Paul G Bahn


On 14 April 2003, we made the first discovery of Palaeolithic cave art in Britain. Since portable art of the period had long been known in this country (Sieveking 1972; Campbell 1977: vol. 2, figs. 102, 105, 143), it had always seemed probable that parietal art must also have existed. It was fairly obvious that paintings were unlikely to be discovered—barring the finding of a totally unknown cave or a new chamber within a known cave—since paintings tend to be quite visible, and somebody (whether owner, speleologist, or tourist) would probably have reported them by now. Engravings, in contrast, can be extraordinarily difficult to see without a practised eye, oblique lighting, and, often, a great deal of luck. Such was the purpose of our initial survey and, sure enough, we rapidly encountered engraved marks in a number of caves, which we will be investigating more fully and systematically in the near future. At the well-known sites of Creswell Crags, on the Derbyshire/Nottinghamshire border, we found both figurative and non-figurative engravings of the period.

This was third time lucky for British cave art, following two false alarms. In the first, in 1912 the abbe Henri Breuil and W. J. Sollas claimed that ten wide red parallel horizontal painted stripes under calcite in the Welsh coastal cave of Bacon Hole (east of Paviland) were 'the first example in Great Britain of prehistoric cave painting' (see The Times, 14 Oct. 1912, p. 10; Sollas 1924: 530-1; Garrod 1926: 70; Grigson 1957:43-4); but Breuil later stated (1952: 25)

I am most grateful to Brian Chambers, Andrew Chamberlain, Nigel Larkin and Gillian Varndell for help with the documentation for this article, and to Carole Watkin for the source of Gascoyne's phrase.

that their age could not be fixed. Subsequently, these marks rapidly faded, and are now thought to have been natural or to have been left by a nineteenth-century sailor cleaning his paint brush (Morgan 1913; Garrod 1926; Houlder 1974: 159; Daniel 1981: 81) In 1981, the Illustrated London News rashly published—without verification of any kind—an 'exclusive' claiming the discovery of Palaeolithic animal engravings in the small cave of Symonds Yat in the Wye Valley (Rogers et al. 1981; Rogers 1981). Subsequent investigation showed that the marks were entirely natural, and that the claim was utterly groundless (Daniel 1981: 81-2; Sieveking 1982; Sieveking and Sieveking 1981; and, for a grudging retraction, Illustrated London News, May 1981, p. 24).

The discovery

It had been a long-standing ambition of one of us (PB) to seek Palaeolithic cave art in Britain, since he could see no reason why it should not exist. As time passed, the project changed from the dream of one into a team of three when the other two members were invited to join: SR for his huge experience in detecting and recording Palaeolithic art, and PP for his expertise in the British Palaeolithic and familiarity with British caves. It was decided to carry out a very preliminary three-day survey in April 2003, visiting a number of the best-known caves in southern and central Britain; pure chance led the team to begin at Creswell Crags on 14 April, and through a mixture of luck and skill a number of figurative engravings were discovered that first morning, primarily in Church Hole cave, on the Nottinghamshire side of the valley.

These first figures were initially thought to be two birds and a large ibex, and were published as such (Bahn et al. 2003; Bahn 2003); however, these interpretations, as well as the initial sketches, were based on poor photos taken hurriedly and with inadequate lighting. It was always obvious that the situation would change with improved lighting and better access to the walls. The principal problem was that, like the other inhabited caves of Creswell Crags, Church Hole had been crudely emptied of its sediments over the course of a few weeks in the 1870s. Hence the Upper Palaeolithic floor level in the entrance chamber was about 2 metres higher than the present floor. By chance, the Victorians had left a small ledge of the palaeolithic floor sticking out on the left side as one enters, and it is quite easy to climb up onto it. This explains why so many visitors over the next century (until the cave was closed in the 1970s) climbed onto this ledge and, in their flush of triumph at such a 'feat', felt the need to inscribe their names or the date on the rock in front of them, not realizing that it bore ancient engravings. It was also the presence of this very ledge which enabled us to make our major discovery; for without it,

SR would not have been able to climb up to investigate the vertical line which had struck him from below as being interesting. The stag figure (originally thought to be an ibex) is only visible from the present floor level if one knows where to look and how to light it—otherwise it is quite undetectable, which of course explains why it had not been spotted before.

