19 August 2007
Rare carving found at famous British cave
A mammoth carved on to a wall in Cheddar Caves (Somerset, England) 13,000 years ago is being hailed as one of the most significant examples of prehistoric art ever found in Britain. The carving - a little larger than a man's hand, is only the second piece of representational cave art found in Britain, and archaeologists date the engraving, which is hard to see because of erosion, back to the Upper Palaeolithic period. What makes the new find all the more sensational is that unlike the abstract rock art previously found in the area, this image reveals the clear outline of an animal – a mammoth, in fact.
Britain had a flourishing Stone Age culture but, unlike prehistoric sites in France and Spain, no cave paintings or carvings had been found until recently, when the discovery of Stone Age carvings of animals and humans at Cresswell Crags, near Sheffield, launched a new hunt for prehistoric cave art.
Graham Mullan and Linda Wilson, of Bristol University, have spent several years minutely examining various Cheddar Caves for almost imperceptible carvings, using sophisticated new lighting techniques. So far they have uncovered geometrical carvings in Long Hole, and the 13,000-year-old mammoth in Gough's Cave. Experts believe the carving, in an isolated niche, may have been used by tribal shamans in religious rituals. It lies beyond the main living area of the Stone Age tribe who inhabited the cave. It takes an expert eye to see the carving which has just gone on show to the public. The creature's huge tusks are the clearest feature.
Cheddar Caves director Hugh Cornwell said: "Gough's Cave has always been one of Britain's most important prehistoric sites, and inhabited for more than 1,000 years by our hunter-gatherer ancestors. The country's first evidence of cannibalism was found here, and also Britain's oldest complete skeleton, Cheddar Man." Mr Cornwell added: "The mammoth carving was found just beyond the daylight zone, where our ancestors ate and slept. It may have been a secret inner chamber, only used by shamans to invoke their animal gods. Now, thanks to special lighting and a small display, all our customers can walk in and admire our mammoth."
Mr Mullan said: "Before the discovery of the Cresswell Crags carvings, I was one of the people who argued that there was nothing of the kind in this country at all. This shows that the people of Cheddar were doing the same sort of thing as their contemporaries in France. Some people are even suggesting that the work at Cheddar is so similar to that at Cresswell Crags that it must have been carried out by the same people."
The carvings predate the famous Cheddar Man skeleton by 4,000 years. Caves spokesman Bob Smart, said: "The mammoth dates from the golden age of cave art in Europe, but by the time of Cheddar Man, who died 9,000 years ago, it seems they had moved on to other forms of art and religion."
The society's research into the engravings is being carried out with the British Museum's Department of Prehistory and Europe.
Jill Cook, deputy keeper in the department, added: "Cave art is so rare here that we must always question and test to make sure we are getting it right. Opinions on this may differ but we do seem to be looking at an area of ancient rock surface and the lines which appear to form the head and back of the mammoth could have been made by a stone tool. They are certainly different from natural markings on the cave wall."
Sources: Western Daily Press (14 August 2007), BBC News (15 August 2007), Rose Shillito for 24 Hour Museum (16 August 2007)