave's Polychrome Chamber. AP PHOTOS

NEOCAVE — professor Matilde Muzquiz Perez-Seoane, her hand dipped in red paint made of ocher and water, works on the reproductions at the Altamira Museum near Santander in northern Spain.

Polychrome Chamber - Drawing of the arrangement of the bison on the painted ceiling. Past Worlds: The Times Atlas of Archaeology