Ekain

World Heritage Site

The cave of Ekain is one of the largest and richest in rock art; and together with Lascaux, Niaux and Altamira, it is one of the best prehistoric sanctuaries of the Magdalenian (15,000-12,000 B.C.). Declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2008, the cave is closed to the public and its custody is in charge of the Society of Sciences Aranzadi. In October 2016, the Basque Government has digitized the interior of the cave and now we have the opportunity to visit it from any corner of the world.

 

Discovery

Location

The cave and the figures

World Heritage Site

Ekainberri: the replica of the Ekain Cave

 

 

Virtual visit to Ekain

If you want to know more about the whole archeological heritage of the town, clic here

Discovery

Ekain Cave was discovered by two members of the Antxieta Club of Azpeitia, Andoni Albizuri and Rafael Rezabal, during a speleological and archaeological exploration. In fact, during the spring of 1969 they set out to survey the solid limestone area near Azpeitia called Izarraitz. They returned following the Goltzibar stream towards Zestoa; there the country house at Sastarrain and its surroundings caught their attention. They were struck by its position between the two streams, the abundance of water and the favourable conditions for prehistoric habitation.

On 1st June the two friends went to the mentioned country house to ask the lady of the house, if there were caves in the hills and the limestone slopes. She said that there were and she showed them where they were, more or less. On 8th June they returned with equipment suitable for examining and carrying out a trial dig of the small cave, which measured 13 metres long and 2 metres wide. While they were preparing to make the dig at the left side of the entrance, Rezabal noticed a small hole on the right side of the entrance where cold air was escaping from.

They removed enough lumps of stone from the small hole until there was enough space to crawl through. They slithered along the ground for about twenty metres until they could stand up. They explored the first passages and, after noticing pigment on the walls, Rezabal discovered the panel of horses (Zaldei). They were so overcome with emotion that they couldn't carry on surveying the cave, so they decided to leave.

That afternoon they informed of the discovery to Jose Miguel de Barandiaran, who had been directing archaeological excavations in the Basque Country since 1916, and to Jesus Altuna, Director of the Prehistory Department at the Aranzadi Science Society.

As the cave had no name, it was given the name of the hill Ekain. Three weeks later the two researchers began the first survey of the sanctuary, and the results were published at the end of 1969. At the same time, samples were taken from the vestibule of the cave. These samples proved positive, indicating the existence of a prehistoric site. The site was excavated between 1969 and 1975 during six different digs.

Location

The Ekain Cave is located on the eastern side of Ekain Hill, from which it takes its name, near Sastarrain, in the municipality of Deba and about 1.5 kilometres from the town of Zestoa. Two streams near the cave, called Goltzibar and Beliosoerreka, meet up to form the Sastarrain rivulet.

The presence of water near the cave and its favourable orientation made it an ideal place for occupations by human groups during the Palaeolithic. The situation of the cave was excellent for the practice of hunting "ojeo". The drives led the animals down the valley, where they could be captured by throwing traps. It is located in the valley of Goltzibar, between the foothills of Erlo and Agiro.

The cave and the figure

 It is one of the largest and richest rock art sites in the entire Basque Country and one of the best prehistoric sanctuaries in the Magdalenian; in fact, it is known for its cave paintings, and its exceptional state of preservation must be emphasized.

The number of existing figures is 70, 64 painted and 6 engraved. Some figures are simple silhouettes in black; others in red, and others painted with flat inks, both black and ocher. The horse is the most represented figure. Its equestrian set is one of the most beautiful and rich of French-Cantabrian art, and is considered the best masterpiece in its category. In addition there are other animal figures in Ekain: a deer, two bison and a small goat.

The cave is divided into different galleries, which have been named according to the figures they hold: Erdibide, Auntzei, Erdialde, Zaldei, Artzei and Azkenzaldei.

Erdibide

The cave's entrance, when it was discovered, was an arch that was only 1.2 m high and 2.3 m wide at the base. After crossing the first narrow stretch the cave becomes higher. Only then could the prehistoric man straighten up and walk upright through the rest of the cave.

Later on there is an upward sloping narrow gallery, which has a stalagmite floor, and is easy to walk along. This gallery is called Erdibide, or the central route. Six metres into the cave is the first painting, a simple black outline. But the first figure or representation of the cave is a large horses head, the biggest in the whole cave. Buru handi hau haitzuloaren toki estrategikoan kokaturik dago, Erdialde salako sarreran, zaldi buruaren antza duen haitz bloke baten ikus-eremuan. Haitzuloa zaldiari eskainia dela adierazten du.

Auntzei

Auntzei, the place of the goats, is a blind gallery that is 15 m long and 2 m wide. Here there are two deers, four goats and a salmon. At the back there is a large hollow used for hibernation by cave bears, and the walls are polished by their constant passing.

Erdialde

Erdialde is where several passages meet in the largest part of the cave, formed by a chamber and a passage. The floor is covered by a large number of gour pools or depressions formed by water action. Numerous bear pits can also be seen on the floor showing that bears used the cave for their hibernations. Among the large number of red stains decorating the walls, the figure of a horse was drawn in black. Nearing Zaldei, and the centre of the chamber, a limestone rock displays figures of horses and bison.

Zaldei

The decorated rock in Erdialde is followed by a passage that leads, after an initial narrow curving section, towards the end of the cave and the decorating areas of Artzei and Azkenzaldei. The floor, with numerous gours, rises gradually towards the end. Most of the rock art in the cave is found in this sector. Large number of horses were depicted, often with great technical complexity.

Artzei

Approaching the end of the cave, only 15 metres from the main paintings of horses (Zaldei), a composition of two brown bears is found on the left hand wall, in an area with a low roof where it is necessary to stoop. Bears are not often represented in Palaeolithic art. However, there is abundant evidence of the presence of these fierce animals in Ekain; such as bear pits, scratch marks and bones.

Azkenzaldei

Azkenzaldei is the name of an oval-shaped chamber in the final part of the cave. It is reached by following a rough ascending route for 20 metres from Artzei. Seven horses were painted and engraved on the left-hand wall. They face right, towards the way out. Each of the horses is different and can be distinguished from others. These last figures display a range of techniques in their production: black lines, red paint, black paint, combination of colours ...

World Heritage Site

On 8 July 2008, UNESCO added three Basque caves with Palaeolithic art (40,000 to 12,000 years old) to the list of World Heritage. The caves of Ekain, Altxerri and Santimamiñe joined the select group of archaeological World Heritage sites, like Altamira and Atapuerca.

Palaeolithic rock art is one of the most significant cultural achievements in the history of Humankind. In addition to its artistic qualities, from a historical point of view the art is important because it represents a crucial stage in human evolution: the appearance of Homo sapiens. The paintings are therefore a major cultural property, true masterpieces of human creative genius and, at the same time, outstanding evidence in the history of civilisation, as they are the first artistic expression of the human species.

Ekain formed part of the network of hunting-gathering-fishing communities that lived in south-west Europe in the Upper Palaeolithic. Its universal and outstanding value is based on its condition as a work of art of human creative genius, and a unique or exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or a living or disappeared civilisation. Its art shows the cultural diversity and the high level of social integration in south-west Europe in the final stages on the last Ice Age.