Creswell rock art dated

04/21/05

Uranium-series dating shows cave engravings oldest in Britain



An overdrawn photo of the stag engraving in Church Hole (please credit Sergio Ripoll)

Full size image available here

A team of scientists from Bristol, The Open and Sheffield Universities have proved the engravings at Creswell Crags to be greater than 12,800 years old, making them Britain's oldest rock art.

Creswell Crags which straddles the Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire border is riddled with caves which have preserved evidence of human activity during the last Ice Age. Recently, engravings on the walls and ceiling were found by archaeologists.

These engravings depict animals such as the European Bison, now extinct from Britain, and other more enigmatic figures. The nature and style of these engravings led archaeologists to wonder if this art was perhaps older than any existing art in Britain.

Dating rock art is notoriously difficult, especially if there are no charcoal-based black pigments that can be radiocarbon dated. However, scientists were able to measure minute traces of radioactive uranium in thin limestone crusts (similar to stalagmites and stalagtites) that had formed over the engravings. These measurements allowed the scientists to establish the age of these stalagmites. Because these have formed over the engravings, they are obviously younger in age and therefore dating them provides a minimum age for the art.

The dates indicate the stalagmite in Church Hole which contains most of the engravings formed 12,800 years ago. The results establish once and for all the authenticity and Ice-Age antiquity of the rock art, and make it the oldest known in Britain. Artefacts left by Ice-Age hunter-gathers excavated from Creswell's caves have been dated to 13,000-15,000 years old. The new results indicate the art was probably left by the groups of people who made these artefacts. During this cold period the polar ice caps were much larger than today, resulting in considerably lower sea levels. Due to this, much of the North Sea was dry land a vast plain with hills and lakes on which it seems small groups of highly mobile hunter-gatherers were living.

Archaeologists think that these groups would visit Creswell and other sites in Britain in the Spring to exploit horses, reindeer and arctic hare for their meat, hides and fur. Similar rock art left by these groups had been discovered in France and Germany, but none had been found in Britain until recently. The new dates demonstrate that the groups reaching Britain had the same artistic traditions as their European counterparts.

Dr. Alistair Pike an archaeological scientist at the University of Bristol said: "It is rare to be able to scientifically date rock art and we were very fortunate some of the engravings were covered by thin flowstones. The contemporaneity and stylistic similarity of the Church Hole and Robin Hood cave engravings and many examples in the continent reveals a close connection between Magdalenian peoples stretching over several thousand kilometers."

Source: Eurekalert & others

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