A remarkable example of cave art near Cieza is to be found in the Barranco de los Grajos. Access is only possible as part of a guided tour with the caves (or abrigos) in question securely fenced off with a locked gate and entrance. There are visits to the paintings arranged (though normally in Spanish) and we booked our places on one after enquiring at the Cieza Tourist Office (tel 968 453 500).
The paintings in question are to be found in the Sierra de Ascoy just to the north west of the town. The slopes of this Sierra are crossed by incisions, one of which is the Barranco de los Grajos. To reach the site we (and four others) met our guide just off the Albacete Motorway (leaving at km 98), at a prominent restaurant, before heading up into the hills. After a few kilometres on a perfectly reasonable minor road, a very rough track, sign posted Barranjo de los Grajos, left to the right. For almost 4 kilometres we had a very rough drive on an extremely stony and pitted track which required great care, although the final part was marginally less difficult!
Once at the spot where you park, you are almost immediately overlooking the barranjo, or, in simple English, gorge. This limestone gorge is indeed a very impressive feature. The only problem is that you then have to descend the steep side for several tens of metres of altitude, climbing down the rock into the bottom of the narrow valley. In truth, this is not especially difficult, but it is both steep and requires care and could certainly be a problem for those with a fear of slopes and height. There are white painted arrows at points on the rock to try and help you find the easiest route down – even so, we were told by our guide that some minor accidents had occurred!
Once in the bottom of the gorge, you walk a short distance along it, before a short ascent to the first, and larger, of the two caves which you visit, which is known as Abrigo II. There are, in fact, three such abrigos. The two which we visited are very close to each other, relatively near the mouth of the gorge, and were discovered in 1962. Several hundred metres further up the gorge, is Abrigo III. This is much more difficult to access (no doubt why the guided tours avoid it) and contains relatively few figures (six) which are themselves very small. In the Copper Age, it is known that this cave was used for burials. The paintings in these caves date back to the Neolithic era and form part of the post-Palaeolithic rock art in the east of Spain which was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998. Although we talk of cave art, in general, paintings such as the ones in the Barranjo de los Grajos are to be found in relatively shallow rock shelters rather than enclosed caves as we would normally envisage.
Abrigo II was inhabited from Palaeolithic to early medieval times and, as well as paintings from Neolithic times, Roman (Latin) writing has been identified on one wall. There is also a very childish drawing of a man dated to Roman times and one, in a worse state of preservation, of a woman. Close to these drawings, there is another, in black, thought to be of a donkey. Astonishingly, this is not all and a little further into the cave is a painting, also in black, of what has been identified as a medieval knight with sword and dated to the 15th Century. However, one of the most impressive drawings from prehistoric times, in the normal red tones, is to be seen to the left on entering the abrigo and is of a bending man. This is very much a schematic figure (ie lacking detail and a realistic depiction of the human shape) whereas the range of paintings to be found in the Barranjo are generally described as Levantine or Naturalistic (where there is an attempt to depict a more realistic body shape especially of the arms and legs, and clothing may be shown).
Also, as you would expect, the state of preservation of the paintings varies and some are only partially visible. Rock falls and erosion have clearly taken their toll and, as you will notice looking around, there are remnants of more modern graffiti which were done before the abrigos were given their current protection.
On leaving Abrigo II, you descend some steps and walk along the valley bottom track to reach the very impressive Abrigo I. This cave contains two main panels of paintings, in Levantine style, in alcoves on either side of the entrance. To the left of the entrance as you go in, the representation of a female figure is very clear and there are other items including an animal depicted. The painting here is thought to represent a scene possibly of two women chasing a goat type creature but, as in all these cases, interpretation of significance today is very difficult.
The large panel of paintings on the other side of the cave, however, is stunning. It is two metres long with over 50 figures painted on it and is rightly regarded as one of the most important rock paintings of its type in Spain, containing both naturalistic and schematic figures. There are various human representations, including that of a woman with some sort of bag. Animal depictions include a jabali/striped pig (one of only two known in Spain) and a quite spectacular deer. The naturalistic drawings are said to date as far back as 7000 BC and the schematic to 5000 BC.
One particular interest in this panel is the group of women, with skirts, dancing with their hands and arms in the air. There is also a group of men apparently in procession. However, four of the five men in this part of the panel are headless! Whether this has any significance or is just a result of erosion and natural processes is not known. The painting has been interpreted as related to fertility rites though, again, this is uncertain. What is clear, however, is that it is the only such painting of a ritual dance in Spain. At one end of the panel you will see a strange figure which has been interpreted by some as being a human with a pole-like object ascending skywards, perhaps in an attempt to link with the world beyond!
Having taken in as much as you can, all that then remains is to descend from the cave to the valley floor and ascend equally carefully up the steep valley side back to the car for the “interesting” drive back toward Cieza. Although this visit requires some physical flexibility (as well as very careful driving to the parking point!) it is one which is amply rewarding.
Article by Clive and Rosie Palmer who have written several guide books on towns and regions in Murcia. Their book, “Exploring Murcia, Days Out” is available to buy from the Costa Cálida Chronicle office on Camposol B, Best Wishes (who also stock other of their books), or phone Patti on 968 433 978. All their books can be viewed at and obtained from www.lulu.com, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.