Mention prehistoric cave paintings and many people's thoughts would immediately turn to France. However, Spain has an unsurpassed richness of prehistoric art, and nowhere in the country can offer more than the region of Murcia. Not only that, but it is often possible to go and see these ancient paintings which have miraculously survived several thousand years.
One superb example which we visited some two years ago is the Cueva de la Serreta about 10 miles from Cieza. The cave in question is to be found on the side of a magnificent gorge carved by the Río Segura, known as the Los Almadenes Canyon. The Río Segura in this part of its course through limestone rocks has created a lengthy canyon which can be well over 100 metres in depth at some points, with almost vertical walls.
Such is the importance of this site, that it is part of the collection of such locations in Spain recognized by UNESCO in its list of World Heritage sites. Access to the Cueva de la Serreta is only through a guided tour organized by the Town Hall in Cieza.
The cave has a quite remarkable modern entrance – through a hole in the ground, quite a way from the vertiginous side of the canyon. The hole, however, is covered by a locked grille. Once opened, the way down was by means of a metal spiral staircase which was very narrow and steep at its very top. Nevertheless, this seemed preferable to the original way which, we were told, would probably have been by some form of rope before trunks of pine trees were used as a primitive ladder! It is this difficulty of access to the cave which resulted in its late discovery and investigation in the 1970's.
The first level in the cave to which you descend had been occupied over a lengthy period. Many decorated pots, tools and arrow heads have been found and these can now be seen in the museum in Cieza. In addition, archaeologists had discovered here some of the earliest remains of cereals and vegetable plants, showing that there may have been a primitive agricultural economy in place. A hand grinder was also discovered which had been used in the preparation of the red colourings. In addition, stone bracelets made in situ have also been discovered in the cave. The workshop making these limestone/marble bracelets is regarded as quite exceptional. The bracelets have been dated to the Neolithic (or New Stone Age), suggesting that this may also be around the time the paintings were done. Indeed, the oldest dated remains have been dated to around 4300 BC in the middle Neolithic era when the cave was inhabited by prehistoric man.
Artefacts which had not been removed, and which could be seen on the cave wall at this first level were the very cave paintings we had come to see. There were schematic drawings of people including one quite large one in red and brown hues. In many places, however, the walls had been blackened by fires. From this level, we were able to descend by constructed steps to a lower level where there was a platform built across a large hole in the rock on the canyon wall. Perhaps this was once also an entrance to the cave, although the sides of the canyon below and above seemed quite sheer. Indeed, the canyon sides at this point must have been 70 metres or so in height. This lower level of the cave possessed many paintings on its side wall in a location which would have protected them from water which, predictably, is regarded as one of the major enemies of preservation. As before, these paintings were in reddish browns, reflecting the metal extracts from the rocks and soil used to produce the paints. It seems that feathers and bones were used for painting as well, no doubt, as fingers! Here in the cave, you could clearly see representations of animals (said to be donkeys, deer, goats etc) as well as of individuals. The experts describe these paintings as belonging to what is known as "schematic" art, although they are also sometimes seen as being a hybrid form of schematic and Levantine styles. The Levantine style refers to naturalistic paintings often relating to hunting scenes and depicting human beings. Schematic art is the more modern of the two forms and is more highly abstract and symbolic. It is not unusual to find the two types on the same rock face. In total, the Cueva de la Serreta contains over 50 figures blackened by fires.
This was not all, however, and on the floor just before the cave opening into the cavernous chasm beneath, there were the remains of a unique Roman construction. This, we were told, was, in fact, the second of two such buildings. The first appears to have been a temple over a period of 30 or 40 years, covering about 12 square metres on an irregular sandstone block pavement, before it was dismantled with a second construction then being built on top of the remains some years later and being very much smaller in area. This building had had a wooden roof, but had also been dismantled subsequently with some parts removed and the rest burnt to prevent reoccupation. What was the cave used for at this time? It may well have provided a refuge in troubled periods, although it seems that various instruments had been found here which were of Roman age and suggested some medical activity. Coins and pottery remains found outside the cave suggest occupation or use in Roman times in the second half of the third century and beginning of the fourth. One suggestion is that the cave may have been occupied by a group of hispano-Romans during a period of civil war which was known as the "military anarchy" in the third century.
We did wonder, during our visit, whether prehistoric (and indeed Roman) man had also appreciated the magnificent situation of this cave. We were able to look out over the canyon and into it from the rail at the edge of the platform as birds swooped around outside. One Arab ruler who ventured into the canyon in medieval times extolled its beauty. Indeed, it appears that the cave may have been occupied at times during Arab domination of this part of Spain between the 10th and 12th Centuries. On the other side of the canyon there are apparently a number of other caves some of which house prehistoric cave paintings also.
There was one final surprise as we headed back upwards to exit from the cave. At one point, there was a slope which went a short distance further back into the rock until it ended in a domed chamber of modest size. This limestone area was apparently used by the caves' ancient inhabitants to escape both particularly hot and cold weather. The temperature at this point remained constant at 21 or 22 degrees.
This really is a superb visit and you will be able to find out when any are planned from the Tourist Office in Cieza. Not only do you get a view of these remarkable early representations of man and his environment but you also do it in magnificent scenery which is itself a protected landscape on account of its natural features. The descent into the cave is quite an experience as well! Recently, a new site with prehistoric cave paintings has also been opened up for public visits in the Cieza area – the Barranco de los Grajos.
Clive and Rosie Palmer have written several guide books on towns and regions in Murcia. Copies of some of the books may also be available from Cosas y Cosas, Cehegin and Best Wishes, Camposol Urbanización.