With its ceiling full of impressive prehistoric paintings, Altamira Cave has been compared to the Sistine Chapel. Though access to the the cave, located in the Cantabria region of northern Spain, is extremely limited, a replica of is tucked away in a museum in the Spanish capital.
You can find reproductions of the cave and its artwork in several places. Best-known is the neocueva (neo-cave), which can be found at the National Museum and Research Center of Altamira. Another is located the garden of the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid, where visitors can admire a selection of the animals that were painted in Altamira cave between 35,000 and 13,000 years ago.
The Polychrome Ceiling is the cave’s most famous feature, featuring multicolored paintings of bison as well as deer, horses, and wild boars. The reproduction reflects the natural contours of the cave as well as the art itself. A mirror reflects the ceiling so visitors can observe it without craning their necks.
The replica was a gift from Germany to Spain in 1964, on the fourth centenary of its capital. But this story began in 1958 when Erich Pietsch and his wife Gisela Pietsch, both German cave experts, requested permission from the Spanish government to reproduce the paintings at Altamira Cave. It was granted under the conditions that they did not touch the roof of the cave and they must make a copy to remain in Spain.
It took eight years to create the reproductions. To make them without touching the ceiling, researchers took stereo photographs and created a contour map, then a full-scale model of the ceiling. The paintings were made with raw mineral colors and pigments similar to those of the original Paleolithic art. Today one of these copies can be found in the Deutsches Museum in Munich, and the other in Madrid. Visitors to the National Archaeological Museum can find the replica in an underground enclosure in the museum’s garden.
Know Before You Go
The museum is located in the back of the National Library, and the artificial cave is located in its garden. Admission is free (it’s not necessary to buy a ticket to the museum to access the cave). The museum and garden are open from 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays and public holidays. The nearest tube station is Colón (line 4), the nearest commuter train is Recoletos station (lines C2,C7 and C8), and buses 14, 21, 27 and 28.