Capçanes, Priorat: Prehistoric Art
Occupation: Catalan village, located in the El Vall foothills of the Priorat region.
In the news because: It’s the site of a major archaeological find; a huge concentration of prehistoric artifacts said to be the most exciting discovery in Levantine Art in the last 35 years.
Come again: Levantine Art, also known as ‘Rock art of the Iberian Mediterranean Basin.’
Cave paintings then? Yup. The area of the Mediterranean coast between Catalonia and Almeria is one of the world’s chief habitats for art rupestre, totaling over 700 different sites. It’s all rubber-stamped with UNESCO World Heritage Status. But these Capçanes murals are different. They show 22 human figures in a bone-chillingly violent scene said to either represent a human sacrificial ceremony or mass genocide.
Or an early representation of a classic Spanish botellón, perhaps, like the one going on in the street outside my flat last night? Levantine art is usually associated with human figures performing more hunter-gatherer-type behavior, like collecting honey or leading horses. It was first fenced off as a category in 1903 by the Spanish archaeologist Juan Cabre, who classified it as ‘regional Paleolithic Art’.
It’s got a ring to it. The accuracy of this description however was then dismissed by later prehistorians, hence the vaguer-sounding ‘Levantine Art’.
Why: No glacial fauna was ever found depicted in any of the paintings. Meaning it must be post-Paleolithic.
‘Mammoth’ error: Indeed.
So how old is the art at Capçanes? The oldest Levantine art can go back as far as 8000 years. The most recent dates back some 3500 years. So, somewhere in between.
What next: Now the caves will be sealed off, so that they can be protected – it’s estimated over 50% of the paintings, which were mostly painted with feather-tips and charcoal or mineral pigments, have been eroded away thanks to the fragility of the rock.
Will we actually get to see these paintings though? Hopefully. The idea is to attract more people to an area until now famed for its viniculture. But then, there’s always the possibility of another Altamira or Lascaux.
Eh? You know. The Altamira caves in Cantabria. They were closed to the public in 1982 because of all the visitors breathing damaging carbon dioxide all over them. Since then all you can see at Altamira is a replica cave full of replica paintings, leading the French philosopher Baudrillard to the troubling conclusion: ‘the duplication is sufficient to render both (the replica and the cave itself) artificial.’
But then that’s the original idea of the cave paintings. Creating a facsimile of the original event or memory. Right? Yes. Though I doubt Paleolithic gatherer-hunters would have put it like that.