Hunting for cave art
Archaeology of industry
Editor Simon Denison
Art of the Hunters
Paul Bahn describes how the first Ice Age cave art in Britain was found earlier this year at Creswell Crags
I have wanted to find Ice Age cave art in Britain for more than 25 years, and that dream has finally come true. It is perhaps slightly ironic that the discovery has come in the year that marks the centenary of cave art being found in several important Spanish caves such as Covalanas and El Castillo. Britain has had to wait a long time, but its hour has come at last.
There was never any reason why cave art should not exist in this country. After all, we have no lack of caves with Upper Palaeolithic occupation, and we already had a few pieces of portable art from the period, most notably the figurative specimens from Creswell Crags - the horsehead from Robin Hood's Cave and the humanoid from Pin Hole Cave. So why no cave art? Belgium is equally rich in occupied caves, and considerably richer in portable art, but likewise had no cave art. It seemed simply to be an accepted fact of Ice Age studies that cave art stopped in Normandy, and there was nothing further north. It was a phenomenon of France, Spain and Italy. The United Kingdom had 'nul points'.
There had been two false alarms in the past which did not help matters - and nor did the portable engraving of a horsehead from Sherborne which divided opinion for decades until finally proven a fake a few years ago. The first claim came in 1912 when the already eminent abbé Henri Breuil from France, and WJ Sollas from Britain, declared in The Times of 14 October that ten wide red parallel horizontal painted stripes in the cave of Bacon Hole on the coast of South Wales were 'the first example in Great Britain of prehistoric cave painting.'
Breuil later admitted that the age of these stripes could not be fixed, and in any case they quickly faded, and are now reckoned to have been entirely natural, or marks left by a Victorian sailor cleaning a paint brush.
As for the second claim, I still remember vividly the moment when, in January 1981, I spotted in my local branch of WH Smith the new issue of the Illustrated London News, bearing on its cover the words 'Cave Art Discovery in Britain: Exclusive Pictures'. My reaction, of course, was 'Damn, I wanted to do that!' (or words to that effect). I was somewhat puzzled and relieved when I opened the magazine and saw the photographs, because I could see nothing that looked like any cave art with which I was familiar.
And sure enough, when specialists went to the cave - Symonds Yat in the Wye Valley - they found absolutely nothing but natural marks. The principal claimant, a mysterious Canadian called Tom Rogers, rapidly vanished from the archaeological scene; while the Illustrated London News, which had so rashly published its 'exclusive' without any verification, printed a grudging retraction, and soon ceased to cover archaeology altogether. So that episode was very damaging - not least because, once the ILN had cried wolf, any future claim for British cave art would need to be rock solid.
Over the next couple of decades I tried to expand and improve my knowledge and experience of Ice Age cave art. It seemed obvious to me that - short of finding a new cave, or a new chamber in a known cave - no paintings from the period were likely to be discovered in Britain. They tend to be quite visible, and somebody - speleologist, tourist, owner - would surely have spotted them by now.
Obscured by light
But as far as I was aware, nobody with an experienced and practised eye had combed the British cave sites looking for engravings, which can be notoriously difficult to see, even when one knows they are there. Since engravings are usually incised with the light coming in from the side, to avoid the shadow of the artist's hand obscuring his or her view, they often require lighting from the side to be seen clearly. Frontal lighting can render them quite invisible. And it takes experience to be able to differentiate natural cracks from engraved lines.
Some years ago, I met Sergio Ripoll of Spain's Open University. A leading specialist in cave art, Sergio comes from one of Spain's foremost archaeological families, and his father Eduardo has also been a major figure in prehistoric art studies for decades. I think I have developed a pretty good eye for cave art, but Sergio has the keenest eyes I know, as well as a lot of luck, which is equally important. We made plans that one day we would explore some British caves together to try and find Ice Age engravings. But time passed, and we could never settle on a period when we were both free.
