Ancient art, modern-day mission | AspenTimes.com

Ancient art, modern-day mission

Morgan Smith
Special to the Aspen Times Weekly

Morgan SmithThe symbols in the cave. Nobody seems to know what they mean, but they may be a kind of calendar.

This is a story about an extraordinary Spanish family and their struggle to preserve prehistoric cave paintings on their property.

It begins in 1905 when Jose Bullon, a farmer near Ronda, Spain looked up the limestone mountain behind his farm and saw bats circling over a certain spot. Needing guano to fertilize his fields, he hiked up through the steep boulders. What he found, however, was much more than guano.

The bats had actually been circling around a hole in the mountain. Both curious and daring, Bullon lowered himself by rope down to a chamber where he discovered smoke stains, bones, shards of pottery and other evidence of human habitation. Eventually he found more chambers as well as paintings and symbols on the walls.

In 1911, a retired British Colonel named Willoughby Verner visited. He had lost most of the use of one leg in the Boer War, was a bird lover and thought maybe there would be interesting birds near the cave. Bullon and Verner’s assistants lowered him into the cave, where he found bones that he later sent to the British Museum. He also wrote a series of articles for the Saturday Review that came to the attention of the leading French archaeologist, Abate Breuil, who organized an expedition to the cave in 1912 and verified that the paintings were from the Paleolithic or Stone Age – approximately 25,000 years old.

(This is critically important because earlier a French archaeologist, Emile Cartailhac, had proclaimed the cave paintings in Altamira in northern Spain to be fakes. It was only after the death of the discoverer of those paintings, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, that Cartailhac acknowledged his mistake, and that the Altamira paintings were authentic.)

Following Breuil’s verification, Jose, the discoverer, and his son, Tomas then spent years exploring, finding new chambers and building steps so that others could come and visit the extraordinary cave and its ancient artwork. Jose “Pepe” Bullon, the grandson of the discoverer and now the owner, has explained to me how his father, Tomas, would create a makeshift seat, using branches tied to a rope, and sit, hanging in the semi-darkness, while chipping away with a hammer to make the steps. Having been in the cave many times, I can see that it must have been exhausting and dangerous work.

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The cave has now been in the family for more than a century and is managed by Pepe, his brother, Jose Antonio, his son, Jose Tomas. His daughter, Rosario, who has just graduated from college in Malaga, is also involved. They take several tours a day and are meticulous about limiting the numbers of visitors and prohibiting smoking, photography or other things that could damage the artwork. They charge 8 Euros a person and 5 Euros for children.

Given their limits on visitors and the fact that there are many offseason days with few visitors, they make a pittance. But this is not about money. For Pepe, the protection of this cave is literally his mission in life.

Unfortunately, the Spanish government is now pushing hard to take over the cave. After all, with more extensive advertising, more tourists could be attracted and more revenue generated. Pepe and his family have the scientific community strongly behind them, but are nontheless under a grinding bureaucratic pressure.

At first glance, you might assume that a government would be better able to manage such an historic resource than a small farm family. Until you consider the disgraceful records of both the French and Spanish governments in regard to cave paintings.

The cave at Lascaux, France, is probably the world’s most famous. Discovered in 1940, it soon developed a fungus that was caused by a poorly installed ventilation system. The cave was closed to the general public in 1963 but is still deteriorating because a newly installed ventilation system is also malfunctioning.

When I visited Altamira in northern Spain in 1966, everyone lit cigarettes once they were inside the cave, despite the no-smoking signs. All the guards could say was that this was Spain and everyone smoked. In 1973, more than 173,000 visitors were allowed into Altamira. Badly damaged, it was finally closed and a superb replica was built to give visitors an authentic experience. Just this summer, however, the Spanish government has announced that Altamira will be re-opened to the public, despite the scientific community’s strong objections.

No wonder Pepe and his family want to maintain their control.

One evening last April, I went to the Bullon home at the base of the mountain and listened to Pepe, his wife and his brother have a lively discussion about the people who inhabited the cave centuries ago. Where did they come from? How big were they? Where did they initially get the fire they needed for cooking, providing lighting within the cave, and warding off animals like the bears that occasionally hibernated there? What was the water level in the area then? (The cave is hundreds of feet above the small river that exists now in the valley below.)

Pepe and his brother have each led hundreds of tours through the cave, yet their excitement as they debated these questions was astonishing. It’s as if they were given a single purpose in life – to protect this cave and its fascinating history.

The next day as we toured, Pepe showed me claw marks made by the bears. He also pointed out how the tops of stalagmites had been scooped out by these early humans so that they could put animal fat in the little scooped-out basin and light the fat to illuminate the cave. (This is where the name “pileta” came from: a bowl or basin.)

The tour itself lasts about an hour. Carrying kerosene lanterns, you follow Pepe along the steps that were hand-carved by the Bullons over many decades, listening to Pepe’s raspy voice, his laughter, his enthusiasm, feeling his devotion to this mission he has inherited.

Pepe has written a book entitled “La Cueva de la Pileta” with an English version, “The Pileta Cave,” (Editorial La Serrania, Ronda 2008). What is most moving in it, to me, is a poem he wrote and dedicated to his father, Tomas. Pepe is now planning another book and, as I left that April morning, he handed me a piece of folded paper with a hand-written message. Later I realized that it was a new poem, dedicated to the people who lived in the cave thousands of years ago.

What will happen next? Can this unique Spanish family maintain this cave or will the Spanish bureaucracy simply grind them down? What can be done so that this cave doesn’t meet the same fate as Altamira and Lascaux? We’re going to visit again in October; maybe there is a way to help.

Former Aspen resident Morgan Smith served in the Colorado House of Representatives as well as Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture and Director of the Colorado International Trade Office. He has written a book about the cave which can been seen by going to http://www.blurb.com, then typing in his name where it reads Bookstore. He can be reached at Morgan-smith@comcast.net.