An archaeological find in Catalonia has unearthed a spectacular display of 15,000-year-old rock art engravings.

Ancient engraving of a horse on the wall of a cave
An engraving of a horse in Cova de la Font Major ©Josep Maria Vergès

Around 100 engravings of animals, including horses, oxen and deer, as well as mysterious abstract symbols, were found in a cave in the village of L'Espluga de Francolí. The ancient artworks were revealed to the public in February, after a team of researchers from the IPHES (Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution) led by Josep Maria Vergès, discovered them following floods in October. 

Speaking to Lonely Planet, Vergès explained that the cave was likely a spiritual place, associated with fertility. "It is a sanctuary where 15,000 years ago hunter-gatherers carried out activities related to their spiritual and symbolic universe. This hypothesis is based on the fact that in the case of deer, the most commonly represented animal, they are always females, suggesting that fertility-related rites may play a predominant role."

An archaeologist wearing a hard hat examines ancient cave art
3D technology is used to scan engravings ©Servei d'Arqueologia i Paleontologia. Direcció General del Patrimoni Cultural. Departament de Cultura

At 15,000-years-old, the cave art is among the oldest in the Mediterranean and the oldest discovered in Catalonia so far. Experts date it back to the Magdalenian period of the Upper Paleolithic portion of the Old Stone Age, though they're not ruling out the idea that some may be older. Others relate to the Neolithic and more recent periods. According to Vergès it is the most important Paleolithic rock art group in the Mediterranean region of the Iberian Peninsula "by the number and quality of the [engravings]."

The engravings are extremely fragile and some of the figures have already been eroded by the passage of time. Others have disappeared due to visitors who, unaware of their existence, touched the walls. Now researchers are in the process of documenting the cave's walls with 3D technology to study them in detail, ensuring their preservation and allowing archaeologists to learn more about the artists who painted them. The high-resolution 3D model will also allow the public to view the engravings through virtual tours. 

Ancient abstract drawings on the walls of a cave in Spain
Some of the engravings are very abstract and hard to decipher ©Josep Maria Vergès

The Cova de la Font Major caves in which the artwork was found was discovered in 1853. Archaeological research and findings since then have shown that the cave was used by humans throughout all ages, making it an archaeological site of great importance. 

Spain is home to a number of significant prehistoric artworks, especially in Cantabria in the north of the country, such as the cave drawings at El Castillo, which contains Europe’s most ancient cave art. The region is also home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Altamira, which features several renowned prehistoric charcoal paintings of bison and other animals.

Geometric abstract art engravings on the wall of a cave
Researchers are using 3D technology to learn more about the prehistoric art and artists ©Josep Maria Vergès

If you'd like to learn more about the discovery, you can do so here.

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