For 12 years the cave of Altamira was accessible only to researchers and conservators. As of Thursday 27 February 2014 ordinary members of the public have been able to visit the original cave once again. Each week five lucky visitors to the Museum of Altamira are chosen at random, kitted out in special clothing and given a 37 minute tour. Read on for more details on how you can be one of those five.

One of the bison painted in Altamira cave, Spain.

Altamira is to Spain what Lascaux is to France. The art in both caves was found, accidentally by children, although those in Altamira were found 60 years earlier than those in Lascaux. The first life-size reproductions of cave paintings were of the spectacular bison in the cave of Altamira – made in 1964. A technically more sophisticated approach was developed some 20 years later to reproduce part of the cave of Lascaux, what we all know of as Lascaux 2.

As we have been provided with an essentially Franco-centric history of art, Lascaux does tend to take the limelight from Altamira. The cave art of Altamira was the first Palaeolithic cave art to be discovered in Europe in modern times. And it was this discovery that would radically change the way in which Stone Age people were perceived, albeit two decades later. The story of this discovery is at once a delight and a tragedy.

The Story of Altamira

The cave itself was discovered in 1868 by a local hunter, but it was just over ten years before the true magnificence of what was in the cave would come to light. A brief and initial sighting of the meaningless black signs was made in 1876 by Don Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, the owner of the cave. As they did not look like much and certainly did not make any sense to him he dismissed them. In 1878 de Sautola was visiting the Universal Exhibition in Paris when he saw pieces of carved bone. Excited by the prospect of finding similar objects in his cave, de Sautuola and Juan Vilanova y Piera, an archaeologist from the University of Madrid, began excavating the deposits in 1879.

Maria Sanz de Sautuola

Maria Sanz de Sautuola

While de Sautuola excavated the cave floor, his eight year old daughter Maria explored the cave. Maria’s father’s focus was on the on the deposits he was excavating, whereas Maria’s inquisitiveness took her gaze everywhere. Not surprisingly it was Maria who first saw the paintings of bison on the ceiling of the cave. Maria thought the depictions of he extinct bison were bulls, she cried out to get her father’s attention. Many years later Maria would tell the German prehistorian Herbert Kühn that discovering the bison was …

The greatest adventure of my life … and, also, my bitterest disappointment.

Although Maria’s father recognised the importance of her discovery, the same can not be said for Europe’s archaeological establishment such as it was back then.

The following year de Sautuola published a very modest account of his work in Altamira. In it he described in detail the artefacts recovered during his excavations. He also identified the exquisitely painted bison, and linked these to the carvings of bison he had seen in Paris a year or so earlier. He concluded that the paintings were executed by the same people who were responsible for the stone and bone artefacts being excavated from the caves. Sadly, he was ridiculed for his conclusions and was even accused of making the paintings himself. He died in 1888 a ridiculed and broken man.

Not until 1902 did prehistorians accept what Don Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola had suggested more than two decades previously, that the painted bison in Altamira were many thousands of years old.




Altamira Heralds a Change in Attitude

The famous polychrome bison. © Museo de Altamira

The famous polychrome bison. © Museo de Altamira

Almost certainly there are a number of reasons why de Sautuola’s case for a Palaeolithic age of the cave art was rejected. Not only had nothing been seen like it before, the quality of the imagery on the ceiling and walls of Altamira simply did not fit with archaeologists’s perceptions of primitive hunter-gatherer’s abilities. And, archaeologists still today do not always react well to outsider or amateur interventions. De Sautuola was an amateur, not a member of the establishment.

Elsewhere and later, caves with painted and/or engravings in them were being found. In 1895 four boys searching the cave of La Mouthe in the Dordogne found another bison. Following this discovery excavations in the cave produced a stone artefact that was interpreted as a lamp – it had an ibex carved on the underside. The publication in 1901 of copies of engravings from Les Combarelles, also argued to be Palaeolithic in age, finally broke the sceptics.

Personal status and religious attitudes finally gave way to rational thought and mounting evidence. A change too late for Don Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, who was at best dismissed as naive or worse branded a fraud. So not it is surprising then that Maria would later say her discovery was as much a disappointment as a great adventure.

Getting a Ticket to see the original cave

To be in with a chance of getting to visit the original cave, you need to be over 16 years of age, and present at the museum between 9.30 and 10.30 am. You will be required to complete a request form, which also entails reading and accepting the conditions of the visit.

