Unprecedented Ice Age Cave Art Discovered in U.K.

John Pickrell in England
for National Geographic News
August 18, 2004
Vivid frescoes of stampeding bulls, horses, and other animals drawn by Stone Age artisans grace the walls of many European caves. The most spectacular examples are found in Altimera in Spain and Lascaux and Chauvet in France.

For many years the total lack of cave art in Britain dating to the same period perplexed researchers. Britain was inhabited, after all. And throughout the Ice Age, it was linked to mainland Europe by a land bridge.

Last year researchers discovered a handful of simple bird and animal carvings in the caves of Creswell Crags, a limestone gorge in Nottinghamshire, northern England.

The finding proved for the first time that ancient Britons were capable of producing artwork similar to that of their Paleolithic (early Stone Age) counterparts on continental Europe.

Now more extensive surveys undertaken this year reveal that the English caves may hold the most elaborate Ice Age cave-art ceiling ever discovered. Up to 80 carvings of animals, dancing women, and geometric patterns have now been discovered.

Cosmological Significance

Researchers behind the discovery claim it is the most important find from the British Paleolithic since 500,000-year-old hominid remains were uncovered in Boxgrove, West Sussex, in 1993.

"Last year we were astounded to have discovered perhaps half a dozen isolated images," said Paul Pettitt, a University of Sheffield archaeologist behind the find. "Now it seems there are more than ten times that number of carvings."

"This find represents the most richly carved ceiling in the whole of cave art … [and] demonstrates that cave art is spread across a much wider geographical area than we originally thought," he said.

Animals depicted on the cave ceiling include bison, wild horses, bears, and ibex—species which went extinct in Britain at the end of the Ice Age 10,000 years ago. Species still found in the U.K. today, such as red deer stags, are also recorded in the rock.

Other themes include "conga lines" of what are believed to represent dancing women and stylized depictions of female genitalia, Pettittt said. Both forms are typical of continental cave art from the same period.

The dancing women may have some ancient religious or cosmological significance, Pettitt said. "The art is perhaps recording a spiritual dance at some very important religious event."

British First

Pettitt and his archaeologist colleagues Sergio Ripoli, of the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia in Madrid, and Paul Bahn, an independent expert on cave art, first discovered a small number of the carvings in April 2003 in caves known to have been inhabited before the end of the Ice Age.

The researchers described their initial find in the June 2003 issue of the archaeological journal Antiquity.

Other archaeological artifacts, such as figures and needles carved from bone, had previously been found at Creswell Crags. The objects, which dated to 12,000 to 13,000 years old, prompted Pettitt and his colleagues to scour the site for cave art.

The team's discovery of the carvings was widely reported in the media last year as the only Paleolithic cave art ever known from the U.K. Most other ancient British rock art is 8,000 years more recent than the art at Creswell Crags and is found on open rock faces.

Pettitt said his team used "stylistic comparison" with continental cave art and carbon dating of artifacts found at Creswell Crags to set a rough date for the art last year.

However, co-workers at Oxford University are now completing what's known as uranium-series dating. This type of dating, which measures the rate of decay of isotopes of uranium, is a useful method to date artifacts that contain no carbon and cannot be dated with more common radiocarbon dating methods.

The soon-to-be-released results will verify the estimated date of the cave art, Pettitt said.

Slow-growing stalactites and other mineral aggregations, which have built up on the surface of some of the carvings, were already an indication of the art's prehistoric provenance.

"Psychological Barrier"

Some experts have argued that cave paintings are quickly degraded in the damp British climate.

Jon Humble is an inspector of ancient monuments with the government conservation body English Heritage, based in Northampton. He suggests that some experts were too quick to dismiss the possibility that lasting art from Paleolithic peoples could be found in Britain.

"There had been a psychological barrier to the existence of cave art in Britain … but never a satisfactory explanation as to why there was none," he said.

The spectacular discovery at Creswell Crags now firmly places Britain on the cave-art map, Humble said. "The people who lived at Creswell Crags 13,000 years ago have quite literally carved out its place in prehistory, the present, and indeed the future," he said.

The carvings were not discovered sooner because they are nearly impossible to discern. Over the years the carvings have weathered drastically and are poorly lit.

"Now we know what to look for," Pettitt said. "I suspect there's a lot more British cave art out there to be found."

Prior to the discoveries at Creswell Crags, only two previous examples of Paleolithic British cave art had been reported. One was revealed to be a hoax, the other a false alarm.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.