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New Paleolithic Art Found More Than 100 Years After Cave’s Initial Discovery

More than 100 years after the cave was first discovered, new paleolithic art has been revealed at Romanelli Cave on the coast of southeast Italy. According to a recent study in Antiquity, a team of archaeologists, geologists, and paleontologists have uncovered a number of new engravings since they first began their efforts in 2016. Excavations have also determined the occupation period of the cave to be from 14,000 to 11,000 years ago.

“These new dates and the fact images are layered over each other, suggest the cave was in use for a longer period than previously supposed, with multiple episodes of art-making,” said Dario Sigari, lead author of the study, in a statement.

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Romanelli Cave was first discovered in 1874, but its inaccessibility due to its location on the Adriatic Sea hindered investigations until 1900. The site quickly became a key point of reference for Paleolithic art in the Puglia region, embodying the main characteristics of what researchers called the “‘Mediterranean artistic province’” in cave art—a style that consists of simple realistic and naturalistic figures, along with abstract motifs.

Three panels are particularly rich in imagery, featuring 30 individual figures and motifs, from zoomorphs to geometric figures. Researchers have also found “finger flutings” created by human hands. These markings were made by tracing one’s fingers through moonmilk, a soft white sediment that builds up on the walls of limestone caves.

Other images now identified include a bovid, or hoofed mammal, with its head and back infilled using parallel lines and the horns pointing forward. The shape of the cave wall was used to create a 3D effect on the bovid’s body. A variety of grids and geometric signs were also found, along with a rare depiction of a bird that is thought to be the now-extinct great auk. The bird boasts a large beak and three parallel lines under its eye. “The auk figure is a very rare theme in Paleolithic art,” Sigari explained in an email to ARTnews, noting that “the engraved auk further confirms an artistic activity around 14,000 years ago, even earlier than what was always thought for the Romanelli Cave art.”

At least four different engraving techniques were used, each with different tools suited to a specific purpose—from the finger flutings to a flat, grooved tool to a wide, round tool to a sharp, pointed tool for making V-shaped grooves. Researchers say this diversity “indicates the skill of the artists in selecting tools appropriate for rock surfaces of different hardness.”

A single panel of engraved art with an abstract gridlike motif.

A single panel of engraved art with an abstract gridlike motif.
Geosciences Center, Coimbra University, Portugal. Photo D. Sigari

Parietal art, or cave art permanently affixed to a wall or ceiling, and portable art, or prehistoric art that can be transported, were both discovered during the original investigations at Romanelli Cave. Over one hundred portable art plaquettes depicting zoomorphs and abstract motifs—similar in style to the images on the walls and ceiling—were recovered, suggesting a commonality in form and chronology. Stone tools, animal bones, and human remains were also found, including approximately 10,000 artifacts such as scrapers, burins, blades, and flakes.

In the main chamber of the cave, the artwork forms an elevated frieze. The inner chamber features imagery on two small natural recesses on the northern and southern walls. There is an abstract reticulate, or gridlike motif, as well as various groups of lines, a single curved line at the top of a panel, and a barbed-wire figure like those at France’s famous Lascaux cave.

The newly discovered artwork shows “stylistic connections that extend beyond the chronological and geographical limits of the ‘Mediterranean artistic province’,” according to researchers. “The zoomorphic figures belong to a shared visual concept,” they write. One “that reflects high mobility,” with the depiction of common iconography that has been identified from Iberia and France to North Africa and the Caucasus. “The new figures provide evidence of a shared visual heritage across a wide part of Eurasia during the Late Upper Paleolithic, opening new questions about social dynamics and the spread of common iconographic motifs around the Mediterranean Basin.”

Further excavations and analysis may reveal additional information. “The shared themes and styles of the figures [have] strong implications in reassessing the role of this key site of the Prehistoric Mediterranean as part of a wide dynamic frame,” adds Sigari, which could change our understanding of late Upper Paleolithic cultures.

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