Prehistoric archaeology

The cave of La Pasiega (Puente Viesgo, Cantabria, Spain)


The cave of La Pasiega is located on the SE side of Mount Castillo, in the municipality of Puente Viesgo (Santander, Cantabria). It is a complex cave system formed of galleries, subdivided in four distinct decorated sectors (A, B, C and the Central Gallery). Its development is 415m and there are two artificial entrances, the entrance of the discovery and three Palaeolithic entrances, sealed today. The geographical coordinates of the practicable entrances are: longitude 0°16’41” West and latitude 43°17’21” North, as well as longitude 0°16’46” West and latitude 43°17’20” North. The network is located at an altitude of 190m above sea level.

Discovered on 23 May 1911 by Paul Wernert and Hugo Obermaier, the cave was studied and published in 1913 by Henri Breuil, Hugo Obermaier and Hermilio Alcalde del Río, in the series initiated by Prince Albert I of Monaco. It was studied again from 1984 to 1990 by Rodrigo de Balbín Behrmann and César González Sainz. The number of graphic units recorded in 1995 by the latter authors amounted to 440 motifs, of which 295 animals, 143 non-figurative motifs and 2 anthropomorphs. However, these authors did not publish a monograph following their work. That is why we undertook a new comprehensive study of the site, which would meet the current requirements of prehistoric research. The cave of La Pasiega has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since July 2008.

Fig. 1. Situation géographique de la grotte de La Pasiega.

Fig. 1. Geographical location of La Pasiega cave.

Fig. 2. Plan of La Pasiega cave.


Two archaeological surveys were carried out: the first one was done in 1951 when the access path was excavated, by Jesús Carballo et Alfredo García Lorenzo at the level of the former entrance to Gallery B; the second one in 1952 by Joaquín González Echegaray and Eduardo Ripoll Perelló, between Gallery A and the Central Gallery. These surveys have revealed artefacts attributed to the Middle Palaeolithic, the Upper Solutrean and the Magdalenian (lower or middle). As far as the cave wall decoration is concerned, most motifs were made with hematite or goethite paintings or engraved and therefore escape any direct dating. Nonetheless, some figures were drawn with charcoal. Two of them were dated by C14 AMS. The results obtained are 13,730 ± 130 BP (GifA 98166) for the first one and 12,469 ± 160 BP (GifA 98165) and 11,990 ± 170 BP (GifA 98164) for the second one. In 2012, Alistair Pike and his team used the uranium series dating method to date calcite covering the motifs, in order to increase the usable data. The results obtained are however too heterogeneous to be truly useable. The seventeen dates obtained range from 730 years AD to 18,468 years BC, and fourteen of them are obviously too young since they fall outside the chronological framework of the Upper Palaeolithic (between 730 years AD and 8,924 BC). Three dates, obtained from samples of Gallery C nonetheless fall within an acceptable time range. They give 11,890 years for a red deer, 12,580 years for a red dot and 18,468 years for a red triangle. They refer to the Magdalenian for the first ones and to the Solutrean for the last one. More recently, D. Hoffmann and his team propose a date around 65,000 years ago for a motif of La Pasiega C (in fact, 4 dates for a quadrangle, which range from 22,000 to 65,000 years), which relates to the Neanderthal period.


Our aim is to carry out a complete study of the cave wall decoration of La Pasiega and of the archaeological evidence left by the Palaeolithic visitors (deposits, breakings, human activity...), in order to understand better the principles governing the symbolic construction of this decoration. The first step is to establish an exhaustive corpus of all anthropogenic evidence, both aesthetic and archaeological, found on the walls and floor of the cavity. Each identified aesthetic and archaeological trace is located, described, measured, photographed and macro-photographed, following the method set up during our work in the nearby cave of El Castillo. Morphological characteristics of the space being an important factor when studying decorated caves, the census work is supplemented by filmed sequences, as well as by a complete photographic coverage of the network for photogrammetric reconstructions. The narrowness of some spaces often requires, for conservation reasons, to take shots using a monopod and to control the parameters for taking pictures remotely. Digital photos are stitched after correction of the possible optical distortion. The project also aims to understand better the drawing techniques used. In this respect, our first research provides interesting information on the techniques used to paint or to engrave, on the presence of preparatory traces or on the formal construction of the figures. Finally, as we did for the paintings and drawings in the El Castillo cave, our program includes the analysis of pigment samples (SEM, diffraction, TEM). This will be done in collaboration with Prof. Marie-Paule Delplancke (ULB, École Polytechnique de Bruxelles) and with Dr Freddy Damblon (Royal Institute of Natural Sciences of Belgium) for the identification of plant species.


