Although Levantine art has been recognized as World Heritage rock art and Asset of Cultural Interest by the UNESCO, we still have little information on how these cave paintings, typical of the Mediterranean area about 7,500 years ago, were made. Now, a study published in the journal PLOS ONE on the Levantine art site in el Carche (Valencia, Spain) identifies for the first time four different formulas used by the prehistoric communities to get paint by mixing minerals.
The four formulas found by the researchers that were used to make paintings are based on the use of haematite (mineral form of iron oxide). The recipes from this mineral yield a range of several red colours, which can lead to purple, and which can be seen in el Carche paintings. This is the first time that this variety of recipes has been documented in a Levantine art site. "This is interesting because, to date, the authors have spoken about homogeneity in the formulas used for making paintings", notes UB ICREA researcher Inés Domingo, who leads this research and the project Breaking barriers between science and heritage approaches to Levantine rock art through archaeology, heritage science and IT (LArcHer), which received an ERC Consolidator Grant which funds this research study, in which the UB researcher Annalisa Chieli takes part.
The interest of el Carche site lies in the fact that researchers have found representations of Levantine art which share many features with other paintings from schematic rock art, a less ancient cave style with more synthetic representations.
The researchers compared the making of paintings for both styles and observed that, although the authors of Levantine art used painting sources and recipes that were different to those from schematic art, there are some cases that do coincide because they used the same formula. "This could simply occur because they used the same raw materials (the minerals present in the site), but it could also be due to some kind of contact or cultural heritage: perhaps they told each other about the sources and materials they used or they shared the same mineral mixtures to make painting recipes", notes Domingo. "Finding new ways to explore potential links or differences between both traditions is very important to try to resolve the doubts we have about the authors and the chronology", concludes the researcher.
A word of warning for the conservation institutions
In the study, the experts warn about the common practice, in order to see the images better, of removing the surface biogenic patina which has covered the paintings for thousands of years. In the case of el Carche, the researchers have documented strata formed by whewellite, a mineral that has probably had a protective function. Domingo appeals to the institutions responsable for planning conservation actions: "We may be eliminating what has guaranteed the conservation of the paintings to date".
Article reference: Chieli, A.; Vendrell, M.; Roldán, C.; Giráldez, P.; Domingo, I. "Characterizing paint technologies and recipes in Levantine and Schematic rock art: El Carche site as a case study (Jalance, Spain)" , PLOS ONE, August, 2022, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0271276