Museo de Altamira

Read just a little of the literature about cave art and you’ll come across a report of some or other high-minded archaeologist bursting into tears at the sight of it.

But this was never going to happen at the Museo de Altamira. The caves are closed to the public. Instead visitors are invited into a less moving replica, a neocave.

It is still an experience. There is a holographic Paleolithic family, which the original presumably lacks. And there is plenty of supporting information to read.

What is most striking about the ceiling covered in paintings, the Techo de Polícromos, is quite how much the prehistoric artists worked with the contours of the rock.

This may be one of the first things you hear about cave painting, but I wasn’t prepared for quite how bulbous these 18,500 and 14,500 year old bison really are.

Although prevailing wisdom suggests a ritual purpose for these works, it is difficult not to detect just an element of humour in these found representational forms.

But at the same time, such three dimensional work suggests frieze-like sculpture as much as painting. This is artistic synthesis or mixed media avant la lettre.

Just two colours are used in the so-called Polychrome Ceiling and painting here is done, to the millimetre, using pigments not unlike the originals.

So there is something interesting about the construction of a simulated cave just 300m from where the original, ideal forms can be found. Plato would do his nut.

You might too, if you spent too long in the gift shop. What you see in the photo above is a slab of cave painting for you to take away and put on the wall of your home.

Just why anyone would want to do this, in light of the invention of paper and canvas, is beyond me. But the souvenir cave art does offer a way in or out of Altamira.

To plan your visit to the museum in Cantabria, Spain, check out the website. It’s free on Sundays.

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