THE CAVE OF ALTAMIRA, edited by Antonio Beltran, tells the story of the famous paintings found in a cave in Spain in 1879. The book indicates the Altamira paintings date from the Solutrean period of the Paleolithic. Recent radiocarbon dating shows art in the Polychrome Chamber to be between 18,000 and 19,000 years old, placing it around 16,500 B.C. Pedro Saura Ramos, the photographer has a distinguished reputation. A number of prominent art historians have contributed interesting essays.
From the high elevation of the Altamira cave, one can see the `Picos de Europa' - a range of mountain peaks which must have appeared awesome to Paleolithic humans. Judging by the remains of creatures found in pits in the cave chambers as well as portraits of animals on cave walls, the countryside around Altamira must have been a virtual Eden. Evidence shows that great park-like settings near the cave held deer, roebuck, and wild boar, while open areas favored large bovines like horses and bison, rocky areas provided shelter for goats and chamois, and the nearby sea and fresh water lakes and streams were filled with shellfish and other marine life. Charcoal used in the wall paintings and found around the hearths reveal a coastal ecology where willow, juniper, chestnut and pine grew. The discarded bones indicate the cave was probably used as a gathering place for a relatively large number of people.
Pedro Sauro Ramos says it is impossible to convey the impression one receives standing on the cave floor looking up at the wall and it's illustrations. His photos are unusual in that he has held the camera in non-conventional ways and shot angles not normally seen in print. He provides wide-angled, then close-up shots of many of the animals so the reader can see detail revealed at close range. He notes that artists often took advantage surface features when creating an animal. Natural bosses were used to round out forms. A ledge provided the line of a deer jaw. Cracks and crevices highlighted horns and hinds.
As is the case with Lascaux, many of the paintings have been damaged by exposure to human bacteria and some of the photographs reveal black fungus. In addition, ceilings and walls have been reinforced to support badly damaged sections of the cave. In some cases the human supports interfere with the lighting or alter the appearance. For example, natural lighting from the cave entrance that once illuminated the numerous bovines of the famous "Great Panel" and that would have been seen on entering the chamber have been blocked by a concrete wall. For his photographs, Saura Ramos provided natural lighting to show how the painting would have appeared to Paleolithic humans.
The text includes reasonably good essays by a number of noted experts. My favorite is entitled, "Techniques, Individual Artists, and Artistic Concepts in the Painting of Altamira", by Matilda Muzquiz Perez-Seoane. In this essay, Perez-Seoane explains how bone marrow was used to illuminate the areas of the wall the artist painted in the dark interior recesses. Apparently, animal knee caps were filled with marrow which was lighted and provided a flame which illuminated without filling the chamber with smoke and choking the artist and/or blackening the ceiling or walls.