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15 June 2010
Controversy over decision to reopen Altamira caves

Angeles Gonzalez-Sinde, the Minister of Culture for Spain announced that visitors would once again be allowed to enter the Altamira Caves in the Cantabria region of northern Spain. The decision goes against the advice of the CSIC, the government's main scientific advisory body.
     The caves, discovered in 1879, have been called the 'Sistine Chapel of Paleolithic art' because of the wall paintings of herds of bison and other animals. Unesco declared the caves a World Heritage Site in 1985.
     The site was closed in 1977 when it was realized that carbon dioxide from the lungs of visitors was damaging the wall paintings. It reopened in 1982, but the number of vistors per year was severly restricted. At times, the waiting list to view the ancient art was three years. In 2002, green mold was detected on the walls in the main chamber, and access was closed to the public. Similar mold problems have arisen on cave paintings in France. The atmosphere within the caves is affected by light, body heat and moisture from perspiration.
     Local authorities have welcomed the decision to once again allow visits. Miguel Angel Revilla, the president of the Cantabrian region in northern Spain said, "Altamira is an asset we cannot do without." He added that he would invite US President Barack Obama to be the first person to view the caves when they reopened. "I have already written the invitation letter, and in English."
     But scientists are less enthusiastic. "The people who go in the cave have the bad habit of moving, breathing and perspiring," was one conclusion reached in CSIC report published in April. "We have made it very clear that it should not be reopened at this time," said Sergio Sanchez Moral, director of the team that spent the last two years analysing the caves and treating the problem mould. "The caves have recovered from the damage, but to open them again is not a good idea. The risks are immeasurable."
     In Santillana del Mar, a few hundred feet from the original caves, there is a museum with an exact replica of caves.

Sources: Yahoo! News (8 June 2010), Telegraph.co.uk (9 June 2010)

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