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Cave Archaeology in the Matienzo Area

Peter Smith, December 2003, April 2006
(Mesolithic link added, December 2008, JSC)

1. Review of Research and Finds made in the Area

The first serious caving in the Matienzo area was carried out in the early 1960s by the Sección de Espeleología del Seminario Sautuola, and as this group was based at the Museum of Prehistory in Santander, their work naturally included archaeological studies. In Cueva de Cofresnedo they found large quantities of prehistoric pottery and some human remains, and in Cueva Cuatribú a medieval pitcher. At about the same time, two caves were dug in the valleys to the north-east of Matienzo: Cueva de la Chora at San Pantaleón de Aras and Cueva del Otero in Secadura. The Seminario Sautuola also found palaeolithic wall engravings in Cueva de Cobrante, at San Miguel de Aras.
The local authorities in Santander also had teams of workmen who searched the caves of the province for archaeological remains. It is known that they explored several caves in Matienzo, and saw the engraving in Cueva Sotarraña, but their reports were never published.

When the British expeditions started in the 1970s, all the known caves in the area were re-visited and, although the cavers were untrained as archaeologists, they made several finds. These included a bronze sword in Cueva del Ruchano (Riaño), a bone spear-point in Cueva del Risco and human remains in Cueva Rascavieja. A little later the engravings in Cueva de los Emboscados were discovered, and the engraving of Cueva Sotarraña was re-located. More pottery and various iron objects were found in Cueva Cofresnedo.

In the early and mid 1980s the Cantabrian archaeological group, Colectivo para la Ampliación de los Estudios de Arqueología y Prehistoria, carried out prospection in the area. They found palaeolithic engravings in Cueva del Otero, and various prehistoric artifacts in caves such as Cueva Solviejo (Secadura), La Covarona, Cueva de la Helguera and Cueva del Túnel (Llueva) and Cuevas de Mazarredonda (San Pantaleón de Aras). Working with the British cavers, they recorded the schematic-abstract paintings in Cueva Cofresnedo, and years later they spotted the red Palaeolithic paintings near the entrance of of the same cave. Throughout this time, the caving expeditions would continue to make various sporadic finds, such as the polished stone adze in Cueva 709, and the small pot inside the lower entrance to Cueva Vallina (Arredondo). More recent finds of pottery have been made in Cueva 408 (2001), Torca del Serruco (Easter 2003) and site 1887 (summer 2003).

Between 1994 and 2001, Cantabrian archaeologists and the British Caving Expedition worked together to develop an archaeology project in Matienzo, focused primarily on the post-Palaeolithic period. The main sites investigated were Cueva de las Grajas (pottery and animal bones), Cubío Redondo (Mesolithic), Sima del Diente and Rascavieja (Bronze Age) and the more complex site of Cofresnedo, where nearly all the periods are represented. The project also carried out absolute dating of material from these sites.

2. Representation of Archaeological Periods in the Matienzo Area

2.1 Palaeolithic
The only site that has been dug in Matienzo is Cueva de Cofresnedo, with an Aurignacian layer dated to 31,360 BP, and below that a layer which is probably Mousterian. Nearer the coast, the best known sites are Cueva del Otero and Cueva de la Chora. The former had a sequence of levels from the Mousterian to the Azilian, with the Aurignacian and Upper Magdalenian being particularly important; while the deposits of the latter cave were mostly of Upper Magdalenian, with a few examples of mobiliary art. Cueva de Cobrante is also an important site, dug recently by the archaeologist Pedro Rasines.
Within the Matienzo depression, Stone Age remains may exist in a few other caves. At the end of Pintó Gallery in Cueva del Risco, where an entrance must once have been open, a Magdalenian bone assagai, or spear-point, was found in an area containing animal bones, including Cervus Megaceros. The entrance hall of Cueva del Molino may also contain palaeolithic remains covered by massive flowstone deposits; a number of flints and bones have been located. In this part of the cave, ancient deposits with many large bones have been partly eroded away.
At the other end of Cueva del Molino, there is a low stone wall, forming a semi-circle abour 2.5m in diameter. A stalagmite has grown on top of the wall, suggesting that it was built by Palaeolithic people who entered the cave through an entrance which is now blocked by collapse.

2.2 Cave Art
Palaeolithic art has been found in six caves within the area explored by the British expeditions. The oldest depictions are those in the entrance hall of Cofresnedo. These are red paintings, unfortunately badly-conserved, representing signs and possible animal figures. They may be contemporary with the Aurignacian deposit in the same chamber.
The art in the other caves is more recent, of Magdalenian age. In Cueva de Cobrante there are engravings of two hinds at the top of the stalagmite boss which closes the entrance vestibule. In the interior of the cave, another group of figures includes a possible reindeer, a bovid, a caprid, and possible anthropomorphs. In Cueva del Otero there is a caprid viewed frontally, which is an unusual figure in cave art, although common in mobiliary art. Cueva de los Emboscados has further engraved figures of hinds and goats, and also a curving line of dark red paint crossing the back of the first hind on the left-hand wall. The figure in Cueva Sotarraña is of a headless animal with a spear in its side.
El Risco System has a small group of engravings at the end of the Pintó Gallery, in the same place where the assagai point was found. They consist of signs made up of parallel and criss-crossing lines, and two simple figures of caprids, represented by only the head and horns.

