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At the Museums: Cloning Altamira Volume 54 Number 2, March/April 2001
by Paul G. Bahn

A replica of the famous cave to make its public debut

The discovery of Ice Age paintings in a grotto at Altamira in northern Spain is among the most romantic and charming tales of archaeology. In 1879, a wealthy landowner, Don Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, was digging in the cave for Ice Age remains when his eight-year-old daughter Maria spotted "oxen" painted on the ceiling. The bison and other animals had been rendered there 14,000 years ago.

Since then the cave has been seen by thousands of people, with visits peaking in 1973 when 177,000 people came to gaze at the magnificent Ice Age gallery. But admiration of the paintings was taking its toll. Like those at Lascaux, which was closed to the public in 1963, the paintings at Altamira were threatened by bacterial contamination from the air exhaled by visitors. In 1977, the cave was closed to the public until studies could be undertaken to establish the environmental conditions necessary to preserve the paintings: what temperature and humidity levels and duration of visits the cave could safely tolerate. The cave reopened in 1982, but to only 8,500 people per year, some 35 per day. Appointments for peak-season visits are currently booked four years in advance.

With such limited access, how was the public appetite for prehistoric art to be sated? The obvious answer, as at Lascaux, was a full-size replica, which will open to the public this fall. The newly created cave and the museum within which it is installed is a cement and glass structure built on a terrace cut into the hillside a few hundred yards from the original cave entrance.

Paul G. Bahn is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America