Reading Wednesday’s announcement from the World Monuments Fund (WMF) of a plan “for the creation of new high-resolution digital documentation of the Cave of Altamira” took be back to one of my favorite journalistic jaunts ever—my firsthand exploration (for a 2001 Wall Street Journal review) of the original cave’s famed 14,500-year-old wall paintings, followed by a walk-through of what I then described as the “impeccably crafted, archaeologically correct replica, dubbed the ‘neocueva’ (new cave), just a spear’s throw from the entrance to the original lair in this Cantabrian village in northern Spain” (in the words of my WSJ piece).
What the WMF’s announcement doesn’t explain is why it’s important that the new “up-to-date and state-of-the-art documentation…reduce[s] to a minimum…the time spent by the technical staff of the Altamira Museum dedicated to research inside the cave [emphasis added].”
As I had noted in my WSJ appraisal:
Visitors are bad for [prehistoric] caves.
Why? Consider the accident that occurred during my own visit there, in the company of other awestruck visitors: Our guide’s flashlight cap had fallen into a pit. As I then wrote, “The nimblest of our mostly middle-aged band, with the guide’s permission, scrambled down to retrieve it, thereby violating orders to stay on the prescribed path and keep our hands off the walls.”
A more subtle but nevertheless insidious threat to the paintings comes from people’s exhalations, body heat and contaminants that they may bring into the cave with them, disrupting the delicate atmospheric balance that helps to protect the fragile polychrome ceiling, including its famous bison:
I was lucky enough to get the chance to enjoy a full tour, not long before public access to the cave was severely restricted.
In the above-linked WSJ account of my visit, I rhapsodized over the “intense spiritual charge of being surrounded by the creative aura of our inspired precursors, who, gazing at the bumps, cracks and curves of their abode’s inner surfaces, saw in them and brought to life the humps of bison, the curvature of heads, the outlines of bodies. The mystical experience of encountering these energetic sculptural reliefs in the cave’s dank, dark recesses must have been heightened by the flicker of primal flames, imparting an illusion of movement to these magical beasts.” No copy-cave (such as the well-executed “neocueva” that I visited at the nearby Altamira Museum, which had just opened in its current home shortly before I visited) could ever approach the impact of the original.
That said, the planned new scientific documentation of the cave will “contribut[e] to the conservation, knowledge, and dissemination of its artistic representations, as well as increasing the management capacity of the institution,” according to the WMF. The project is being undertaken with the collaboration of Spain’s Ministry of Culture and Sport and the support of shoe designer Stuart Weitzman’s Fundación de Las Cuevas de Cantabria.
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