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Paleolithic rock art found on walls of Font Major Cave near L'Espluga de Francolí        Source: Generalitat de Catalunya

15000-Year-Old Rock Art ‘Sanctuary’ Uncovered in Spanish Cave


In the autonomous region of Catalonia, Spain, archaeologists have uncovered a treasure trove of prehistoric rock art that is around 15,000 years old. The engravings were found on cave walls during a survey. It is believed that the art indicated that the location was once a Stone Age religious sanctuary or shrine.

A team of researchers led by Assistant Professor Joseph María Vergès from Rovira i Virgili University was investigating some caves in October 2019. They had just resumed their work after some serious flooding in the area and were working on a cave known as the Font Major, which is not far from the hamlet of L'Espluga de Francolí. In particular, they were investigating the cave to establish its archaeological potential, and what they found was breathtaking.

Fortuitous Discovery of Prehistoric Cave Art

They found around 100 examples of rock art, which are mostly examples of abstract art. Also found were some 40 images that represented animals including deer, horses, and oxen, which once inhabited this part of Europe. Catalan News quotes Prof. Vergès as stating that “we made a fortuitous, extraordinary and unexpected discovery.”

Paleolithic rock art of horse found in Font Major Cave near L'Espluga de Francolí. (Josep Maria Vergès / IPHES)

The sheer number and the quality of the art means that they are an important discovery and are invaluable for researchers. Newsweek reports that the “the team say the engravings were produced on a layer of soft, sandy silt.” The art was found in a difficult to access part of the Font Major cave. The team did not immediately announce the discovery to the public as they wanted to secure and study the site first.

Stone Age Sanctuary

The ancient art is the oldest that has been found in Catalonia, and there is nothing else like them in the region. The team relied on a study of their style, which revealed the majority of the images date to around 13,000 BC and come from the “Upper Paleolithic, and more specifically to the Magdalenian period,” according to El Periodico.

It is believed based on an analysis of their style that some could be even older, while others come from the later Neolithic period. The Catalan Institute of Archaeology (IPHES), stated that the discovery was “a milestone in the history of Catalan archaeology,” reports Newsweek.

More rock art found in Font Major Cave near L'Espluga de Francolí. (Generalitat de Catalunya)

The archaeologists believe that the cave was once a shrine or a religious sanctuary. It is likely that religious and other ceremonies were held at the site. The artworks may have had some magical or spiritual significance for the Stone Age people who created them. Given the various styles of the images, it would appear that the site was considered sacred for a considerable time.

Destroyed by the Public in Years Gone by

Catalan News reports Prof. Vergès as saying that “the sanctuary may have even been bigger but that some of the engravings had in fact been erased by human activity.” In the past, the cave was part of an adventure trail. Many visitors had touched and drew graffiti on the walls with the engravings and had unwittingly destroyed the Stone Age art.

The shrine or sanctuary cannot be visited because of the small size of the cave and especially because of the delicateness of the rock art. Newsweek states that “the archaeologists say that the engravings can be easily damaged or destroyed with even minimal contact.” Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the shrine will ever be open to the public.

3D Images of the Rock Art

However, experts from IPHES and the regional Catalan Culture Ministry are working to record the ancient images.  They are using 3D scanning equipment to record the prehistoric art, and this will enable them to be studied without them being put at risk. It is hoped that the 3D scans, which will be in high resolution, will one day be made available to the public and allow for the sanctuary to be digitally recreated. Visitors will hopefully have an opportunity “to view a projection of the sanctuary in 3D,” according to the Catalan News.

The Catalan government has announced that the cave will be declared a cultural asset, which means that it will be protected by law. Spain is home to some of the world’s most important examples of prehistoric rock art and engravings, such as those at Altamira and El Castillo, which have some of the earliest known. Indeed, the country is home to the greatest number of documented rock art sites in the world.

Top image: Paleolithic rock art found on walls of Font Major Cave near L'Espluga de Francolí        Source: Generalitat de Catalunya

By Ed Whelan



Salvador Ju's picture

Hi Ed, thank you for your reporting but could you explain what is the "Catalan Culture Ministry”? I couldn’t find any sign of it online…

Actually I’ve just followed your reference link to Newsweek and It states: 

"Nevertheless, a team from IPHES and the Ministry of Culture, Generalitat de Catalunya—the regional government of Catalonia—is now working to document the engravings using special 3D-scanning technology."

The Ministry of Culture is an institution from the Spanish governent and the Generalitat de Catalunya is the regional Goverment of Catalunya: they are two different institutions. I’m sorry to be so nit-picky about it but given the sensitive socio-political context currently being lived in Spain with part of its population in Catalunya to state Catalunya has its own Ministry sounds like you are trying to promote the idea that Catalunya is functioning like a national government. As I said, if we weren’t living under the current political circumstances I would naturally assume this was just a journalistic typing error but currently it has serious propagandistic connotations.  

Like those 300,000 year old modern skulls that have been found here and there, any very old art will be dismissed or ignored.

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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