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Engraved block found at the Cova Gran de Santa Linya: a visual challenge dating back 14,000 years

28 Jul 2022
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The CERArq-UAB research team has identified the first block with engravings from the Upper Palaeolithic era found in Catalonia’s pre-Pyrenees region. Researchers determined the existence of engravings on both sides of the block: on the obverse side, a Pyrenean ibex on its hind legs, represented with a visual trick, and on the reverse side, the first Cova Gran 'logo' with the Sant Miquel stream at its feet. The block forms part of the limited set of unique pieces from the existing in Catalonia, and contributes to reflecting on the existence of a “new art style” developed by the first hunter-gatherer communities living in the northeastern region of the Iberian Peninsula.

Engraved block found at the Cova Gran de Santa Linya

Researchers from the Centre for the Study of Archaeological Heritage of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (CEPArq-UAB), conducting a dig in the shelter of the Cova Gran de Santa Linya (Avellanes-Santa Linya, Lleida), today announced the results of the study on a new archaeological discovery: a stone block dating back 14,000 years (end of the Upper Palaeolithic) with engravings on both sides, constituting the first archaeological registry of this kind identified at one of Catalonia’s pre-Pyrenean sites.

This artistic representation points to a new unique element to be added to the rich and varied archaeological registry which this site has yielded in the past 20 years, and which is key to the current archaeological advances being made in Catalonia”, states Rafael Mora, director of CEPArq and professor of the UAB Department of Prehistory.

The discovery of the block occurred in the same sector of the dig where the partial skeleton of the Homo sapiens Linya, the Woman from Noguera, was found, but in a level of occupancy dating back a few more centuries. The fact that it was recovered in an archaeological context in which carbons were also found and analysed using the carbon-14 dating technique certifies the period from which it originates. This precise dating of 14,000 years ago allows assessing the engravings and comparing them with blocks found at other sites around Catalonia, which may not have been precisely dated or may have been classified within a broader time period.

The block is made up of marl-limestone, a material not found at the Cova Gran, and therefore was probably transported to the rock shelter. Measuring 11 cm long by 8 cm wide, the research team identified the combination of a series of intentional marks formed by multiple finer and thicker lines, probably made by using one or more silex tools.

Its restoration and posterior study, which included the collaboration of Rafael Martínez Valle, researcher specialising in Prehistoric Art from the Institute for the Conservation, Restoration and Research of Cultural Heritage of the Government of Valencia (IVCR+i), allowed researchers to reconstruct the images appearing on both sides of the block, which they viewed as surprising for their simplicity and schematism.

The excavation at the Cova Gran de Santa Linya forms part of the 2018-2021 period of the Catalan Archaeology and Palaeontology Research Plan, passed by the Government of Catalonia, and includes funding by the Catalan Ministry for Culture, which also aided in the 3D scan of the artefact.

Key Elements of a Past Life

The engravings reproduce figures with contents that were highly symbolical for the first inhabitabts of the peninsular northeast. “We find visual elements and resources with which we can create stories or specify spaces that demonstrate that the person or people there were intelligent and technically skilled; by using a combination of a few lines they were able to generate visualisations with a highly empathetic content that we have been able to decode thousands of years later”, highlights Jorge Martínez-Moreno, CEPArqr-UAB researcher who also participated in the study.

Side A shows several strokes over the entire surface of the block, which made it difficult to decipher the drawing. After a detailed 3D scan alongside other visual techniques used to discover the process, direction and thickness of the strokes, researchers were able to recognise one first figure, starting with a small profile of a face and prominent horns. From the face, thick strokes come down representing the back and underside of the animal, from which several long strokes representing the extremities can also be seen. The composition suggests an animal resting. The large horns aid in identifying the animal as a male ibex, a goat native to the Pyrenees which became extinct in the year 2000.

Researchers were also able to determine that by using some of the strokes from this composition, new lines were drawn to create a new image superimposed on the original one. This design, recognised once again by the face with horns, is connected with a back vertical line that represents the animal standing up on two slender hind legs. The composition suggests the intention of capturing the image of the same animal going from resting to standing up.

The engravings on Side B are concentrated on one side of the block, with most of the rest of the surface left empty on purpose. Using very few strokes, a large concave line closed at the bottom by two parellel zig-zag lines make up what researchers consider to be the first representation of the landscape of Cova Gran, which combines the silhuette of the rock shelter with the Sant Miquel stream passing at its feet.

According to the team of researchers, the schematic figures intentionally reduced to simple lines can be interpreted in surprising ways. On the one hand, the visual ‘trick’ used in the Pyrenean ibex drawing, through the superposition of two figures, expresses a very unique and skillfully observed movement, very rarely used in stone engravings. On the other hand, the representation of Cova Gran, in combining a curve with two zig-zag lines, reproduces an important landscape for these people in which the scarcity of strokes could be compared to the design of any modern logotype.

Reclaiming an Unknown and Unseen Art

Portable art is essential for the study of the symbolic, communicative and cognitive capacities of groups of humans from the past. In Catalonia, these manifestations, first discovered at the start of the last century thanks to the engraved block found at the Sant Gregori site, represent a limited set of unique pieces, which in the past few years have been recovered thanks to the discoveries of archaeologists at the sites of Hort de la Boquera, Cova dels Fems and particularly at the Molí del Salt, all three located in the region of Tarragona and dating back to the end of the Palaeolithic era. This small set of items makes it difficult for researchers to advance in their interpretations of the meaning behind these artistic representations, and therefore the block discovered at the Cova Gran de Santa Linya provides researchers with some interesting reflections on the subject.

The engravings found on the numerous blocks form a type of “new art” which breaks away from the highly realistic and detailed naturalist representations considered when referring to “cave art”. This “new style”, structured by an iconography in which the design of the figures was deformed to such an extent as to make them practically unrecognisable, defines a figurative tendency that was common to the aforementioned sites in Tarragona and suggests a profund reorganisation of the world view of hunter-gatherer societies of the past.

In recent years, the CEPArq-UAB research team working at the Cova Gran site had detected other indicators related with this process of formal simplification and schematism in the engravings’ abstract strokes. These graphic codes, distributed along the walls of the rock shelter, define a communication channel whose significance is still not known and which were made thousands of years later by shepherding communities living in this enclave.

According to the CEPArq-UAB and IVCR+i researchers, interpreting the engravings on the block recovered from the Cova Gran was a great challenge. “Studying it and other similar representations open new routes to exploring an unknown ancestral artistic tradition we find very enriching. Pablo Picasso, the great visionary of 20th century art, affirmed that he had needed his whole life to learn to paint like a child. This assertion highlights the fact that these seemingly simple, prehistoric drawings are coated with an air of modernity present in our everyday lives, that can be traced back to any modern art discourse and can even consolidate itself in the language of comics”, Jorge Martínez-Moreno concludes.

The discovery demonstrates the central role played by all items recovered from the Cova Gran de Santa Linya in researching the most ancient phases of human settlements in the northeastern part of the Iberian Peninsula.

The research conducted by CEPARQ-UAB researchers at the Cova Gran de Santa Linya receives support from the Spanish Ministry for Science and Innovation, the Archaeological and Palaeontological Services and the Ministry for Culture of the Government of Catalonia, the Institute for Ilerdenc Studies of the Lleida Provincial Council, the Les Avellanes i Santa Linya City Council and the Munts Society, as well as the collaboration of CENIEH, IPHES and IVCR+i.

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