Oldest cave art in UK discovered and vandalized

cave artA design of a reindeer hidden in the back of a Welsh cave may be the oldest cave art in the UK, archaeologists say. Sadly, it’s been vandalized.

Unlike the more familiar cave paintings of France and Spain, the reindeer is scratched into the rock instead of being painted, like this horse from the Scottish cave of East Weymss courtesy Europe a la Carte. No photo of the reindeer has been released for public use, but you can see it in this BBC video. Incised designs are common in Paleolithic art, but are less known to the general public because they’re not as impressive as the giant paintings of caves like Lascaux and Altamira.

Archaeologists date the carving to about 12,500 years ago, a time when prehistoric hunter gatherers stalked reindeer and wholly mammoth across an Ice Age landscape.

It was discovered last September but its location kept a secret as the team studied it. Unfortunately, someone found out about the discovery and tried to scrape the carving away. Instead of it potentially becoming a tourist destination, now it will probably be gated over. Yet another example of one idiot ruining it for the rest of us.

Green Spain: Exploring Iberia’s Celtic north

Green Spain, Cantabria, Santander
When people think of Spain, they tend to think of a sun-soaked, dry land with a hot climate and beautiful beaches. For the most part that’s true, but Spain’s northern region is very different and equally worth a visit.

Spain’s four northern provinces are often called Green Spain. From west to east, Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, and the Basque Country are a verdant strip between the North Atlantic/Bay of Biscay and a chain of mountains that traps the rain. Lush, with a mild climate and rugged coastline, it feels more like the British Isles than Iberia. Indeed, the old Celtiberian culture that existed before the Romans has survived more here than in the rest of Spain. You can even drink cider and listen to bagpipes!

I’ve covered the Basque region in my series Beyond Bilbao: Hiking through the Basque Region, so let’s focus on Green Spain’s other three regions.

Cantabria is the smallest region of Green Spain, but packs in a lot of fun. Santander is the main city. I’ve been here for the past three days lounging on the beach with my wife and kid. The weather has been warm but not too hot, and the water cold but bearable. I actually prefer these beaches to the jam-packed tourist hellholes of Benidorm and spots on Costa del Sol in the south. Fewer drunken Englishmen, more space. More risk of rain, though, which is why I’m inside today talking to you folks.

%Gallery-127797%Like the rest of Green Spain, Cantabria has a rugged coastline you can follow on a series of trails. Jagged rocks break the surf while far out to sea you can watch freighters and tankers sail off for distant lands. Picturesque lighthouses dot the shore at regular intervals to keep those ships safe, like the one on Cabo Mayor pictured above, an easy stroll from Santander. The currents and tides make this and the Basque Country good spots for surfing, but wear a wetsuit!

If you go inland you can hike, ski, and rock climb in the towering mountains, many of which reach higher than 2,000 meters. Lots of little villages lie nestled in the valleys, where you can sample local produce and relax at outdoor cafes watching the clouds play over the peaks. Prehistoric people were attracted to this region too. The Basque Country, Cantabria, and Asturias have dozens of caves with prehistoric paintings dating back as much as 20,000 years. The most famous is Altamira, which is temporarily closed to visitors, but many more caves are fully open. There’s something deeply moving about standing in a cool, dark chamber and playing your flashlight over some paintings of bison and shamans left by your distant ancestors.

Asturias is bigger than Cantabria and famous for its cider. Alcoholic cider, that is. Personally I think Asturian cider is the best anywhere, and there’s some tough competition in England and Galicia! Many brands of Asturian cider are only available in Asturias. I can’t even get them in Madrid. The Asturians claim that cider doesn’t travel well over the mountains, but I think they’re just keeping the best for themselves!

Galicia is a bit different than the rest of Green Spain. Sticking out from the northwest corner of the Iberian Peninsula, it gets the full blast of Atlantic winds. It’s even more rugged, with more amazing views. A big draw here is the Santiago de Compostela, where the Cathedral of St. James has been a pilgrimage center for more than a thousand years. It’s the destination of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela (Way of St. James) a network of pilgrimage routes across Green Spain. Some trails start as far away as France, and they all join together eventually to make their way to this holy cathedral where St. James is said to be buried.

Hiking is big in Green Spain. If you don’t want to walk all the way from France to Galicia, there are plenty of shorter trails and day hikes. If you’re more interested in what’s under the land than on top of it, the Picos de Europa in Asturias and Cantabria have some of the best caves in the world. I’m not talking about the homey caves of prehistoric Spaniards, but massive labyrinthine networks of tunnels reaching more than a kilometer into the earth. If you’re not a dedicated spelunker, take heart. Every guidebook lists “show caves” you can go to with the kids.

