The excavation campaign begins in the deposits of the Sierra de Atapuerca

The excavation campaign begins in the deposits of the Sierra de Atapuerca

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On Monday, June 17, an advance party of excavators from the Atapuerca Research Team The preparation of the infrastructures in the deposits of the Sierra de Atapuerca began.

The works directed by Juan Luis Arsuaga, José María Bermúdez de Castro and Eudald Carbonell, will have the collaboration, during this month of June, of some 80 people who will excavate at the Sima del Elefante, Galería, Gran Dolina, Cueva Fantasma, ─all of them located in the Trench of the Railroad─ and in the Cueva del Mirador.

The rest of the Atapuerca Research Team will arrive in July, reaching about 200 people in total. In July, in addition to the aforementioned sites, the Cueva Mayor (Portalón, Sima de los Huesos and Galería de las Estatuas) and the open-air excavations of La Paredeja will be excavated. That month, the sediment washing work will also begin on the banks of the Arlanzón River.

The group of people who come to dig in the Sierra de Atapuerca belong to different research centers of the Atapuerca Project: National Center for Research on Human Evolution of Burgos (CENIEH), University of Burgos (UBU), Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES - Tarragona), Center for Human Evolution and Behavior (Complutense University of Madrid - ISCIII) and University of Zaragoza (UNIZAR). There are also researchers from other universities and national and international research centers. It is worth highlighting the participation of several students from the University College of London and the National Museum of Georgia, thanks to the agreements signed by the Atapuerca Foundation.

The Atapuerca FoundationAs a complement to the funding that the Junta de Castilla y León allocates to the excavations, it will coordinate the operation of the campaign with organizational, administrative, economic, logistical, maintenance, communication and event organization support.

The characteristics of the different sites that will be excavated this season and the objectives set for each of them are detailed below.

Sima del Elefante

In this site, located in the Railroad Trench, the lower levels where the first European appeared have already been excavated.

The objective of this campaign is to open the maximum possible surface of the TE7 level. This is the oldest level in the entire Trench, over 1.3 million years old. In this way, the expansion of the excavation of this level will allow the recovery of a greater number of fossil remains, as well as better understanding the process of accumulation of these.


It is also in the Railroad Trench, about 50m from the Gran Dolina site.

The main objective is to continue with the excavation of the lower section of Unit GIII in all sectors of the deposit (TZ, TG, TN), where the last occupation soils (GSU) are concentrated, these being the richest in this stratigraphic package . This intervention supposes, at the same time, to advance towards the interior of the cavity following the topography of the cave.

Great Dolina

It is one of the most famous sites in the Railroad Trench, undoubtedly for the discovery of a new species, the Homo antecessor.

Upper level

During this campaign, level 10 of Gran Dolina will be terminated, whose extension excavation has involved more than 20 campaigns, due to the extreme archaeo-paleontological wealth. This year the excavation of the TD9 unit is also expected to begin on the entire excavation area, which occupies approximately 85 m2.


The first objective of this campaign is to continue obtaining geochronological data that will allow us to refine the age of the deposit. The second is paleontological, and in turn could be subdivided into three: 1) recovering more remains of the species Ursus dolinensis to help improve its description, 2) increase the remains of the ungulates, to strengthen the characteristics of the mammalian communities existing in that period in the mountains and as a biochronological indicator that can contribute to dating other European sites, and 3) obtain more data on the microfauna of the site, as an excellent indicator of the prevailing environmental conditions in the Sierra de Atapuerca in the moments immediately after Jaramillo. The third objective is entirely archaeological, and tries to recover more evidence of human presence to understand the ways of life of these communities in an environment such as that of the Sierra de Atapuerca a million years ago.

Mirador Cave

This site is located in the southern part of the Sierra de Atapuerca. This year, it is planned to continue intervening in sectors 100 and 200. In sector 100, the strategy of deepening in a staggered manner, glued to the ceiling and the north wall, will be followed, with the aim of knowing the progression of the cavity in the plane horizontal. Although during 2018 it deepened significantly, in 2019 the excavation will continue in order to get enough space to continue entering the interior of the cave.

The excavation of the levels opened in 2018, MIR108, 109, 202 and 206 will also continue, the penultimate of which presents remains attributed to the collective tomb (MIR203) that continue to appear on the perimeter as it is deepened, the walls open and the surface is enlarged. In this sector you will descend vertically, as in a conventional borehole, since, at the moment, the walls do not open enough to attempt a horizontal advance.

Ghost cave

Once all the pertinent engineering and adaptation works have been completed, including the construction of the reservoir's roof, the drilling will continue during this campaign; register and inventory their remains and open an area of ​​20m2 approx. for its excavation in extension.

La Paredeja

During the 2019 campaign, the intention is to continue with the intervention in this deposit. To undertake the excavation work, firstly, the cleaning of the area and the complete cut of the quarry are necessary, as well as preparing the access to the excavation area. Once these tasks are done, work will be done on the first fertile level located in the last excavation campaign.

Major Cave

The Cueva Mayor includes three different sites: the Portalón, the Gallery of Statues and Sima de los Huesos. Excavation work on this entire complex will begin next July.


This site is located at the entrance to Cueva Mayor. Since the 2014 campaign, a Neolithic level has been excavated. This level is characterized by the presence of high-quality housing structures (prepared soils, hearths, stone walls, etc.), in which stone and ceramic materials typical of this period and abundant domestic and wild fauna have been found.

Last year the excavation of an active soil that appeared in 2016 on which small bonfires appeared and that has not yet been completed was continued. The objective for the 2019 campaign is to continue with the intervention in this area of ​​Sector II, corresponding to level 9 and therefore to final Neolithic moments.

In the same way, excavations will continue in the enlarged area to obtain more information on the materials corresponding to the last moments of occupation of the cave and that in 2018 were left in the phase corresponding to the Final Bronze Age.

Gallery of statues

Galería de las Estatuas is about 350 meters from the current entrance to Cueva Mayor, in this site they will continue with the open surveys in the two tastings in which they are excavating. In GE-I there is a sequence between 80 and 112 thousand years.

In part of the tasting they have reached the lowest level known so far (level 5) so it is possible that they can continue the sequence. It would be very interesting to know if below level 5 there are fertile levels at the aropaleontological level that could give information about how Neanderthals lived on the plateau during the last interglacial 125-130 thousand years ago.

Chasm of the bones

In the Sima de los Huesos, excavation will continue in the transition zone between the ramp and the distal chamber. In the tables located in the central axis of the site, work is being done on the delimitation of the lateral contact between the fossiliferous clays with human remains and the bear gap. Along the wall of the cavity, more human remains will be searched to complete the skulls found in recent campaigns in those same paintings.

Arlanzón river washing and biostratigraphy

As important as the actual excavation of each site is the washing of sediments. This activity, led by the paleontologist from the University of Zaragoza and member of the EIA, Gloria Cuenca, serves to recover the Atapuerca microfauna, that is, the tiny fossils of mammals, amphibians, birds, reptiles and fish from the deposits of the Sierra Atapuerca .

It is carried out on the banks of the Arlanzón River as it passes through Ibeas de Juarros, and all the sediment from each of the deposits excavated in the Sierra de Atapuerca is washed and sifted.

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