Cantabrian Archaeology

Research, text and edition by Agustín Diez Castillo, last updated June 1997.

Pulsa para la version en Castellano..


I would like to acknowledge to the Archaeological Research Facility this opportunity to diffuse the results of our investigation. I try to present the results of ten years of field work around Peña Oviedo. Peña Oviedo is located in the southern hillside of the Picos de Europa. Inside a very well defined valley call LiÈbana that is isolated of other Cantabrian valleys. The bottom of the valley has only 200 m above the sea level but the highest peaks are over 2600 m in only ten miles of length. Today the site is inside of Picos de Europa National Park, the biggest in extension of Spain. This park is in north Spain overlapping Castilla-Leon, Asturias and Cantabria regions. Western Cantabrian valleys have multiple ecological zones, ranging from temperate coastal to the subalpine climate compressed within 25 miles.
The archaeological record in this area is characterized by a disparate settlement pattern in each prehistoric period. Probably, could be a good idea talk a bit about the historical background of Cantabrian Prehistory. After the discovery of Altamira, sixty km toward East of Peña Oviedo, all the Archaeological Research in the province of Santander, today Region of Cantabria, was directed to find a new Altamira. The work of the IPH in the cave of El Castillo, with one of the most important Paleolithic stratigraphies around the world, centralized definitively the Archaeological Research in the Paleolithic period and exclusively in the caves.
Traditionally the transition between Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic was seen as a "hiatus" and the "culture" that fill the gap as a "particular activity pose: mollusk gathering". Moreover, after the acceptance of the Asturian shell-middens as a Mesolithic culture, the academic knowledge defended that the Cantabrii were shell fishers until the Rohuman being period. A few years ago was written some reviews of the Cantabrian Prehistory supporting the Neolithic didn't in this region or, in the best scenario: Neolithic people has been described as people who continued to collect shells to survive, even after they had apparently adopted certain "Neolithic" strategies in addition to hunting and fishing. In the last years the situation changes, but slowly. In 1992 Lawrence Straus' entitled the chapter about the Neolithic in this region with the expressive title of "Where is the Santanderine Neolithic ?". He writes: "habitation sites, artifacts, dates, and faunal data all are lacking", or Mark Patton in his "Statements in Stone" put a map that show the megalithism in Western Europe around 3500 cal BC where the north of Spain is blank; actually there are more than 12 radiocarbon dates older than 3500 cal BC.


In 1982 M.R. Gonz·lez Morales was the first author that wrote about the Cantabrian "Neolithic" without prejudices. When he arrived to the University of Cantabria began the study of the Neolithic period in the region. He has written about the transition from the hunter-gatherers to food producers repeatedly.

The excavation of megalithic sites in western Cantabria began in 1982 in the cromlech of Sejos that has two anthropomorphic gravures in two of its five once orthostatic menhirs. After that, in 1986, was excavated the necropolis of La Raiz with a little round cairn that contains a box-shaped megalithic chamber and an earthen round mound without chamber. The work in Sejos and La Raiz was limited to the megalithic monuments and there are no radiocarbon dates from neither.
In this scarce context, when the excavation of Peña Oviedo began in 1989 was very difficult to defend the idea of a Neolithic site in the Cantabrian Mountains dated by the end of fifth millennium cal BC. Today, after seven years of field work, we could answer to Straus that the Santanderine Neolithic is here, that we have habitation zones, artifacts, dates and paleobotanical data, however we yet lack bone remains.
Anyway, Peña Oviedo is an exceptional site that as consequence of Altamira effect was ignored until ten years ago. The first references about it were given to us by Jose Maria de la Lama in the winter of 1985. Forty years before, in the spring 1948, Benjamin Bada had sent a letter to the Director of Regional Museum of Archaeology where described one dolmen in Llaves (the nearest village from Peña Oviedo). This one would had been excavated by some Gerhuman beings that would had found bones; nevertheless the letter of don BenjamÌn was forgotten.

The archaeological works in the site have been focused in the highest zone of the Calvera plain. The archeological zone of Peña Oviedo contains a few sites: one rock shelter with Mesolithic layers, two fort hills and three groups of megalithic shrines (Los Cuetos, La Calvera and Pedresites). As usual in the region the megalithic shrines are little round cairns (less than 30 feet of diameter) and form clusters. The main cluster of Peña Oviedo has eight mounds, in four of them there is an orthostatic chamber.

The aim of the work in Peña Oviedo was find some zone of habitation in relationship with the megalithic structures. In 1989 was excavated the best persevered monument, the dolmen of Peña Oviedo 1. There were found a few artifacts that included an axe, a polished pebble, a milling-stone*, some blades, some flint cores and flakes in flint or quartzite. The architecture of the chamber is simple: a very little quadrangular slab-built structure intended for successive burials. In the foundations of the mound was taken a 14C sample that was dated in Groningen in 5195±25 BP.