This is just a quick overview of what northern Spain has to offer. You’ll be getting more from me in coming months about this fascinating region because we’re moving up here in September. If you have any specific questions, drop me a line in the comments section and I’ll try to turn your questions into day trips and posts!

Archaeological treasure trove found at Three Gorges Project in China

China, Three Gorges, archaeology, archeologyArchaeologists excavating during the Three Gorges dam project in China have discovered nearly a quarter of a million artifacts, the state-run Xinhua News Agency says.

The world’s largest dam project has created a reservoir that’s 410 miles long and more than half a mile wide. Before that reservoir was flooded, China spent $285 million to hunt for cultural treasures, at times using teams of more than a thousand archaeologists. They’ve uncovered artifacts ranging from medieval statues to early stone tools two million years old. While the sites they came from are now lost beneath the water, the artifacts they yielded will give fresh insight into China’s long history.

Now museums across China are busy conserving the artifacts and hopefully soon many of them will be on display for China’s growing tourist industry.

The Three Gorges Project is itself becoming a tourist attraction. It’s the largest dam project in the world, and the largest electrical generating facility. It’s also highly controversial because it displaced 1.3 million people.

[Photo courtesy user Rehman via Wikimedia Commons]

New UNESCO World Heritage Sites for Ireland?

The Republic of Ireland has a well-deserved reputation for beautiful landscapes and ancient monuments, so you might be surprised to learn that it has only two UNESCO World Heritage Sites. They are the Archaeological Ensemble of the Bend of the Boyne, which includes megalithic sites such as Newgrange that boast the world’s largest collection of prehistoric megalithic art, and Skellig Michael, a 7th century monastery on an isolated island.

Impressive sites, both of them, but surely the Emerald Isle has more to offer?

The Irish have decided to remedy this poor showing and have proposed seven sites or groups of sites for the UNESCO tentative list. Here’s a brief rundown:

The Burren: both a geological and a cultural landscape, The Burren on the west coast presents an imposing terrain of exposed limestone carved into weird shapes by the wind and rain. Nowadays it attracts hikers and other outdoorsy types, but in early times it attracted a succession of cultures that grazed their animals there and left more than 2,700 monuments. Still used by locals for their flocks, a large body of myth and folklore has grown up around this unique landscape.

The Historic City of Dublin: Ireland’s capital has a well-preserved historic center full of Georgian-era buildings. These eighteenth and early nineteenth century buildings are some of the finest of their type. Add to this generations of writers (Swift, Sheridan, Wilde, Stoker, Yeats, Beckett, etc.) and the fact that it’s the setting for James Joyce’s Ulysses, and you have one of the cultural capitals of the world. Dublin is full of atmospheric views, like the one caught here by user patrodz from Gadling’s flickr pool. You can even go on a literary pub crawl of Dublin.

The Céide Fields and North West Mayo Boglands: It’s strange to think that an entire Neolithic landscape, complete with boundary walls, farm fields, and monuments could survive intact for almost 6,000 years, but that’s exactly what’s happened here. Much of the landscape is buried under a thick layer of peat that preserves organic materials such as pollen, leather, wooden tools, even human bodies. It’s been the playground of archaeologists for generations, and every year new discoveries are made.


Western Stone Forts: a network of Early Medieval (700-1000 AD) ringforts, circular stone walls that defended the homes of the petty rulers whose lands made up a patchwork of kingdoms on the island. These were dangerous times of constant raiding and brigandage, and regular folk made ringforts too. These Western Stone Forts are on a more grandiose scale than those of the commoners and are often better preserved, such as the impressive stone fort at Dún Aonghasa.

The Monastic City of Clonmacnoise and its Cultural Landscape: This monastic city in central Ireland has yet to be swallowed by the juggernaut of modern “development.” Founded in 545, it became a major center of arts and learning and a royal burial site. There are many churches and a castle still standing.

Early Medieval Monastic Sites: Ireland is famous for its early medieval monasteries that helped keep the lamp of learning lit after the fall of the Roman Empire. While books such as Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization exaggerate the Irish role (the Byzantines and Arabs helped preserve and enhance Classical learning too) there’s no doubt that Irish monks were one of the bastions of culture during a low period in European history. Six monasteries have been chosen for the tentative list owing to their historical importance and degree of preservation.

