Coliboaia Cave Art (30,000 BCE)
Similar ideas and techniques of cave painting were being practised throughout the continent of Europe, from the era of Aurignacian art (40,000-25,000 BCE) onwards. This is clearly demonstrated by the extraordinary find of cave art at Coliboaia Cave, situated in Apuseni Natural Park, Romania. The art consists of a number of charcoal drawings and prehistoric engravings, the oldest of which have been radiocarbon dated to at least 30,000 BCE, making it the oldest known rock art in Central or South-Eastern Europe. Although archeology has long known about the age and diversity of Franco-Cantabrian cave art, no equivalent examples of Stone Age art had been discovered in Central Europe until the recent discoveries at Coliboaia. As it is, the black paintings in the Coliboaia Cave are stylistically similar to the Chauvet Cave paintings (30,000 BCE) in France, which are - with the exception of the Fumane Cave Paintings (35,000 BCE) in Italy - the oldest known figurative art in Europe. Indeed only the image of the "pig-deer" at the Sulawesi Cave, Indonesia, dating to 33,400 BCE, is older. The Paleolithic art at Coliboaia was discovered by chance in Sept 2009 during routine exploration by a team of Romanian speleologists, and later certified by French paleontologists, led by archeologist Jean Clottes, a cave art expert for ICOMOS and UNESCO. Following the discovery, the cave was accorded conservation status and placed under the protection of the Romanian Federation of Speleology and the Apuseni Natural Park Administration.
Located ten kilometres south-east of Pietroasa, Coliboaia Cave sits at an altitude of 560 meters on a western slope of Sighestel Valley, in Bihor County, within the Apuseni Natural Park in North-West Romania. The area is mountainous with plenty of forests, caves and sinkholes (from collapsed caves). The cave has a 2-metre tall triangular-shaped entrance, set into a limestone cliff. Passing through the entrance, visitors then descend a steep ramp into the first chamber - a large cavern about 15 metres wide and 40 metres in depth. This leads into a large, straight gallery with a stream running through it. Indeed, water often floods the entire gallery, although the drawings are sufficiently high up to be out of reach. In total, the cave stretches for about 750 metres.
The existence of Coliboaia was first recorded in the 19th century, but it wasn't until 1981 that an extensive investigation of the site was conducted by archeologist Gabor Halasi. Even then, due to flooding, no parietal art was found and the cave remained unprotected and relatively unknown until the discovery of its paintings in the Autumn of 2009. The actual discovery was made by a group of amateur cave explorers (known as spelunkers or speleologists) from local caver clubs. The group included Tudor Rus, Mihai Besesek, Valentin Alexandru Radu, Roxana Laura Toiciu, and Marius Kenesz, who were in the process of exploring Coliboaia using diving equipment, when they spotted the cave art.
Following the discovery, the cave was made secure, but no public statement was made until May 2010, when a French team of specialists arrived (at the invitation of the Romanian authorities) to verify the authenticity of the paintings. The team included speleologists Marcel Meyssonnier and Valerie Plichon; paleontologist Michel Philippe; prehistorian Francoise Prudhomme; and cave art expertss Jean Clottes and Bernard Gely. The pictures were duly certified and samples were taken to Paris for further examination and dating.
For authenticity and dating purposes, French experts first used a process known as comparative analysis. This involved comparing the style of the prehistoric art at Coliboaia with other similar wall paintings from caves in France and elsewhere. This analysis yielded a tentative age of between about 21,000 and 30,000 BCE - spanning the era of Aurignacian and Gravettian art. To get a more accurate age, French researchers resorted to radiocarbon dating, testing a small amount of charcoal from one of the drawings, and a piece of charcoal taken from a ledge below the image. The drawing was dated to 30,000 BCE; the charcoal from the ledge to about 33,000 BCE. More tests are pending. For the moment, it is clear that Coliboaia Cave has the oldest art of Central Europe, and belongs to Modern man's oldest known European culture, responsible for works like: the Altamira Cave paintings (34,000 BCE), the Ivory Carvings of the Swabian Jura (33,000 BCE), the Venus of Galgenberg (Stratzing Figurine) (c.28,000 BCE) and more.
According to Jean Clottes, the cave contains about eight images drawn with pieces of black charcoal, using techniques very similar to those used in the decoration of Chauvet Cave in France's Ardeche Valley in the Rhone-Alps. Like most Stone Age wall art, the images represent a variety of animals, or parts of animals. Featured beasts include a bison with horns and mane drawn with bluish-grey lines; a part-drawn horse; a feline creature, two bear heads and two rhinos, including the head of a black rhino. There may be traces of other indistinct or unidentified animals. Unfortunately, over time, the drawings have been eroded by the actions of numerous cave bats. Furthermore, like as at Les Combarelles Cave and Font de Gaume in the Dordogne, some images have been almost completely obscured by a coating of calcite.
As well as the black drawings, at least two engravings were discovered: one seemingly depicted the torso of a woman; the other has not been identified. No hand stencils or finger-fluting or abstract signs have yet been detected. It is worth remembering however that - as at Cosquer Cave - much of the cave is regularly under water. So, it is possible that Coliboaia contains additional petroglyphs or pictographs that have yet to be found.
Until now, only one example of cave art had been discovered in Romania - two animal drawings at Cuciulat Cave, which came to light about 30 years ago. The only other Stone Age painting this far east - the Kapova Cave Paintings - is in the Ural Mountains of Russia, and dates to 12,500 BCE. If the terracotta sculpture "The Thinker of Cernavoda" (5,000 BCE, National Museum, Bucharest) is Romania's most important example of Neolithic art, Coliboaia Cave is certainly the country's most important example from the Paleolithic.
of Dolni Vestonice (24,000 BCE)
of Kostenky (c.23,000-22,000 BCE)
of Gagarino (c.20,000 BCE)
Spila Pottery (c.15,500 BCE)
of Eliseevichi (c.14,000 BCE)
Idol (7,500 BCE)
For more information about Paleolithic culture in Romania, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF STONE AGE