Extraordinary Early Magdalenian Finds from El Miron Cave, Cantabria (Spain)
Morales, Manuel R. Gonzalez, Straus, Lawrence Guy, Antiquity
Cantabrian Spain has long been known for its Upper Palaeolithic cave art, portable art objects and 'utilitarian' but decorated artefacts made of bone or antler. Classic works published before the Spanish Civil War (e.g. Alcalde del Rio et al. 1911; Breuil & Obermaier 1935; Obermaier 1916, 1924) and syntheses published in the 1960s-80s (e.g. Barandiaran 1967, 1972; Corchon 1986) describe the evolving corpus of discoveries. These, however, were mainly composed of finds from early excavations done without fine stratigraphic control or independent dating. Ironically, the statistical chances of making extraordinary finds were great, given the large areas that were dug in the 'core' human occupation areas of sites, i.e. in cave mouths/vestibules. Thus, the corpus of objects was rich, but specific information about where items came from, with what other objects they had been found and how old they were was often imprecise or absent. Yet such objects were critical to the construction of a regional chronology and to the establishment of a distinctive cultural pattern, particularly for the Magdalenian period. Also ironically, many modern excavations have been conducted in small (and sometimes marginal) areas, given the expense and meticulousness of new (but slow) methods; they thus obtain small samples of rare artefacts, such as works of portable art and other unusual types of items (but, paradoxically, large quantities of materials such as lithic debitage and bone splinters that normally were not saved by old excavations)--e.g. La Riera in Asturias (Straus & Clark 1986), El Rascano in Cantabria (Gonzalez Echegaray & Barandiaran 1981) and Ekain in Guipuzcoa (Altuna & Merino 1984). It is also the case that some sites seem to be far richer in belles pieces (for functional, social and/or taphonomic reasons), thereby increasing the statistical chances of some being found during excavation. Nonetheless, in recent years, a few larger projects have uncovered numerous extraordinary finds (e.g. Las Caldas and Tito Bustillo in Asturias, El Juyo, La Garma and El Miron in Cantabria and Praile Aitz in Guipuzcoa). Thus a new record of engraved, perforated and/or sculpted items from the late Upper Palaeolithic of northern Spain is being created that will ultimately rival the corpus of classic finds made by the pioneer prehistorians with regard to aesthetic quality, socio-cultural importance and culture-stratigraphic significance, but will surpass it in terms of associational context and chronometric dating. The present article describes three such recent finds from El Miron Cave.
El Miron Cave
Scientifically discovered in 1903 by H. Alcalde del Rio and L. Sierra at the same time as the adjacent cave art sites of Covalanas and La Haza, El Miron is a large cave that manifestly had long been inhabited by prehistoric humans. Despite being the obvious main occupation site in the upper Ason River Valley because of its vast (30 x 8 x 13m), sunlit, west-facing vestibule and strategic position at 260m asl, high on the steep side of Monte Pando, El Miron was never seriously excavated. This was probably due to the seemingly disturbed aspect of its surface deposits and its distance from both Santander and Bilbao in the montane interior of eastern Cantabria. The site is surrounded by peaks and ridges at or above 1000m, but is 13km from one of the lowest passes over the Cantabrian Cordillera (Los Tornos, 920m), connecting the coast with the meseta of Burgos in Old Castille. Located 22km from the Holocene shore at the mouth of the Ason (and about 34km from the Tardiglacial shore [-100m isobath]), El Miron is also strategically located near the confluence of the cave art site-lined Rio Carranza Gorge with the Ason. The Carranza provides an easy route of communication with the Basque Country to the east (and hence south-west France) (Straus et al. 2002a, 2002b, 2006).
Since 1996 the authors have uncovered a stratigraphic sequence in El Miron that spans the period between the late Middle Palaeolithic and the late middle ages (Straus et al. …