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


The CERArq-UAB research team has identified the first block with Upper Palaeolithic engravings found in the pre-Pyrenean region of Catalonia. The researchers determined the existence of engravings on both sides of the block: on the obverse, a Pyrenean ibex on its hind legs, represented with a visual trick, and on the reverse, the first “logo” of the Cova Gran with the stream of Sant Miquel at its feet. The block is part of the limited set of unique pieces of the existing in Catalonia and contributes to reflect on the existence of a “new style of art” developed by the first communities of hunter-gatherers living in the northern region -East of the Iberian Peninsula.

Images of the block and drawings of the engravings found on both sides. Photo: CEPArq-UAB

Researchers from the Center for the Study of Archaeological Heritage of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (CEPArq-UAB), carrying out an excavation in the shelter of the Cova Gran de Santa Linya (Avellanes-Santa Linya, Lleida), announced today Today the results of the study of a new archaeological discovery: a block of stone dating from 14,000 years ago (end of the Upper Paleolithic) with engravings on both sides, constituting the first archaeological record of this type identified on one of the Pre-Pyrenean sites of Catalonia.

“This artistic representation indicates a unique new element to add to the rich and varied archaeological record that this site has produced over the past 20 years, and which is key to current archaeological advances in Catalonia,” says Rafael Mora, director of CEPArq and professor of the Department of Prehistory of the UAB.

The discovery of the block occurred in the same sector of the excavation where the partial skeleton of Homo sapiens Linya, the Woman of Noguera, was found, but in a level of occupation dating back a few centuries earlier. The fact that it was recovered in an archaeological context in which carbons were also found and analyzed by the carbon-14 dating technique certifies the period from which it comes. This precise dating of 14,000 years ago allows the carvings to be evaluated and compared with blocks found at other sites around Catalonia, which may not have been dated precisely or may have been classified in a wider period.

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

Its restoration and subsequent study, which included the collaboration of Rafael Martínez Valle, a researcher specializing in prehistoric art from the Institute for the Conservation, Restoration and Research of Cultural Heritage of the Government of Valencia (IVCR+i), allowed the researchers to reconstruct the images appearing on either side of the islet, which they considered surprising in their simplicity and schematism.

The excavations of the Cova Gran de Santa Linya are part of the 2018-2021 period of the Catalan Plan for Research in Archeology and Paleontology, adopted by the Government of Catalonia, and includes funding from the Catalan Ministry of Culture, which also contributed to 3D scanning of the artifact.

Key elements of a past life

The engravings reproduce figures with a highly symbolic content for the first inhabitants 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 persons present were intelligent and technically skilled; using a combination of a few lines, they were able to generate visualizations with highly empathetic content that we were able to decode thousands of years later”, underlines Jorge Martínez-Moreno, researcher at CEPArqr-UAB who also participated in the study.

Side A shows several strokes across the surface of the block, which made it difficult to decipher the design. After a detailed 3D scan alongside other visual techniques used to uncover the process, direction and thickness of the features, the researchers were able to recognize an early figure, starting with a small face profile and prominent horns. From the face descend thick lines representing the back and underside of the animal, from which we also see several long lines representing the extremities. The composition suggests an animal at rest. The large horns help identify the animal as a male ibex, a goat originating from the Pyrenees that became extinct in 2000.

The researchers were also able to determine that by using some of the strokes in this composition, new lines were drawn to create a new image superimposed on the original. This drawing, recognizable again by the horned face, is connected to a dorsal vertical line which represents the animal standing on two thin hind legs. The composition suggests the intention to capture the image of the same animal going from rest to standing.

The B-side engravings are concentrated on one side of the block, with most of the rest of the surface intentionally left blank. In very few strokes, a large concave line closed at the bottom by two parallel zigzag lines constitutes what researchers consider to be the first representation of the landscape of Cova Gran, which combines the silhouette of the rock shelter with the stream of Sant Miquel passing at his feet.

According to the research team, the schematic figures deliberately reduced to simple lines can be interpreted in surprising ways. On the one hand, the visual “trick” used in the drawing of the ibex of the Pyrenees, by the superposition of two figures, expresses a very unique and skilfully observed movement, very rarely used in stone engravings. On the other hand, the representation of Cova Gran, by combining a curve with two zigzag lines, reproduces an important landscape for these people in which the sparseness of the strokes could be compared to the design of any modern logotype.

Recover unknown and invisible art

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

The engravings found on the many blocks form a type of “new art” which breaks with the very realistic and detailed naturalistic representations considered to refer to “rock art”. This “new style”, structured by an iconography in which the drawing of the figures has been deformed to the point of making them practically unrecognizable, defines a figurative trend common to the aforementioned sites of Tarragona and suggests a profound reorganization of the vision of the world of the societies of hunter-gatherers of the past.

In recent years, the CEPArq-UAB research team working on the Cova Gran site had detected other clues linked to this process of formal simplification and schematism in the abstract lines of the engravings. These graphic codes, distributed along the walls of the rock shelter, define a communication route whose meaning is not yet known and which was carried out thousands of years later by the pastoral communities living in this enclave.

According to researchers from CEPArq-UAB and IVCR+i, interpreting the carvings on the block recovered from the Cova Gran was a great challenge. “His study and other similar representations open new avenues to explore an unrecognized ancestral artistic tradition that we find very enriching. Pablo Picasso, the great visionary of 20th century art, said he needed his whole life to learn to paint as a child. This statement highlights the fact that these seemingly simple prehistoric drawings are coated with an air of modernity present in our daily life, which can be traced in any discourse of modern art and can even be consolidated in the language of comics”, Jorge Martínez-Moreno concludes.

The discovery demonstrates the central role played by all the objects recovered from the Cova Gran de Santa Linya in the search for the oldest phases of human settlements in the northeastern part of the Iberian Peninsula.

The research carried out by CEPARQ-UAB researchers at the Cova Gran de Santa Linya has the support of the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation, the Archaeological and Paleontological Services and the Ministry of Culture of the Government of Catalonia, the Institute of Ilerdenc Studies of Lleida Provincial Council, the Town Hall of Les Avellanes i Santa Linya and the Munts company, as well as the collaboration of CENIEH, IPHES and IVCR+i.

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