The second monument excavated in La Calvera cluster was a very little stone circle, the only one in the cluster without mound. Similar monuments are well-known in the Basque Country, but there their age range between 3500BP and 500BP. The slabs that form the circle were put in pits dug in the bedrock, the circle is open by the northwest side. The largest stone is oriented toward East.
Inside the main stone circle was recorded a previous excavation of treasure hunters that had broken a chamber built with little slabs. Only one slab was "in situ" but we recorded the foundation of another one. In the southeast zone there was a big slab that could cover the chamber. Inside the circle were recovered some flint artifacts: one short endscraper, two trapezes, five blades and some bladelets. The pieces were found in the superficial layer, then we think treasure hunters moved them.
Outside the circle were found some raw flakes and a blade. This lithic assemblage belongs to the first phase of the regional Megalithism. The architecture is similar to the earliest dolmens in Cantabrian Spain. However, in this stone circle were recorded some pieces of pottery with incisions. We don't have more potsherds like this pottery, but the research of regional Megalithism is a very recent issue. The radiocarbon sample took in the foundations of this monument was dated in 4820±50 BP.

With the excavation of these two monuments we can speculate that they are the oldest and the youngest of the cluster. Between their construction there is a gap of around 400 years that could fit with the hypothesis that each new monument was built by a new generation. We have 8 monuments in this cluster that implies an interval of 50 years between one and the next. To test the hypothesis it's necessary to excavate some other mounds.

The main motivation in the Peña Oviedo project was to find evidences of habitation zones in the megalithic areas. A preliminary study of the megaliths distribution in western Cantabria had shown that they have a close relationship between megaliths and the pastoral zones. This kind of evidence had been found in the Pyrenees by Paul Bahn. There and here there are particular regions with an astonishing concentration of monuments. These are always excellent areas for pastoralism.

Figure I, La Calvera catchment area area of la Calvera.

Fortunately the work in the area delimited by the mounds of La Calvera was successful and our team found undeniable evidences of habitation structures. We've found some residential features.

The work in the upper plain of La Calvera began 1991 with a shovel test in 12 square meter units. This first year was found one pit and a trench under one thick layer of stones. At the bottom of the pit was found a blade with weave use. In this zone were found an important amount of artifacts, more than in the previous excavation of the two megaliths with more than 40 square meter units.

In the following years the excavation of the trench was finished, it might be interpreted like the foundation of a house.

Photo 1: Some of the storage pits.

Photo 2.

The house 2 was built before Peña Oviedo 1. As you can see in photo 3 the skirt of the cairn covers some of the post-holes of the house.



Picture 3. House # 2 from La Calvera (Peña Oviedo)

The materials recovered in this house have a worse "quality" than the few materials recovered from the shrines. Of course, the tombs were removed by treasure hunters (Near everybody knows that in Peña Oviedo there is a bull fur filled with gold coins). The house 2 itself has an area about 4 square meters. The lithics are mainly standardized blades and a few bladelets.


Figure II: lithic artifacts in house 2 (drawing by Dr. Jesús Ruiz Cobo).

Inside the first house was found a seed of cereal, probably barley. This seed is the first and unique material evidence and of neolithic agriculture in the Cantabrian region. In both houses are very common the seeds of hazel-nut.

Some delay in the lab impedes to know the exact date of the houses.

In the same area of the huts we've found three pits excavated in the bedrock (see photo 1). Inside them there is a few archaeological materials, it seems that were emptied; however at the bottom of the two deepest were found two flint blades. Both have evidences of use, the largest is a rare piece in Peña Oviedo, it is the only flint piece over 3 cm and the thickest. We don't find seeds nor in the excavation nor in the flotation of the sediments.

In the upper Plain of La Calvera, we can distinguish six archaeological layers: the first or superficial where we found recent historical artifacts (for instance a coin of the Queen Elizabeth the second of Spain dated in 1867). There are also Neolithic materials as consequence mounds devastation.

The second one has been dated in 535±35BP, it's a level with many carbonized woods. In the third one there is big layer of rocks and we've found a Roman fibulae. In the fourth that has been dated in 3100±25 BP, we've recorded some fragments of pottery and some pieces of flint.

The fifth and the sixth levels are very difficult to differentiate, but the fifth is the last one over the pits and we've recorded one vase of pottery and one flint point that belong to a Late Neolithic. The thick of sediment averages 60 cm.

The last zone in the upper plain of la Calvera is a wall of 160 m of length. This type of enclosure is usual in the Neolithic of other parts of the Atlantic fringe however we don't know any more in Cantabria. The excavation of this wall was very partial but the artifacts recovered look like the material from the level sixth of La Calvera.

We have also our little alignment a some megalithic art, similar to the idols Peña Tú type.

