Peter Smith, March 1997.

1. Review of Research and Finds made in the Area


The first serious caving in the Matienzo area was carried out in the early 1960s by the Sección de Espeleología del Seminario Sautuola, and as this group was based at the Museum of Prehistory in Santander, their work naturally included archaeological studies. In Cueva de Cofresnedo they found large quantities of prehistoric pottery and some human remains, and in Cueva Cuatribú a medieval pitcher. At about the same time, two caves were dug in the valleys to the north-east of Matienzo: Cueva de la Chora at San Pantaleón de Aras and Cueva del Otero in Secadura. The Seminario Sautuola also found palaeolithic wall engravings in Cueva de Cobrantes, at San Miguel de Aras.

The local authorities in Santander also had teams of workmen who searched the caves of the province for archaeological remains. It is known that they explored several caves in Matienzo, and saw the engraving in Cueva del Patatal, but their reports were never published.


When the British expeditions started in the 1970s, all the known caves in the area were re-visited and, although the cavers were untrained as archaeologists, they made several finds. These included a bronze sword in Cueva del Ruchano (Riaño), a bone spear-point in Cueva del Risco and human remains in Cueva Rascavieja. A little later the engravings in Cueva de los Emboscados were discovered, and the engraving of Cueva del Patatal was re-located. More pottery and various iron objects were found in Cueva Cofresnedo.


In the early and mid 1980s the Cantabrian archaeological group, Colectivo para la Ampliación de los Estudios de Arqueología y Prehistoria, carried out prospection in the area. They found palaeolithic engravings in Cueva del Otero, and various prehistoric artifacts in caves such as Cueva Solviejo (Secadura), La Covarona, Cueva de la Helguera and Cueva del Túnel (Llueva) and Cuevas de Mazarredonda (San Pantaleón de Aras). Working with the British cavers, they recorded the schematic-abstract paintings in Cueva Cofresnedo. Throughout this time, the caving expeditions would continue to make various sporadic finds, such as the polished stone adze in Cueva 709, and the small pot inside the lower entrance to Cueva Vallina (Arredondo).


Since 1994 Cantabrian archaeologists and the British caving expeditions are working together to develop an archaeology project in Matienzo. The first sites to be studied have been Cueva de las Grajas and Cubío Redondo.

2. Representation of Archaeological Periods in the Matienzo Area

2.1 Palaeolithic.

The richest deposits in the area, and the only ones to be dug systematically so far, are Cueva del Otero and Cueva de la Chora. The former had a sequence of levels from the Mousterian to the Azilian, with the Aurignacian and Upper Magdalenian being particularly important; while the deposits of the latter cave were mostly of Upper Magdalenian, with a few examples of mobiliary art. Cueva de Cobrantes must also hold important palaeolithic deposits, but these have yet to be studied. Cueva del Ratón (San Pantaleón) also has a level with Upper Magdalenian flints and bones.

Within the Matienzo depression Stone Age remains are rather more limited. At the end of Pintó Gallery in Cueva del Risco, where an entrance must once have been open, a Magdalenian bone assagai, or spear-point, was found in an area containing animal bones, including Cervus Megaceros. The entrance hall of Cueva del Agua may also contain palaeolithic remains covered by massive flowstone deposits; a number of flints and bones have been located.

2.2 Cave Art.

The discovery of art, almost exclusively engravings, in four caves has been mentioned above. In Cueva de Cobrantes there are two hinds at the top of the stalagmite boss which closes the entrance vestibule. In the interior of the cave, another group of figures includes a possible reindeer, a bovid, a caprid, and possible anthropomorphs. In Cueva del Otero there is a caprid viewed frontally, which is an unusual figure in cave art, although common in mobiliary art. Cueva de los Emboscados has further engraved figures of hinds and goats, and also a curving line of dark red paint crossing the back of the first hind on the left-hand wall. The figure in Cueva del Patatal is of a headless animal with a spear in its side. All the figures in these caves could be included in Leroi-Gourhan's Style IV, corresponding to the Upper Magdalenian.

2.3 Epipalaeolithic-Mesolithic.

The Azilian level at the top of the sequence in Cueva del Otero has already been mentioned. The only other site which might be attributed to this period is Cueva 793 - Cubío Redondo. This consists mainly of a shell-midden formed with the land snail, Cepea nemoralis, associated with flint-working debris and a few micro-gravette points. However no dates are available yet for this site, dug in 1996.

2.4 Neolithic-Chalcolithic.

These periods are possibly even less well-documented than the previous one. However, within Matienzo, polished or ground stone tools have been found in two caves; one of them the adze from Cueva 709, and the other an axe recovered from the steam bed of Cueva del Orillón. Human remains found in caves have been attributed to the Chalcolithic, but without the confirmation of absolute dates; an example is Cueva de Peñarrobra in Llueva. The finds of flints, shells and pottery in Cueva del Cubo (San Pantaleón de Aras) may be Chalcolithic.

2.5 Bronze Age.

The bronze sword discovered in the water, 50m inside Cueva del Ruchano, was dated in the Argaric period in the Middle Bronze Age. It is comparable with the three bronze swords found in Cueva Llusa in Ogarrio, to the south of Matienzo, in the early 1900s. Two copper or bronze arrow heads have been found in Cueva Coquisera and Cueva Cofresnedo. The skeleton found in Cueva Rascavieja was attributed to the Bronze Age, but has never been studied definitively.

