Paviland Cave: Contextualizing the 'Red Lady.'

By Aldhouse-Green, Stephen; Pettitt, Paul | Antiquity, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Paviland Cave: Contextualizing the 'Red Lady.'


Aldhouse-Green, Stephen, Pettitt, Paul, Antiquity


Introduction

The first recorded discovery of fossil human remains took place at Goat's Hole Cave at Paviland on the Gower peninsula of South Wales in January 1823. These remains, of a young adult male ceremonially buried with ivory ornaments and perforated sea-shells and covered with red ochre, soon became known as the 'Red Lady of Paviland'. The reason for this attribution lay in the misinterpretation by the excavator, the Rev. William Buckland, of the skeleton as that of a Roman prostitute or witch. Buckland's account is published in his Reliquiae Diluvianae (1823), a work whose title - 'evidence of the flood' - reminds us that Buckland, at this stage of his career, was working in the context of a belief in the literal truth of the universal deluge recorded in Genesis, chapters 6-8.

Excavations in 1912 by one of Buckland's successors as Professor of Geology at the University of Oxford, William Sollas, provided the most comprehensive account of the site available. Sollas, unlike Buckland, collected and analysed the abundant lithic artefacts from the site and identified the cave as, principally, an 'Aurignacian station' but with Mousterian artefacts present also (Sollas 1913). Unfortunately, Sollas recognized no meaningful stratification within the Palaeolithic levels and - until the current comprehensive dating programme the interpretation of the rich collection from the site had remained accessible only through typological analysis.

Typological study continued, notably by Garrod (1926), Campbell (1977) and Jacobi (1980). In parallel with this activity, several radiocarbon dates were obtained of which the first was a determination, on the bones of the 'Red Lady' himself, of 18,460[+ or -]340 b.p. (BM-374) (Oakley 1968; 1971). It is fair to say that this result was not given wide credence, principally because the age obtained was broadly coeval with the Last Glacial Maximum when glacier ice lay only half an hour's walk north of the cave (Bowen 1970). Later, Molleson & Burleigh (1978) cast doubt on any simple relationship between the radiocarbon age of the burial and the occupation(s) through their dating of a Bos bone to 27,600[+ or -]1300 b.p. (BM-1367). Unfortunately, the bone is not recorded to have been humanly modified and thus, whilst indicative of the possibility of carnivore presence at that time, it did not conclusively identify the meat-eaters as human or animal. Garrod (1926: 62-3) had also argued that a mammoth skull, found complete with tusks, 'formed part of the ceremonial interment'. Jacobi (1980, 31) saw the skull as material for an ivory workshop and regarded the burial, and therefore the skull, as most probably Aurignacian in date on the basis of parallels in Belgium to the ivory bracelets and rods apparently associated with the 'Red Lady'. He also argued that the burial could scarcely belong to the period of the Last Glacial Maximum since there was no evidence for settlement at that time nearer than almost 1000 km to Paviland.

The preceding arguments depend on a number of important factors: the age of the burial itself; the plausibility of settlement in Gower so close to the Glacial Maximum when northwestern Europe had seemingly been abandoned; the suggestion that a mammoth skull had formed part of the burial assemblage; and whether the ivory grave-goods were Aurignacian, which would imply that both ivory-working and the burial were of that age. Soon another scholar (Campbell 1986) was to propose a wholly contrary view, rooted in his experience of working in the Antipodes, that hunters would operate right up to the edge of the ice and that the view of a British peninsula abandoned during the intense cold of the Last Glacial Maximum was ultimately ethnocentric and influenced by modern Western concepts of comfort. In the same year, Gamble (1986: 185) summarized the evidence as indicating that settlement in Britain had ended by 27,000 BP. However, the debate was soon to move on for, in 1989, a new determination on the 'Red Lady' was published (Hedges et al. …

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