By the moment, the last work area in Peña Oviedo has been La Calvera rockshelter. The excavation of this site began the last year with shovel test. In September 1996 we've been there. This rock shelter is 1150 m above the sea level the nearest megalithic mound is only 25 m westward. The level one with some pieces of pottery of the Iron Age could be represented in both zones. After this level there is a temporary gap, under it we've found two levels that seem Mesolithic, another that seem Azilian (typical points, bladelets) and the last one with some lithics artifacts that look line Upper Magdalenian (burins and scrapers).

This site is important because it could contribute to one of the most polemic issues of the Cantabrian Prehistory, the relationship between the Asturian and the Azilian. In synthesis there are two positions, the first one is supported by L.G. Straus and Geoffrey A. Clark and the other one by Gonz·lez Morales. Of course I agree with the last guy, he has been my adviser. Clark and Straus defend that Asturian and Azilian are two faces of the same coin. The Asturian would be the coastal facies of the Azilian. In the other side Gonz·lez Morales support that the radiocarbon dates from each period don't overlap and then the Asturian is different and younger than the Azilian. For him the are not Asturian sites in the inland because Asturian people develop an efficient economic system. This system is based upon the stationary exploitation of different resources as the analysis of Mazaculos Cave show.

La Calvera rockshelter could be a key site to solve this problem because is one of the highest hunter-gatherer site in Cantabria. Moreover in the same place we know the existence of an important Neolithic site, then when the results of 14C arrive we can know if there is a continuation between the Mesolithic and the Neolithic occupations of Peña Oviedo. In Our hypothesis there is a gap, we think than in Cantabrian Region the first answer of hunter-gatherers to the late-glacial climate change was try to find the same conditions and to exploit the same resources, then they went to the uplands. However, after some millennia of seasonally movement between the coast and the uplands, the Mesolithic people develop an efficient system (the Asturian) and they stay on the coast for millennia until the Neolithic arrive.
With the data from Peña Oviedo and the evidence in western Cantabria we would like answer the Straus' question Where is the Santanderine Neolithic? We believe the Santanderine Neolithic is around the megaliths in pastoral zones of the Cantabrian mountains.
The Asturian people probably was acculturated about 5500 BP when a slight marine transgression is dated as show bogs from the beach of la Jerra. Some centuries later is recorded a fall of tree pollens in the bogs of the mountains like Cueto de la Avellanosa.
In the late Atlantic, then the food production way of life arrives to the Cantabrian Coast, in our hypothesis, from the North of the Gulf of Biscay.
The amount of megalithic cairns and their distribution claim for a population extended by all western Cantabria. The crisis of coastal resources could be the origin of the colonization of High mountains, mainly because there was alpine prairie that could be feed by sheep and goats. In the Pyrenees, Bahn talks about the possibility that some cairns were houses:
"If some dolmens were built as shelters, this might help to explain their eastward orientation, which would not only catch the dawn sun but would also afford maximum protection from prevailing westerly winds".
Today we can support that Neolithic people in Cantabria is a "whole Neolithic people" and not people who continued to collect shells intensively to survive, even after they had apparently adopted certain "Neolithic" strategies in addition to hunting and fishing.
The lack of faunal remains doesn't impede look for an explanation of the Neolithic in the area. The localization of the megaliths and the artifacts from the excavations and from the surveys permit to support some hypothesis.
First, the use of pastoral resources is clear. This kind of activity should be transhuhuman beingt. In Peña Oviedo during the winter there is a thick layer of snow. The pastoral activity was complemented with gathering as the seeds of hazel-nut recorded in Peña Oviedo show. The evidence of milling stones could be in relations with the milling of wild seeds (different kinds of nuts and berries, mainly).
Although we lack much information we know a bit about the use of the pastoral zones, probably during the spring and the winter.
In western Cantabria the megaliths are also a radical transformation of prehistoric landscape. We can agree with Julian Thomas that the earliest monuments (may be Peña Oviedo 1) were engaged in the creation of dominant locales. But here in western Cantabria the landscape itself has their own landmarks, Peña Oviedo peak is look from everywhere in LiÈbana. Probably, sites like Peña Oviedo, Pico Jano or Sejos were places of aggregation during the summer for people that during the winter was isolated.
One of main questions about these megaliths in the High Cantabrian Mountains is where are the skeletons? The natural soil acidity and the treasure hunters have destroyed any evidence of huhuman being or animal bones.
Anyway, if the megaliths are supposed to be burials how can the people bury their relatives in winter. Could the megaliths be a place of secondary burial? Could these secondary burials be part of a ceremony of group cohesion as proposed by I. Kuijt in the Natufian? These are the new questions that after a while in the UCB Berkeley I try to answer.
Finally, on behalf of Manuel I can promise that the work in the wonderful site of Peña Oviedo is sometimes very hard.


Take a look on 14C data.