Thursday, January 29, 2015

If this is Thursday it must be postcards, 179

Cave Paintings, Altamira, Spain
This postcard is not only interesting for the subject, Paleolithic Cave Paintings found in the Cave of Altamira, Spain, but for the route it took to get to me about 45 years ago.  The return address is the American Express Office in Rome, Italy, it was mailed from Greece with several beautiful Greek stamps (below) and the cave itself is located in Spain.  A card on the grand tour of Europe it seems.

Greek Stamps on postcard

Cave and rock paintings can be found all over the globe, some dating 40,000 years old.  There are over 340 caves in France and Spain alone with perhaps the best known ones this in Altamira and the Chauvet Cave in France.  The subject matter is predominantly animals but stenciled human hands and human stick figures are sometimes also included.  Stenciled hand prints were made by placing a hand on the cave wall and blowing pigment over the hand to leave a negative image.  Artists used charcoal and ochre or haematite to create the images, diluting these pigments to produce variations in intensity.  They also used the cave wall contours to create three dimensional effects.  The postcard features the famous Polychrome Ceiling showing a herd of steppe bison in different poses, horses, a doe, and wild boar.

The Altamira paintings were the first prehistoric cave paintings to be discovered and generated controversy in 1880 because some experts found it hard to believe that prehistoric man could produce this high quality artistic expression.  As other caves and paintings were discovered (1902-1904) and supported proof of authenticity it forever changed the perception of prehistoric humans.  In 2012 uranium-thorium dating placed the age of one image in the cave at 35,600 years. 

People did not live inside the cave but the only evidence of habitation is found at the entrance.  The Altamira Cave extends 984 feet (300 meters) with twisting passages and chambers.  The ceiling of the main passageway varies in height from about 6.6 feet (2 meters) to almost 20 feet (6 meters).  Other old Stone Age artifacts have also been found here and evidence of animal occupations are also found in between the times when human were present.  About 13,000 years ago a rock slide sealed the cave entrance, preserving the contents until it was discovered by an amateur archaeologist, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola and his eight year old daughter, Maria, in 1879.

The caves had to be closed to the public in 1977 because the paintings were being damaged by the carbon dioxide in the breath of the numbers of people visiting the site.  In 1982 the cave was reopened to a limited number of visitors and resulted in a three year waiting list.  A replica cave and museum was completed in 2001 and affords a more comfortable view of the polychrome paintings as well as other works.  It also contains some sculptures of human faces that were not readily accessible in the real cave.  The decision to keep the cave closed to the public was revisited in 2010 but on the advice of experts who found that conditions in the cave had become more stable since its closure the Spanish Ministry of Culture decided that the cave should remain closed to the public.  Some of the polychrome paintings from Altamira are well known in Spanish popular culture. 

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