Cova del Barranc del Migdia - 5000 years of Human History

The Cova del Barranc del Migdia - 5000 years of human history

Summary of the exhibition "Art i Mort al Montgó" - Soler Blasco Museum, Xàbia

September 2012

In April 1989 members of the Gata Caving Club accidentally came across an opening high on the Montgó mountain. Upon entering the cave, they were astonished to see primitive paintings on the walls and ceiling. They had discovered an important and exciting archaeological site. Their discovery led to a series of excavations which have yet to be completed - excavations which are now using modern technologies to try to unlock the cave's secrets spanning 5000 years of human history.

The cave, known as "Cova del Barranc del Migdia," (Cave of the Midday Ravine) is on the sunny, Jávea side of the Montgó in the Migdia ravine. To those of us who are accustomed to thinking of Montgó as an elephant's head, this would be behind the elephant's ear. It is not an easy place to get into. The entrance found by the cavers is some 40 metres up a steep rock face. A lower entrance gives easier access, but a ladder is still required to get in, and a third opening is little more than a window. The cave can best be thought of as a series of roughly horizontal, narrow galleries or tunnels connecting two main chambers.

Chamber of Paintings
The cavers had discovered what is now called the Chamber of Paintings. This chamber contains more than 100 primitive wall paintings dated to between 3000 - 2000 BC, at the later stages of the Neolithic period (end of the Stone Age). There are three distinct types. First, there are small black paintings made with something like a brush using thick pigment. These depict stars, triangles and zig-zags as well as motifs which can only be guessed at. You can make out what look like four legged animals: perhaps domestic goats and sheep with antlers, and dogs or other carnivores with jaws and large tails. Second, there are three joined-up diamonds, again painted with a sort of brush, but this time in red. Finally, some paintings are streaks of red made using the fingers and there is one zig-zag scratched into the rock. Detailed and accurate recording of this rock art is important, since it adds to the existing database of similar paintings discovered elsewhere. Early studies during the 1990s consisted of hand tracings and drawings combined with film photography. However the latest excavations have produced much better results by using digital photography with a 3D laser scanner and advanced computer techniques.

But the paintings are only one of the secrets hidden in the cave. Excavation of another chamber, called the Central Chamber, has revealed that around the same time, when human beings were just beginning to learn how to make use of metal, the cave was used as a sort of burial place.

Mystery burials
In their initial investigations the cavers had found some pottery, flint and bones in the Central Chamber, giving a clue to archaeologists that this could be a prehistoric burial site. Indeed, the most recent excavations have revealed buried human remains, but there are no complete skeletons. Instead they uncovered intriguing bundles of bones and artefacts placed underneath stones. The bones have been carbon dated to around 2500 BC, right at the end of the Stone Age and the beginning of the Copper Age. Some bundles contained bones from two or even three people, but not all the bones were present and they were mixed up. For example, the long arm bones from one person would be found in a bundle with the leg bones of another. The picture is complicated by the poor preservation of the 500 bone and teeth fragments. More than 50% of the bones – skulls and jaws in particular - were missing from the identifiable skeletons. In addition the epiphyses (rounded ends) of many of the long bones were absent making reconstruction difficult. In spite of these obstacles, the researchers were able to identify at least eight individuals buried in four separate bundles or packages.

  • Package I: includes the remains of a man about 35-39 years old. Three flint arrowheads were found in the same area.
  • Package II: includes bones of a 3- 4-year-old child and a 30-35-year-old woman (with almost intact skull). A small stone adze (hoe) was found with the remains of the child, while a flint blade, an arrowhead and a copper awl were close to the remains of the woman.
  • Package III: is a collection of the remains of a man and a woman (age cannot be judged) and a child no more than one year old. A flint arrowhead was found nearby.
  • Package IV: contained the bones of a man some 25-35 years old, a woman aged between 17-20, and a child of 4 1/2 years. Found nearby were four flint arrowheads, a fragment of painted ceramic, and a sheep or goat's foot bone.

The questions which immediately spring to mind are: Why were there no complete skeletons? Why are the bones of different people mixed up?

The evidence suggests that these are secondary burials. That is, the corpses were originally stored elsewhere, probably unburied, in a humid place but safe from animals, since there were no carnivore marks on the bones. Some time later, after the corpses had become skeletons, the bones were sorted and placed in bundles together with various artefacts as grave goods. However, the arrangement of the small bones of the hands and feet indicates that these were packaged up before the ligaments holding them together had decomposed. The bundles were then transferred to a new, secure, resting place in the almost inaccessible Cova del Barranc del Migdia.

It seems likely that these dead individuals were somehow important in their society, since only a few were granted this privileged burial. Perhaps, also, their people wanted to keep those in each bundle together, preserving their identity and possible personal links after death. The artefacts are generally considered to be “grave goods,” items accompanying the dead either as symbols or as tools to help them in the afterlife.

The archaeological findings raise almost more questions than they answer, but the excavation is not yet finished. A sediment-filled gallery leading off the central, burial chamber promises to hold more fascinating discoveries.

Later History
The cave's story does not stop in the Copper Age. After its use as a burial chamber, it seems to have been undisturbed by humans for some 2700 years. Then during the late Roman Empire it was occupied sporadically as evidenced by the discovery of fragments of pottery dating from that time (3rd and 4th Centuries AD). After this brief episode it remained empty once more until the end of the Andalusian (Moorish) period, almost 1000 years later. Evidence for this is seen in the discovery of a turquoise jar, pieces of a jug and a hoard of square, silver Moorish coins which date from the mid 12th to early 13th centuries. It is interesting to speculate that the hoard of coins was buried for safekeeping, just before the Christian Feudal conquest of Xàbia valley in 1244. Goatherds in the area would surely have known of the cave, which is also called the "Cova de les Cabretes." (Cave of the Goats).

The latest excavation was carried out using state of the art technologies to create 2D and 3D digital models of the cave. These have been used to make solid dioramas for use in exhibitions as well as virtual reality tours enabling archaeologists, researchers, and the public alike to "visit" and experience the Cova del Barranc del Migdia almost first hand, while at the same time preserving the original and its 5000 year old history.

This summary of the exhibition "Art i Mort al Montgó" was prepared by members of Amics del Museu de Xàbia (Friends of the Xàbia Museum) from source material in Spanish. We apologise in advance for any errors which my have been born in translation. For information about us contact moc.liamg|aibaxuma#moc.liamg|aibaxuma

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