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Archaeology of Europe Workshops

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Archaeology after Archaeology

In this archaeology workshop we focus on three archaeological objects on which current research in the Museum of Altamira is providing new information which illuminates new views of the hunter-gatherer communities at the dawn of our history.

Engraved shoulder blade

Engraved shoulder blade from the cave of Altamira

This shoulder blade was found in 2009 in the most recent archaeological excavation undertaken in the cave of Altamira. Studying it has helped answer researchers’ questions on the precise timeline of the set of shoulder blades engraved with deer found on the Cantabrian coast with very similar features.

Airbrush from the cave of Altamira

Airbrush from the cave of Altamira

The airbrush from the cave of Altamira is the only known Palaeolithic example of this tool, which is used to blow pigment to create images in the caves. For a long time, the hypothesis that it was used to paint the figures in this cave was discarded. However, new hands have recently been identified, some of them negatives in an ochre tone which may have been blown with an airbrush.

Rondelle from El Linar

Rondelle from El Linar

The only two decorated rondelles found in Cantabrian region were unearthed in Las Aguas and El Linar caves, both in Alfoz de Lloredo, as part of the research project entitled “The Times of Altamira”.

Engraved shoulder blade from the cave of Altamira

Engraved shoulder blade from the cave of Altamira

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Late in the Altamira era, several generations of hunter-gatherer communities from the Cantabrian region engraved deer like this one on bones and cave walls. These figures express the shared memory that entwined the identity of a recognisable cultural community spanning from Sella Valley to Asón Valley.

The historical and archaeological value of this engraved shoulder blade found in the cave of Altamira in 2009, during its most recent archaeological excavation, lies in the fact that studying it has enabled us to delimit the period when these unique items in the material culture from the Upper Palaeolithic were engraved.

Engraved shoulder blades, usually with deer heads, are associated with a specific spatial and temporal area, the Cantabrian region and the Lower Magdalenian period [20,500–17,000 BP]. These engraving show common stylistic and technical conventions. Thus, they speak to us of mobility, exchange, identity and a kind of cultural community shared among the human groups who made these homogeneous, almost standardised representations in a very specific time and place.

The Museum of Altamira conserves five examples from the cave of Altamira itself, four of them found in early 20th-century excavations and one in the recent research project carried out by the Museum called “The Times of Altamira”. Likewise, this museum also has examples from other Cantabrian caves such as El Juyo and El Rascaño.

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Airbrush from the cave of Altamira

Airbrush from the cave of Altamira

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The airbrush from the cave of Altamira is the only known Palaeolithic example of this tool, which was used to blow pigment and create images on the rock in the cave.

Four bone fragments from the wing of a large bird were found in the archaeological site of the cave of Altamira. Cut the same length, they are decorated with similar motifs, and three of them have mineral remains of iron oxide inside and outside. These ochre remains and their tube-like shape enable us to hypothesise that they are airbrushes.

Airbrushes were made with the bones of large birds, such as wading birds or birds of prey, specifically from their wing or leg bones. Thus, two identical tubes were cut, which were then used to cast a cloud of paint droplets onto the surface being painted. One of them was introduced into the pigment, which was generally made of iron oxide or charcoal mixed with water, while the other rested on the first one, through which the air was blown.

These bones may have been used to paint the negative images of red hands which were recently identified in the cave of Altamira using digital image analysis techniques as part of the Handpas project.

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  • Our online catalogue Altamira, el primer arte, has detailed information on the art techniques used in the cave of Altamira.
  • We suggest you read this article on studies in the cave of Altamira, HANDPAS. MANOS DEL PASADOPDF [Handpas. Hands from the past], to learn more about the Handpas project and the research into hands represented in Palaeolithic art.
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Rondelle from El Linar

Rondelle from El Linar

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What we call 'rondelles' are among the most unique pieces from the Upper Palaeolithic. Very few of them have been found (currently around 130 throughout Europe), so they are just a tiny part of all the objects created by hunter-gatherer communities. However, they are found throughout much of Europe and are most notable in the Pyrenean and central-southwest departments of France and the Cantabrian coast. The vast majority of them were crafted in the late Upper Palaeolithic during the Magdalenian period.

Somewhat rare, rondelles enrich the repertoire of goods found on the Cantabrian coast. There are primarily circular in shape, their size ranges from 4 to 5 cm and they are not very thick. Most of them have a perforation in the centre. They are made of different materials, primarily stone and bones, and most of them use cervine bones. Many of them bear engravings of animals, people or signs.

The rondelle found in El Linar cave is made of bone and is perforated and engraved on both sides. Its diameter is estimated at 10 cm, and it is no more than 0.3 cm thick. On side A we can see an engraved figure representing the hindquarters of a horse, while side B has a series of small incised marks corresponding to its crafting process and the cutting of the disc, along with other decorative lines superimposed on deeper engravings.

For the people who used rondelles at the dawn of History, hanging or fastened to their clothing, these bone discs had a meaning, value or purpose which we are unaware of today. In these small objects and their graven images, we recognise a similar way of acting, knowledge shared by the communities which inhabited what is Europe today, from the Iberian Peninsula to Siberia, and throughout the time when we were Palaeolithic hunters-gatherers.

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