January 18, 2012

Artistic styles of the rock art of the Cantabrian Strip

Doe of Arenaza
While it is always a pity that scientists allow modern artificial borders such as the one between French and Spanish states, to restrict their research, the information obtained can still be full of interest in spite of this undeniable handicap. This is the case of this delightful paper (only available in Spanish language) on the style and chronology of rock art in the Cantabrian Strip (Northern coast of the Iberian Peninsula):

Aitor Ruiz Redondo, Convenciones gráficas en el arte parietal del Paleolítico cantábrico: la perspectiva de las figuras zoomorfas [Graphic conventions in the rock art from Cantabrian Paleolithic: the perspective of the zoomorphic figures]. Trabajos de Prehistoria 2011. Freely accessible. 

The author reviews previous work on the stylistic differences of the rock art of the area concluding that there are three clearly distinct stylistic groups:

Fig. 4 Multivariant analysis

The three groups have not just stylistic differences but also some geographical and chronological variations:


My visual synthesis (on top of fig. 1: map of sites mentioned)
Animal type indicated only where more than 60% of all figures per tab. 1

In spite of the clear stylistic differences group 1 and 2 overlap in time, specially after considering the wide error margins of dates based mostly on accretion layers (I'm showing above only the most overlapping ones, for reference). They also overlap in the dominant motif, which is the doe (less importantly also horses in group 1, buck deer in group 2 and bison in both). These groups are considered to belong to the Gravettian or even Aurignacian periods.

On the contrary, group 3, which is the most stylistically advanced, post-dates the rest by at least the full span of the Last Glacial Maximum. According to Ruiz, there are at least six millennia between these groups and the Magdalenian rock art, which is the most famed one because of the full perspective and great realism achieved. Contradicting previous work, he suggests that there was no rock art in the region in the Solutrean and Early Magdalenian periods. 

Fig. 7 - comparison of three proposed timelines (right: Ruiz Redondo)

While the author thinks that the difference between groups 1 and 2 is chronological, I fail to see the evidence clear. Instead a geographical difference is rather obvious (see map above), with group 1 concentrated in Asturias and Western Cantabria and group 2 in Eastern Cantabria and Western Biscay.

Group 3, which is much better dated than the others, is clearly dominated by the bison, painted almost obsessively, as in the famed Altamira ceiling. Another important animal is the goat, usually painted in black, as well as the horse.

Santimamiñe rock art

There are more interesting articles (all in Spanish however) in the same magazine: Trabajos de Prehistoria (hat tip to Pileta).

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