The catalyst was the founders' and benefactors' feast at Keble College, Oxford, last November, to which I was invited by Paul Pettitt, with whom I had recently written a paper for Antiquity in which we expressed serious misgivings about the reliability of the very early dates for the art in Chauvet cave. That evening I told Paul of my unfulfilled plans to explore some caves, and he immediately offered to deal with the logistics, contacting the relevant cave owners and fixing a timetable and itinerary. All three of us would be free a few days before Easter.
By pure chance, and for practical reasons, it was decided that we would begin our survey at Creswell Crags, on the border between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. And so it was that, on the very first morning of our search, on 14 April this year, we found engravings in not one but three caves.
Some apparently non-figurative marks were first found in Robin Hood's Cave, and other marks - plus a possible animal head - in Mother Grundy's Parlour. However, it was in Church Hole Cave that we hit the jackpot, despite having almost decided not to check that site, since its 19th century excavations had revealed primarily Middle Palaeolithic occupation albeit with some Creswellian material above.
Inside the cave
In Church Hole we first found a pair of deeply engraved enigmatic motifs on the wall which looked to us like two bird figures, possibly a crane and a bird of prey. But then Sergio made our greatest discovery so far. It was a large figure of a goat - clearly a male from its proportions - which bowled us over not only by its size (about 57 cm long) but also by the beauty of its head.
The body was mostly obscured by scratched graffiti, some dating to 1948. But by some miracle the graffiti - whose creators had doubtless not seen the animal figure - missed the head, which remains pristine. When not lit from the side, it is virtually impossible to see, which explains the fact that we were probably the first people to notice it since the Ice Age.
The one positive aspect of the graffiti was that, being very bright and sharp, they provided a stark contrast to the darkly patinated lines of the animal figure, a crucial proof that the goat is far older than 1948 and could not possibly be a modern fake. Our initial assessment is that this is a figure of a male ibex, and its style suggests a date of 12,500-12,000 years ago.
What are the implications of this discovery? Quite apart from the fact that we have discovered the oldest rock art known in Britain, this country has at last been added to the distribution map of decorated Ice Age sites in Eurasia. At a stroke, the most northerly known decorated cave leaps 280 miles (450 km) from Gouy, near Rouen, to Creswell Crags in Derbyshire. But this should not cause too much of a surprise - as mentioned above, portable art of the period was already known here, and Britain was physically linked to the continent at this time.
Ibex in Britain
The subject matter is more surprising, since ibex have never been known in this country, and their remains are extremely sparse in Britain's archaeological material from the Ice Age. But we know from the location of countless flints, fossils and seashells throughout western Europe that people in this period were highly mobile, moving great distances, often seasonally, and would thus have been familiar with many different regions.
In addition, discoveries in the past 20 years of open-air Ice Age rock engravings have made it clear that caves and rock-shelters were not the only surfaces to be decorated. Artists were also adorning rocks along rivers, on plateaux, on mountainsides, and so on. In short, people were surrounded everywhere by rock art, including, no doubt, in southern Britain, even though none of it is likely to have survived the rigours of our climate.
So this helps explain how the rules and canons of Ice Age art came to span such vast sweeps of space and time - from Portugal to the Urals, over at least 20,000 years - and makes it easy to understand why the Creswell ibex is quite typical of the genre. In technique and style, and in its proportions, this figure would be equally at home in a French or Spanish cave, and had it been found there it would be acclaimed as a world-class image. The fact that this is 'British' art is meaningless in a sense, since it forms part of a geographic continuum. But nevertheless it arouses a certain amount of national pride - we have cave art too.
And of course, it is a classic phenomenon in archaeology that once something has been looked for, and been shown to exist, it starts being found elsewhere. It is a fair bet that more cave art will soon be found in Britain, and there is every hope that a major decorated cave - or perhaps several - awaits discovery by some lucky individuals in this country. A new chapter in British prehistory has now been opened.
Paul Bahn is a freelance archaeologist and writer, and a specialist in prehistoric art
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005