The basic information about the art in this cave is pretty straightforward: discovered in 1879, rejected (by the archaeological authorities of the day) as being too good to have been created by “primitive man” thousands of years ago, ultimately accepted and dated to some 18,000 years in the past, opened to visitors in the 1930s, and closed in the late 1970s because of (unintentional) damage to the artwork by the exhalation of thousands of tourists. We loved Altamira too much, and damaged the very art we came to see.
So to keep them available for public viewing, the cave paintings of Altamira were recreated in the Neocave — a rigorously accurate three-dimensional replica. It duplicates the cave interior inhabited by the artists during Paleolithic times. Using laser beams as measuring sticks, scientists painstakingly mapped every nook, cranny, bulge, and crevasse of the cave’s ceiling; the reproduction is said to be accurate to within one millimeter. A duplicate ceiling was built, and the paintings were recreated using the same techniques and natural pigments employed by the original Paleolithic artists.
The recreation of the cave and ceiling art at the new Altamira Museum is magnificently done. Even though we visitors have no idea what the original really looks like, the replica felt satisfying — especially thanks to Lee, our very enthusiastic and knowledgeable Altamira guide. It is certainly a comfortable viewing experience — no slippery floor, drafts, flickering lights, or twisting our selves into pretzels to view the artwork. The only negative? Even though everything is a reproduction, you can’t take photos of the recreated art on the recreated ceiling.
And yet, something is missing. I’ve seen one real cave-art cave before (and we’ll see several on this tour), and the sensation of viewing real art in a real cave is something that Altamira can’t replicate. I think Cesar, our Spanish guide, summed it up when he said: “The real cave has a presence that the replica does not.”
But even without that mystical presence, the Neocave at Altamira is an excellent introduction to the subject of cave art. After seeing it, perhaps you’ll understand this quote, attributed to Pablo Picasso: “After Altamira, everything is decadence.”
Written by: Paul Deans – TQ Editor