A panel of more than 100 prehistoric engravings has been found in a cave in La Febró, Catalonia, Spain.
The Cova de la Vila cave complex first attracted archaeological interest in the 1940s, but after a few preliminary investigations its location was lost again for 80 years. The cave was rediscovered in 2012 during a research project by IPHES (the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution). However, the Sala dels Gravats, or the Engravings Room, was initially identified by a group of cavers who were exploring the area independently in 2021. They reported their discovery to IPHES, who have since been carrying out comprehensive work to investigate, document, and protect the site, which was announced to the public in March this year.
The engravings make up an 8m-long panel along one wall of the Sala dels Gravats, a small chamber covering c.90m2. The surface of the wall is relatively soft, and the engravings were made using both the artists’ fingers and wood or stone tools. The motifs found on the panel include quadrupeds (possibly bovids and equids), as well as circles, zigzags, lines, reticulates, stelliforms (suns and/or stars), and more. There is also a composition that the researchers suggest resembles the oculado or ‘eye idol’ sculptures known from the Chalcolithic Iberian Peninsula.
The engravings are organised into five lines, with different elements dominating various parts of the panel: zoomorphic images are most common in the lower section, reticulated in the central part, and stelliforms in the upper part. It is thought that the whole panel was probably created at the same time or over a relatively short period, due to the lack of overlapping images and the stylistic homogeneity of the engravings, and the archaeologists believe that its organisation reflects a deliberate composition, which probably had some sort of symbolic meaning.
Based on stylistic analysis, the panel is thought to be associated with the pastoral and agricultural communities of the Chalcolithic or Bronze Age, who lived in the region c.5,000-3,000 years ago, offering a valuable insight into their worldview. It is very rare to find art from the period in underground caves in this area – almost all other examples known are from outdoor shelters – making this one of the most important collections of post-Palaeolithic prehistoric art in the Mediterranean arc.
Due to the delicate conditions in the Sala dels Gravats, documentation and conservation are currently IPHES’s main priorities. However, explorations of the cave’s topography and a few archaeological test-pits, as well as archaeological material found on the surface of the cave floor – including animal remains and a shell that was used as a lamp – have confirmed the authenticity and importance of the art and its association with post-Palaeolithic prehistory. The next stage of research will involve in-depth study of the engravings through photography, photogrammetry, and digital tracings, as well as the creation of 3D models to allow both researchers and the public to explore this unique discovery without endangering the fragile art.