26 July 2011
Carving of a reindeer could be the oldest rock art in Britain
Archaeologist George Nash, a part-time academic for Bristol University, believes a wall carving in a south Wales cave could be Britain's oldest example of rock art. The faint scratchings of a speared reindeer are believed to have been carved by a hunter-gatherer in the Ice Age more than 14,000 years ago. Dr Nash found the carving on the Gower peninsula in September 2010. Experts are working to verify the discovery, although its exact location is being kept secret for now.
"For 20-odd years I have been taking students to this cave and talking about what was going on there," Dr Nash said. "They went back to their cars and the bus and I decided to have a little snoop around in the cave as I've never had the chance to do it before. Within a couple of minutes I was scrubbing at the back of a very strange and awkward recess and there a very faint image bounced in front of me - I couldn't believe my eyes," he added.
Dr Nash said that the discovery of flint tools in the cave in the 1950s could hold the key to the carving's true date. "This drawing was done with the right hand and the niche is very, very tight and the engraving has been done by somebody using a piece of flint who has drawn a classic reindeer design. My colleagues in England have been doing some work in Nottinghamshire at Creswell Crags and got very nice dates for a red deer and one or two other images of around 12,000-14,000 BCE. I think this [newly found carving] may be roughly the same period or may be even earlier," said Dr Nash.
The archaeologist added: "We know from the glacial geology of the area this was an open area just before the ice limit came down from the glaciers 15,000-20,000 years ago and it stops just about 2km short of the cave site. We know hunter fisher gatherers were roaming around this landscape, albeit seasonally, and they were burying their dead 30,000 years ago and making their mark through artistic endeavour between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago."
Dr Nash, who has undertaken extensive field-work on prehistoric rock-art sites in Scandinavia, said several characteristics of the reindeer carving - notably its elongated torso filled in with vertical and diagonal lines and the shape of its muzzle and antlers - resemble those found along Norway's fjords. The carving, measuring 6in x 4in, is some 36ft from the cave entrance, which has receded over the years through natural erosion, and the archaeologist theorises that it may have been a shrine.
Expert opinion is divided before the results of the dating tests. Chris Stringer, professor of palaeontology at the Natural History Museum, said: "This certainly looks like real Palaeolithic art, with later sediment covering it, and may be of comparable age to the Creswell discoveries." However, Paul Bahn, author of Prehistoric Rock Art, published by Cambridge University Press, expressed serious reservations. He said it was a "very
interesting discovery, as we have very few engravings of animals in British rock art", but added: "I would need lots more information on this new find before making a definitive pronouncement" He went on: "It looks absolutely nothing like Ice Age depictions to me. It is extremely angular and schematic and so, if genuinely prehistoric, I would put it rather later - Mesolithic, Neolithic or even later." But Alistair Pike, head of archeology and anthropology at Bristol University, said: "It is incredibly exciting. It seemed impossible that Creswell could be the only example of cave art in the UK. Lo and behold, here it is in Wales."
Scientific dating tests, analysing the build-up of calcium carbonate within deposits on the cave wall, are being conducted by Peter van Calsteren, an isotope geo-chemist at the Open University. His findings are expected this week.
Edited from The Sunday Times (24 July 2011), BBC News (25 July 2011)