Cave Archaeology in the Matienzo Area
Peter Smith, December 2003, April 2006, September 2019
(Mesolithic link added, December 2008, JSC)
Catalogue of recent finds of teeth and bones in MCP caves / digs (2018-2019 ). Peter Smith
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
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
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.
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
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
A chapter from Ruiz Cobo Jesús et al, 2008
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
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
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
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
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
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,
Solviejo, and Torca
de los Canes (Riaño). Three paintings have been dated directly,
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
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