Of all those present, five people are then chosen at random; the tour starts at 10.40 am and lasts for 37 minutes. For conservation reason, strict rules apply to each visit. You will be required to wear a bio-hazard suit. And it is imperative you listen to the guide and follow their instructions, sticking to the permitted path through the cave for the duration of the tour. To prevent any one part of the cave being subjected to the effects of visitors, you are not allowed to linger at any one point. One of the conditions of getting to visit the original cave is that you stick with the guide who sets the time allowed at each point within the cave. The tour of Altamira is conducted in Spanish.

Altamira Museum & Replica

Entrance to the Museo de Altamira.

Entrance to the Museo de Altamira.

For those who are not fortunate enough to get one of the five weekly tickets, there is an excellent replica of the cave in the museum that is not far from the entrance to the original cave.

As with Lascaux II the replica is an outstanding achievement, which was opened to the public in 2001. While we have a thing about visiting ‘originals’, and the fact that the natural atmosphere and ambience of the cave can not be reproduced, visiting the replica of Altamira does have many advantages over visiting the original, which has been described as a disappointment by some – partly because being in the original is now so restricted.

 

A few reasons why seeing the replica is as good as the original:
  • The ceiling in certain area of the cave is very low – at places less than a metre above the floor. Towards the back of the cave, away from the entrance Palaeolithic painters and engravers would have had to crouch down. Consequently it is impossible to see the entire panel in the cave. The painted ceiling in the replica has been made much higher than it is in the cave, allowing visitors to see and appreciate the entire panel. The relationship of the original floor level is clearly marked for visitors to get a good impression of what the conditions are like in the cave.
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  • The engraved depictions in the cave are very difficult to see. In the replica these have been slightly enhanced to make them more visible to the naked eye.
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  • The creators of the replicated cave have tried to reproduce the cave as it was during the Palaeolithic. So, the concrete supports added in an attempt to prevent the ceiling from collapsing have not included. More interestingly, the entrance to the cave as it was in Palaeolithic times has also been recreated in the replica. This feature allows visitors to get a feel for what the cave and the art would have looked like when the cave was naturally open to the elements. This is not an experience anyone has had since the entrance to the cave collapsed sometime at the end of the Ice Age; and an experience that is never to be had again.

Planning Your Visit to the Museum & Replica Cave

Opening Hours

May to October
Tuesday to Saturday, 09h30 to 20h00
Sundays and holidays, 09h30 to 15h00.

November to April
Tuesday to Saturday, 09h30 to 18h00
Sundays and holidays, 09h30 to 15h00

 
Holidays
30 March, 28 July, 15 & 16 August, 15 September, 12 October, 1 November, 6 & 8 December

Closed
Mondays
1 & 6 January, 1 May, 28 June, 25 December

Ticket Prices

Adults: €3.00
Reduced: €1.50

Free Entry for everyone on Saturday from 14.00, and all day Sunday.
18 April, 18 May, 12 October & 6 December.

See the Official Website for details on who is eligible for free/reduced entry.

Buying Tickets for the Museum in advance

Although it is possible to buy tickets at the museum (cash and cards) when you arrive, for peak tourist seasons (definitely July and August) it is strongly advisable to book and purchase tickets in advance, online.

Queues for those wishing to buy tickets on the day can be up to two hours long – partly because the museum operates a time-ticketing system.

Advance tickets are not possible for Saturday afternoons and Sundays – when entrance to the museum is free of charge for everyone.

Having booked and paid for your ticket in advance, when you arrive at the museum go straight to the information desk located in the entrance hall and present your details. There is no need to join the queue at the ticket office. You will then be given a ticket which has the exact time you can enter the replica.

Where is Altamira?

The cave of Altamira is in the Cantabrian region of northern Spain, about two kilometres south of the village of Santillana del Mar.


 

The 1964 reproduction can be seen in the Deutsches Museum in Munich – one of the World’s largest museums for science and technology. Here Altamira forms art of a permanent exhibition to about ‘materials and production’. Read more about the Altamira Exhibition in the Deutsches Museum. A second copy was made and can be seen in the Archaeological Museum in Madrid.
 
For more on European cave art: Archaeology Travel Guide to Cave Art in France
More archaeology sites and museums in Spain