The Royal Sites of Ireland: Ireland spent much of its medieval history as a group of small kingdoms whose borders constantly fluctuated due to the fortunes of war. The competing royal families gave rise to a rich body of literature and folklore. Five royal sites have been chosen for the tentative list. They are Cashel, Dún Ailinne, Hill of Uisneach, Rathcroghan Complex, and the Tara Complex. Each was a royal center for one of the great royal houses of medieval Ireland.

An impressive list. Here’s hoping UNESCO recognizes their global cultural value. There’s a downside to this, however, as was recently pointed out in the latest issue of Northern Earth magazine. which advised, “Go now–if they get listed, they will enter the tourism industry and become subject to inflation and packaging!”

Cantabria: Spain’s rugged northern coast

Spain is a hugely popular tourist destination, but people tend to go along the same old, same old trail. Either they pop into Madrid for a couple of days to see the art before hitting the southern cities of Seville and Grenada, or they skip culture entirely and go straight to the Costa del Sol to soak up some rays. While both of these options have a lot going for them, they ignore the pleasures of Spain’s usually overlooked northern provinces.

One of the most commonly missed is Cantabria, a small province located on the northern coast of Spain between the Basque country to the east and Asturias to the west. Cantabria is part of “Green Spain”, where the Gulf Stream provides a mild climate with more rainfall than the rest of the country. Here you’ll find prairie, forest, rivers, and mountains. It seems like a different country than the wide open spaces of central Spain, or the Spaghetti Western feel of southern Spain. For the traveler wanting to see more than the usual attractions, Cantabria offers a lot.

Cantabria has both coastline and mountains. The rugged limestone Cantabrian Mountains are honeycombed with caves. Many were home to the region’s first inhabitants, who left their artwork on the walls. The most beautiful examples are in Altamira, which will soon reopen to visitors. A total of ten Cantabrian painted caves have been designated together as a World Heritage Site. Each one is unique. Altamira is like an art gallery full of fine paintings, while it would be easy to miss the paintings in the Cueva de las Monedas, where you’re distracted by the giant columns and colorful curtains of rippled stone that draw attention away from the little drawings and engravings of animals in a small side chamber. At Cueva de Covalanas, the painters obviously had an eye for color. Horses and deer have been painted on a bright red on a natural white background, and still look fresh more than 15,000 years later.

If you’re more into pretty rock formations than art in your caves, check out the 1.7 km (1.1 mile) long Soplao Cave, with its giant stalactites and stalagmites and other weird formations. It’s just one of dozens of caves you can visit. Experienced cavers can get permission to enter plenty more.

%Gallery-95921%The Romans liked the region too, and you can see a well-preserved Roman town at Juliobriga, where 2,000 year-old roads and buildings lie next to a Medieval church, showing the endurance of civilization in this part of Europe. Like the rest of Spain, Cantabria has plenty of Medieval and Renaissance relics, and you’ll find the usual assortment of churches and old houses. If you want castles though, head south. La Reconquista, the epic struggle between the Spaniards and the Moors for control of the Iberian peninsula, happened well south of here.

Cantabria offers a lot for hikers and climbers. The rugged peaks can soar well above 2,500 meters and the highest have snow year round. Contrast that with deep, lush valleys cut by swift-flowing streams, thick forests, and gentle valleys dotted with villages, and you have terrain to suit all tastes. The coastline is popular with sailors and windsurfers. If you’re willing to brave the chilly northern waters, there’s even surfing and swimming.

Of course, being on the coastline means there’s plenty of good seafood. Try rabas (fried squid), mejillones (mussels), and nécoras (a type of crab). Actually pretty much anything on the seafood menu will be fresh, tasty, and way cheaper than what you’d pay in Madrid. Landlubbers with a hearty appetite will like the cocido montañés, a stew with kidney beans, cabbage, chorizo, blood sausage, and bacon. As an aid to digestion, a big meal will generally be followed by a small glass of orujo, an eye-watering brew made from the skin and pulp of the grape.

Cantabria’s principal city and regional capital is Santander. It’s only a four-and-a-half hour train ride from Madrid on the national railway Renfe. Plenty of flights connect Santander to Spain’s principal cities, and Ryanair connects Santander to London’s Stansted and other major European airports. If you’re considering a trip to Spain, you might want to try something different and head north instead of south. You won’t meet the man from La Mancha, but you’ll have a different experience.

Photo courtesy Nicolás Pérez via Wikimedia Commons.