On Tuesday this week (26 July 2011) Bristol University announced the discovery of a carving of a speared reindeer in a cave on the Gower Peninsula. It is thought the carving could be over 14 000 years old and is possibly Britain's oldest known art.
The Gower Cave Carving.
The carving was discovered in September 2010 by Dr George Nash of the university's Department of Archaeology and Anthropology in an as yet undisclosed location in a cave on the peninsula. It is located in a very tight niche, where it is thought the artist would only have been able to use their right hand. The cave was already a known archaeological sight; in the 1950s researchers from the University of Cambridge found several hundred flint tools there, which were dated to 12 000-14 000 BC (i.e. 14 000 - 16 000 years ago).
The Gower Peninsula is also the location of Europe's oldest known ceremonial burial, the Red Lady of Paviland (actually a man), discovered in Goats's Hill Cave in 1823 by the Rev. William Buckland, the leading geologist and palaeontologist of the day (and inventor of the post-it note). At the time the skeleton, which was dyed red with ochre, was thought to be a Romano-British woman, but since discovered to be the skeleton of a young (at most 21 years old) man, dating from approximately 33 000 years ago.
The Red Lady of Paviland, now on display in the National Museum of Cardiff.
Cave paintings are not well known in the UK, but they have also been found in the Creswell Crags on the Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire border. The Creswell Crags caves appear to have been occupied on and off since about 43 000 BC, but the cave art is thought to be between 13 000 and 15 000 years old, so the Gower Peninsula claim for the oldest art is a a bit dubious. The Creswell Crags art is much more extensive with a number of carvings of animals and birds. They are also the most northerly cave paintings in Europe.
Bird carving from Creswell Crags.
Whichever of these is the older, the finds are important for what they tell us than because either one is the oldest; science is more than just a competition. Between 18 000 and 10 000 years ago Britain was suffering the most severe glaciation of the Devensian Ice Age, though this was not as severe as some previous ice ages, and did leave both the English Midlands and the South Wales coast free of permanent glaciation. Between 12 900 and 11 500 years ago a period called the Younger Dryas was causing particularly cold and dry conditions. It is notable that both the Gower and Creswell Crags art seem to pre-date this; the Younger Dyas may have been to severe for the artists, leading to a stop in British cave art soon after it started.
Despite Britain having been the subject of palaeoanthropological investigation longer than any other country, there is clearly still much to be found here.
See also: Out of Africa(?)