Our research highlights both the great richness of the cave wall decoration of this site and its originality. Except for rare charcoal or goethite (yellow) motifs, Gallery A is structured by hematite (red) painted motifs. Thematically, hind, deer and horse representations are dominant in this sector. The other animals of the figurative bestiary (bison, ibex, wolf) are anecdotal. However, the non-figurative motifs inventory is also widely represented, with partitioned quadrangles and surprising striped pirogue-shaped motifs. Analysis of their distribution indicates that they were systematically grouped in narrow and hard-to-access spaces of this part of the network.

The same logic was governing the distribution of animal representations. It is interesting to note that the motifs have been distributed with increasing density from the beginning to the end of the gallery, and that they invade walls and ceiling up to the narrowest corners (diaclase, high niches...). The painters of this gallery not only favoured the deepest part of the network – regardless of the entrance used at the time – but they also wanted to integrate the places situated off-centre with regard to the main circulation space.

On the other hand, a very different logic presided over the organisation of the decoration of Gallery B. Two distinct cave wall arrangements may be isolated: the first contains painted animal representations, the second finely engraved small figures. The animals, painted mostly in red, were placed behind an old entrance to the cave, which is now closed. Their tracing is wide and their dimensions vary from 60 cm to more than one meter. Thematically, this network associates horse and bovine with megaceros, which means that these representations were made during the Solutrean at the latest, since this cervid disappears at that time.

However, the most interesting element is the distribution of these paintings. These representations were painted on the ceiling and walls of this space, which in prehistoric times was open to the outside, since archaeological levels from the Upper Palaeolithic were discovered there. Consequently, these works were directly illuminated by daylight, thanks to the proximity of the entrance (facing South) and they were therefore clearly visible to those entering the cave. Today, the figures have lost much of their readability because of their proximity to the outside. In addition, the dimensions of this former entrance at the time are hard to determine. However, it is clear that the porch itself was decorated, as shown by the remains of animal figures still visible on a conch of the ceiling, immediately after the opening of the network. Contrary to what we have noted for Gallery A, the representations density decreases here significantly from the entrance to the end of the sector. Moreover, paintings of this type disappear completely in the deeper areas. From this point of view, this decoration appears more related to the tradition of open-air sanctuaries as defined by Javier F. Fortea Pérez than to that of deep caves.

Sector C also contains an important set of motifs, which also combines animal representations and non-figurative motifs – particularly partitioned quadrangles. Important to note is that the animal figures in this network differ in theme, technique and style to such an extent that it is legitimate to consider two distinct cave wall arrangements. The first contains animals drawn with charcoal, two of which were dated to the Magdalenian by C14 AMS (see above). The second includes figurative (deer, bison, aurochs) and non-figurative (geometric type) motifs in red, yellow and purple. The black animals of the first arrangement were distributed in small sets throughout the Gallery, at a low height above the ground.

They do not require one to leave the main circulation path to be seen, but seem, on the contrary, to mark out the space of this sector. The situation is different, however, for motifs painted with hematite (red or purple) or goethite (yellow), whose arrangement can only be explained by their intimate relationship with the architectural space features. Some of them were placed in folds or hollow spaces in the wall, others in confidential areas outside the main space. These painted motifs were therefore distributed according to a very different logic from the one used to organise the black drawings.

Examining these three groups therefore shows that cave motifs were not distributed in a homogeneous manner or according to the same logic. The procession of animals represented in the network, all sectors combined, is distributed by favouring certain areas, according to precise requirements that can be specified. The first observation is that to Paleolithic users speleological network and symbolic network do not merge. From a speleological point of view, the cave of La Pasiega is made of a series of relatively narrow galleries, directly linked to each other at the time. Symbolically, this cave contains several decorated arrangements, each occupying distinct sectors and responding to a specific logic. Such differences in themes, techniques and motifs distribution are not unique to this cave. We also found some of them in the nearby cave of El Castillo. In any case, these disparities show that, if the universalistic model once advocated by A. Leroi-Gourhan cannot be kept any longer, the fact remains that the cave wall arrangements were structured according to intentions, which, although they vary according to the networks, are nonetheless clearly codified.

Fig. 1: La Pasiega A, Grande Diaclase: partitioned quadrangle.
Fig. 2: La Pasiega A, Grande Diaclase: striped pirogue-shaped motif.
Fig. 3: La Pasiega A: view of the Grande Diaclase. 
Fig. 4: La Pasiega A: partial view of the Coupole.
Fig. 5: La Pasiega B: engraved ibex.
Fig. 6: La Pasiega B: megaceros. 
Fig. 7: La Pasiega C: two red hinds on either side of a vertical fissure.
Fig. 8: La Pasiega C: ibexes of the black device.

Contact : Marc Groenen


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