2.3 Mesolithic.
Several deposits belonging to this period have been dug in Matienzo. Dates of 6630 and 5780 BP were obtained at Cubío Redondo, where the deposit consisted of a shell-midden formed with the land snail, Cepaea nemoralis, and few examples of mussels and a limpet. It was associated with remains of red deer, roe deer, boar, chamois and ibex, as well as a small number of flint tools.
Evidence of a similar shell-midden was found below the Bronze Age burials in Sima del Diente, and a small deposit was dug at the entrance of Cofresnedo. This was dated to 6865 BP. These Cepaea-middens have been noted at other sites, like La Cubía de Seldesuto and Emboscados
A chapter from Ruiz Cobo Jesús et al, 2008 (2.5 El Mesolítico) can be found at the Acanto web site.

2.4 Chalcolithic-Early Bronze Age.
At this time the caves were used for burials. Two youths were buried in Rascavieja, and a date of 3999 BP was obtained for one of these. In many other cases, pottery was deposited in caves, sometimes as grave goods, but on other occasions, where they are not associated with human remains, they may have been some kind of ritual offering.
A characteristic pottery type is the large urn with finger-fluted clay covering the lower walls. Thermoluminescence dates have been obtained for two of these, from Cueva de las Grajas and Cofresnedo, 3797 and 3923 BP respectively. Other caves where this type has been found include Cueva de Reyes and Cueva 179.
There seems to have been a certain preference for using quite small caves for burials, and Cueva 709 and the entrance of Tres Niños are two examples. Cueva 2139 (Torca del Cráneo) would be another example, but in this case, bones and pottery fell down the shaft just inside the entrance; most reached the base, but the skull landed on a ledge, where it was found in December 2004. 1887 seems to follow the same pattern, although no human bones have yet been found to confirm this possibility.
Polished or ground stone tools have been found in two caves; one of them the adze from Cueva 709, and the other an axe recovered from the stream bed of Cueva del Orillón.

2.5 Bronze Age
The bronze sword discovered in the water, 50m inside Cueva del Ruchano, was dated in the Argaric period in the Middle Bronze Age. It is comparable with the three bronze swords found in Cueva Llusa in Ogarrio, to the south of Matienzo, in the early 1900s. Two copper or bronze arrow heads have been found in Cueva Coquisera and Cueva Cofresnedo.
Caves continued to be used for burials throughout the period, and human remains have been dated to 3410 and 3000 BP (Cofresnedo) and 2760 BP (Cueva del Diente).
The small pot found inside the, at-the-time, sealed lower entrance of Cueva Vallina may also be Bronze Age.

2.6 Iron Age
Several caves have quite rich deposits belonging to the last centuries BC. The best known is Cueva Cofresnedo, where a number of iron artefacts were found, including a dagger and axe, plus a bronze dagger-belt plaque and a glass bead. In Cueva de las Barandas two decorated copper strips were found, as well as iron remnants. A copper omega-shaped buckle was found in Cueva Coquisera. These three caves had a characteristic pottery type: urns with little decoration, and a raised rim which is turned outwards. These deposits, including weapons and personal ornamentation, are consistent with being grave goods, although no dated human remains have been found in association with them. It is possible that the ritual now involved the cremation of the body outside the cave, with ashes being deposited inside, contained in the urns. An iron spear-head was discovered on a ledge in Spear Pot, a shaft at 520m above sea level at Sel de Suto.
Cueva de Reyes had a different kind of deposit; a hoard of iron tools. These included ard shares, wedges, chisels, a mattock and a variety of hooks, and by comparison with similar objects from sites in Spain and Europe, they can also be assigned to the Late Iron Age.

2.7 Schematic-abstract paintings
These paintings, done with charcoal on the cave walls, sometimes of schematic or geometric design, and often completely abstract, are found in several caves in the area. Within Matienzo they are known in Cueva Cofresnedo, Cuatribú, Coburruyo and Cueva Roja, and there are also a few paintings in Cueva Chica and Concebo. In the surrounding valleys, they are found in Cueva Cobrantes, Covarona, Entrambascuevas I, Solviejo, and Torca de los Canes (Riaño). Three paintings have been dated directly, in Cofresnedo, Coberruyo and Cueva Roja (1740, 950 and 870 BP), indicating that this style of black wall markings began in the proto-historic period, and continued until the Middle Ages.