Large pottery urns, with raised cordons, finger-nail decoration and finger-fluted clay applied to the lower outside surface are also often attributed to the Bronze Age; examples are known from several caves: Cofresnedo, Cobrantes, Reyes and Grajas. In Cueva de las Grajas, a bovid femur was dated by C-14 to a date of 2025 BC (calibrated age), i.e. Early Bronze Age. The small pot found inside the, at-the-time, sealed lower entrance of Cueva Vallina may also be Bronze Age.

2.6 Iron Age

Several caves have quite rich deposits belonging to this period. The best known is Cueva Cofresnedo, where a number of iron artefacts were found, including a dagger and axe, plus objects such as beads in glass, bronze and bone. In Cueva de las Barandas two decorated copper strips were found, as well as iron remnants. A copper omega-shaped buckle was found in Cueva Coquisera. These three caves had a characteristic pottery type: jars with little decoration, and a raised rim which is turned outwards. These deposits, including weapons and personal ornamentation, are consistent with being grave goods, and in fact human remains have been found in Cofresnedo and Barandas. The same pottery type has also been found in caves such as Cueva del Ruchano and La Cuvía (La Secada). What could be a broken iron knife was found in La Covarona, and an iron spear-head was discovered on a ledge in Spear Pot, a shaft at 520m above sea level at Sel de Suto.

Cueva de Reyes had a different kind of deposit; a hoard of iron tools. These included ard shares, wedges, chisels, a mattock and a variety of hooks, and by comparison with similar objects from sites in Spain and Europe, they can also be assigned to the Late Iron Age.

2.7 Schematic-abstract paintings.

These paintings, done with charcoal on the cave walls, sometimes of schematic or geometric design, and often completely abstract, are found in several caves in the area. As they often appear in caves with Iron Age deposits, they have been associated with that period. Within Matienzo they are known in Cueva Cofresnedo, Cuatribú and Coburruyo, and there are also a few paintings in Cueva Chica and Concebo. In the surrounding valleys, they are found in Cueva Cobrantes, Covarona, Entrambascuevas I, Solviejo, and Torca de los Canes (Riaño).

2.8 Romano-Indigenous.

Little is known of this period and no definite Roman remains have been found in the area. In Cueva de Garma Redonda fragments were found of a small pot with the rim turned horizontally, and which can be dated in the first centuries AD. Charcoal collected from sediment containing pottery fragments in Cueva de las Grajas was dated by C-14 to 70 AD, possibly representing a visit to the cave in which the pottery deposited earlier was broken up.

2.9 Medieval.

A pitcher with handle was found in Cueva Cuatribú. Fragments of Medieval pottery were found in Cave 732, and further fragments have been collected from Cubío Redondo.

Further Reading

- Begines, A. 1966, La Arqueología, in La Depresión Cerrada de Matienzo, Cuadernos de Espeleología 2, pp 99 - 103, Santander.

- Echegaray, Guinea & Begines, 1963, Cueva de la Chora (Santander), Excav. Arq. en España Nº 26.

- Echegaray, Guinea & Begines, 1966, Cueva del Otero, Excav. Arq. en España Nº 53.

- García Guinea, M.A. 1968, Los Grabados de la Cueva de la Peña del Cuco en Castro Urdiales y de la Cueva de Cobrantes (Valle de Aras), Publicaciones del Patronato Cuevas Prehistóricas de Provin. Santander Vol. III.

- Anon., 1975, Report of the British Expedition to Matienzo, Kendal.

- Almagro-Gorbea, M. 1976, La Espada de Entrambasaguas - Aportación a la Secuencia de las Espadas del Bronce en el Norte de la Península Iberica, in XL Aniversario Centro Estudios Montañeses, pp 455 - 477, Santander.

- Smith, P. 1983, The Iron Age in Matienzo, BCRA Transactions Vol. 10 (3) pp 145 - 164.

- Smith, P. 1985, Restos de la Edad del Hierro en Matienzo (Santander), in Altamira Vol. XLV, pp 45 - 66.

- Balbín, Morales & González Sainz, 1986, Los Grabados de las Cuevas de los Emboscados y el Patatal (Matienzo-Cantabria), in Monografías Nº 15, pp 233 - 270 , Centro Investigación y Museo de Altamira.

- González Sainz, Muñoz & San Miguel, 1985, Los grabados rupestres paleolíticos de la Cueva del Otero (Secadura, Cantabria), in Sautuola IV, pp 155 - 164, Santander.

- Corrin, J. 1990, Matienzo '89, in Caves and Caving Nº 49, pp 19 - 25.

- Smith, P. 1996, Hallazgos de cerámica prehistórica en Matienzo (Cantabria), Monografías arqueológicas nº 6, pp 19 - 23, A.C.D.P.S., Santander.

- Smith, P. 1996, El depósito arqueológico de la Cueva de Reyes (Matienzo), in La Arqueología de los Cántabros, pp 173 -191, Edición de Fundación Marcelino Botín, Santander.

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