Discovery of Palaeolithic Cave Art in Britain. (Research)

By Bahn, Paul; Pettitt, Paul et al. | Antiquity, June 2003 | Go to article overview
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Discovery of Palaeolithic Cave Art in Britain. (Research)


Bahn, Paul, Pettitt, Paul, Ripoll, Sergio, Antiquity


Antiquity is pleased to present here a preliminary account of the first discovery of Palaeolithic cave art in Britain.

On 14 April 2003 we made the first discovery of Palaeolithic cave art in Britain. Since portable art of the period has long been known in this country (Sieveking 1972; Campbell 1977: vol. 2, figs 102, 105, 143), it has always seemed probable that parietal art must also have existed. We knew that we were most unlikely to discover paintings, since these are generally quite visible; but as far as we knew, nobody with a trained eye and advantageous lighting had combed the British caves in search of engravings, which are often extremely difficult to see. Such was the purpose of our initial survey and, sure enough, we rapidly encountered engraved marks in a number of caves, which we will be investigating more fully and systematically in the near future. At the well-known sites of Creswell Crags, in Derbyshire, we found both figurative and non-figurative engravings of the period. What follows is a brief, preliminary announcement of a discovery soon to be further amplified in print following systematic investigation.

This is third time lucky for British cave art, following two false alarms. In 1912 the abbe Henri Breuil and W. J. Sollas claimed that ten wide, red, parallel horizontal painted stripes under calcite in the Welsh coastal cave of Bacon Hole (east of Paviland) were 'the first example in Great Britain of prehistoric cave painting' (see The Times 14 October 1912: 10; Sollas 1924: 530-31; Garrod 1926: 70); but Breuil later stated (1952: 25) that their age could not be fixed. Subsequently, these marks rapidly faded, and are now thought to have been natural or to have been left by a nineteenth-century sailor cleaning his paint brush (Garrod, ibid.; Houlder 1974: 159; Daniel 1981: 81, Morgan, W.L. 1913).

In 1981 the Illustrated London News rashly published--without verification of any kind--an 'exclusive' claiming the discovery of Palaeolithic animal engravings in the small cave of Symonds Yat in the Wye Valley (Rogers et al. 1981; Rogers 1981). Subsequent investigation showed that the marks were entirely natural, and that the claim was groundless (Daniel 1981: 81-82; Sieveking 1981, 1982; and for a grudging retraction, The Illustrated London News, May 1981: 24).

In the case of our own discoveries, there should be no doubt either of their existence or of their great age. The most notable figures have been encountered in Church Hole cave, Creswell Crags. It contained Pleistocene and Holocene deposits reaching almost up to its roof, albeit irregularly, which were excavated in the 1870s by the Reverend J. Magens Mello and Sir William Boyd Dawkins. These contained Late Glacial archaeology that was termed 'Creswellian' by Garrod in 1926, and for which several radiocarbon dates place the Creswellian occupation between c. 12000 and 12500 BP (e.g. Mello 1877; Campbell 1977; Jacobi 1991). We included Church Hole in our preliminary survey because of this known presence of Late Glacial archaeology.

For the moment we have identified two areas of incised figures in this cave. The first is about 3.5 metres above the present floor. Here is a figure which in our very preliminary interpretation is that of a male caprid, possibly an ibex, facing left, and slightly inclined downwards at the front (Figure 1). It measures 57.2 cm in length from the muzzle to the rump, and 40.4 cm in height from the extremity of the horn to the end of the front leg. It is represented in semi-twisted perspective, that is, both horns are depicted, but only one of the rest of the paired elements--i.e. legs, ears and eyes--is drawn. There may be some interior markings, but until we carry out a more detailed analysis these may correspond to another figure underneath. The groove of the incision is totally patinated, and relatively narrow (about 3-5 mm) and shallow (less than 5 mm), and U-shaped in section.

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