2.8 Roman Period - Middle Ages
No clearly Roman remains have been found in the area. However, in Cueva de Garma Redonda fragments were found of a small pot with the rim turned horizontally, and which can be dated in the first centuries AD. In Cueva 1289, bones of domestic animals and pottery had been thrown down the narrow "chimney" entrance, which must have been used as a rubbish dump. The pottery, decorated with an undulating line around its neck, belongs to a type which is dated in the late 4th Century AD.
The pitcher found by S.E.S.S. in Cueva Cuatribú has been dated in the 13th Century, and the pot decorated with horizontal bands in Cubío Redondo is probably of a similar age. Fragments of Medieval pottery have been found in a few other caves, including La Cuevuca, Cueva de Peñarrobra (Llueva) and Torca de los Canes (Riaño), while the glazed pieces in Cave 732 must be a little more modern.

Radiocarbon dates from Matienzo

Cave Lab Ref Material BP +/- Calibrated Range 2 sigma
Grajas Beta-77484 charcoal 850 70 1201 AD 1020 - 1283
Roja Beta-122562 painting 870 50 1188 AD 1027 - 1268
Coburruyo Beta-122561 painting 950 40 1038 AD 1006 - 1196
Cofresnedo GrA-17640 painting 1740 80 275 / 289 / 323 AD 97 - 453
Grajas Beta-88447 charcoal 1950 60 66 AD 69 BC - 216 AD
Diente Beta-140850 human 2760 50 906 BC 1015 - 815
Cofresnedo GrA-20269 human (Pendants) 3000 60 1262 BC 1408 - 1028
Cofresnedo GrA-17739 human (G4) 3410 50 1703 BC 1874 - 1543
Grajas Beta-80370 animal bone 3710 60 2124 / 2067 / 2064 BC
Rascavieja AA-37.886 human 3999 59 2484 BC 2644 - 2344
C. Redondo Beta-106049 charcoal 5780 50 4665 / 4652 / 4614 BC 4775 - 4499
C. Redondo Beta-106050 animal bone 6630 50 5550 BC 5643 - 5484
Cofresnedo GrA-20146 animal bone (V0) 6845 45 5724 BC 5805 - 5647
Cofresnedo GrA-20267 animal bone (V1) 31360 310 --- ---
Diente Beta-140851 charcoal >41760 --- --- ---

Further Reading

  • Begines, A. 1966, La Arqueología, in La Depresión Cerrada de Matienzo, Cuadernos de Espeleología 2, pp 99 - 103, Santander.
  • Echegaray, Guinea & Begines, 1963, Cueva de la Chora (Santander), Excav. Arq. en España Nº 26.
  • Echegaray, Guinea & Begines, 1966, Cueva del Otero, Excav. Arq. en España Nº 53.
  • García Guinea, M.A. 1968, Los Grabados de la Cueva de la Peña del Cuco en Castro Urdiales y de la Cueva de Cobrantes (Valle de Aras), Publicaciones del Patronato Cuevas Prehistóricas de Provin. Santander Vol. III.
  • Anon., 1975, Report of the British Expedition to Matienzo, Kendal.
  • Almagro-Gorbea, M. 1976, La Espada de Entrambasaguas - Aportación a la Secuencia de las Espadas del Bronce en el Norte de la Península Iberica, in XL Aniversario Centro Estudios Montañeses, pp 455 - 477, Santander.
  • Smith, P. 1983, The Iron Age in Matienzo, BCRA Transactions Vol. 10 (3) pp 145 - 164.
  • Smith, P. 1985, Restos de la Edad del Hierro en Matienzo (Santander), in Altamira Vol. XLV, pp 45 - 66.
  • Balbín, Morales & González Sainz, 1986, Los Grabados de las Cuevas de los Emboscados y el Patatal (Matienzo-Cantabria), in Monografías Nº 15, pp 233 - 270 , Centro Investigación y Museo de Altamira.
  • González Sainz, Muñoz & San Miguel, 1985, Los grabados rupestres paleolíticos de la Cueva del Otero (Secadura, Cantabria), in Sautuola IV, pp 155 - 164, Santander.
  • Corrin, J. 1990, Matienzo '89, in Caves and Caving Nº 49, pp 19 - 25.
  • Smith, P. 1996, Hallazgos de cerámica prehistórica en Matienzo (Cantabria), Monografías arqueológicas nº 6, pp 19 - 23, A.C.D.P.S., Santander.
  • Smith, P. 1996, El depósito arqueológico de la Cueva de Reyes (Matienzo), in La Arqueología de los Cántabros, pp 173 -191, Edición de Fundación Marcelino Botín, Santander.
  • Ruiz, J., Smith, P., Serna, A. and E. Muñoz, 1999/2000. The Prehistoric Cave Site “Cueva de las Grajas” in Matienzo, North Spain. Studies in Speleology, Vol. XI, pp 43-49. Plymouth.
  • Ruiz Cobo, J. y Smith, P. 2001. The Archaeology of the Matienzo Depression, North Spain. British Archaeological Reports International Series 975. Oxford.
  • Ruiz Cobo, J. y Smith, P. 2003. La cueva de Cofresnedo en el valle de Matienzo. Gobierno de Cantabria.