12 December 2005
Cave paintings discovered in Britain are 12,800 years old
Britain's first cave art is more than 12,800 years old, scientific testing has shown. Engravings of a deer and other creatures at Creswell Crags, in Derbyshire (England), have proved to be genuine Ice Age creations, and not modern fakes, as some had feared.
The engravings were found in 2003 at two caves, Church Hole and Robin Hood’s Cave, which lie close together in the Creswell gorge. Palaeolithic occupation deposits dating to the last Ice Age were excavated there in 1875-76, but the art remained unnoticed. Although the most notable finds were from 15,000-13,000 years ago, even older tools were noted, some dating to the Middle Palaeolithic between 60,000 and 40,000 years ago, others a few millennia later.
If the art was genuine, therefore, it could belong to any of these periods, although Middle Palaeolithic art is still so rare as to be highly unlikely. There are no paintings like those at Lascaux and other noted French cave art sites — or, if there were, they have vanished. Many French sites, including Lascaux, have engravings also, and the Creswell art fits into this category. The red deer and the stylised figures, which may be schematic women (as at Gönnersdorf, near Cologne) or birds, fit into continental categories of art in the Magdalenian period, which ended about 10,000 years ago; there are also enigmatic 'notches' and other signs which seem to be made by humans but which do not form coherent designs.
Alistair Pike, of Bristol University, and his colleagues have now shown that the Creswell art is genuine, by analysing the thin film of stalagmite called 'flowstone' which has formed over the engravings since they were made. A process known as uranium-series disequilibrium dating, which relies on the relative insolubility of the radioactive element thorium-230 compared with uranium-234 and 238, can be used to date stalagmites back to around 500,000 years ago. "We conclude that in Church Hole the ‘notches’ are more than 12,630 years old, and the females/birds are at least 12,800 years old, with 95 per cent statistical confidence," the team reports in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
This fits with a series of recent radiocarbon dates run by Oxford University on cut bones and antler artefacts from the caves. The dates are minimal, the team say, noting that "we cannot entirely rule out the possibility that the art is significantly earlier".
One piece of portable art, an engraved bone from Pin Hole Cave, seems to be from a species of woolly rhinoceros extinct since 20,000 years ago. However, a date between 13,000 and 11,000 years ago is the best fit with all the evidence. The discoveries are important in extending the known area of Magdalenian settlement considerably to the north and west, to the edge of the inhabited world then.
Sources: Journal of Archaeological Science, The Times (7 December 2005)