Some people in the recent past, however, certainly saw it. In the 1870s, when there were no graffiti on it, the figure must have been quite visible to those standing in its vicinity, even just with natural daylight. Opposite the stag is a fine graffito by J. Gascoyne (a ubiquitous presence in the Creswell caves), marked 'April 12 1870. And of such is the Kingdom of God' (a quotation from Mark 10: 14). Visitors like Gascoyne, and of course the workers who cleared out the sediments, must have seen the large stag at their eye-level, but at that time cave art had not yet been discovered—the first strong claim for its existence came in 1880, with Altamira (see Bahn and Vertut 1997: 17)—so a drawing of this kind in a cave had no significance whatsoever for anyone in the 1870s.

The incised and scraped modern graffiti on the stag, although disfiguring and annoying, nevertheless played a useful role in that some of them are dated (1948, 1957), and their brightness and sharpness form a complete contrast with the lines of the stag, which have the same patination as the rock, and hence must be considerably older. However, it seems that one visitor at least did see and identify the figure as a male goat (as we ourselves did, initially), because at some point—we estimate in the 1960s or even 1970s, going by the brightness and sharpness of the incisions—a 'beard', comprising a series of long parallel lines, was carefully engraved from its chin downwards. Had this person reported the figure, he or she could have made a great contribution to British archaeology, instead of simply vandalizing a beautiful image.

The next time in the year when all three of our team were free to resume the work at Creswell was from 25 June onwards. Immediately before our arrival on that day—now with a fourth member of the team, Francisco Munoz— English Heritage had installed scaffolding in Church Hole, with a platform at the Upper Palaeolithic floor level. This transformed the situation, since it not only allowed us to stand back from the stag panel and view it properly (instead of clinging precariously to the rock while trying not to slip off the narrow ledge) but also gave us access to the rest of the walls and the ceiling. Immediately on arrival that day, our second major discovery was made: the bovid engraving to the right of the large stag. Today this stands over a void, but is so easily visible that we would certainly have found it on 14 April had the ledge extended to it. From the present floor level, however, the bovid, like all the other images subsequently found in the entrance chamber, is virtually invisible unless one knows it is there and can light it appropriately. As will be

Fig. 1.1. The Robin Hood Cave horse engraving

seen below (Ripoll and Munoz, this volume), a total of thirteen engravings were found in 2003.

Why Creswell?

One of the reasons why we included Creswell Crags on our list of caves to investigate was not only the presence there of several occupation sites of the Late Upper Palaeolithic, but also and especially the fact that Creswell caves had yielded the only known figurative portable art of the British Palaeolithic.

The first piece, the famous horse-head engraving (e.g. Dawkins 1880: 185), was found by the Revd J. M. Mello in Robin Hood Cave in July 1876, and is now housed in the British Museum. Dawkins described it (1877: 592) as the head and fore quarters of a horse incised on a smoothed and rounded fragment of rib, cut short off at one end and broken at the other. On the flat side the head is represented with the nostrils and mouth and neck carefully drawn. A series of Wne oblique lines show that the animal was hog-maned. They stop at the bend of the back which is very correctly drawn . . .

(See Fig. 1.1.). He felt that comparison with the known portable Palaeolithic horse depictions from the caves of Perigord and Kesslerloch (Switzerland) made it 'tolerably certain' that the Creswell hunters were the same as those of the continent.

However, its discovery and authenticity were seriously challenged at the time: in particular Thomas Heath, the curator of Derby Museum, published a number of pamphlets (e.g. 1880) in which he cast severe doubt on the piece as well as on a Machairodus tooth supposedly found by Dawkins in the same cave. A furious exchange of letters and articles in the press ensued. Heath had insinuated that the engraved bone was placed in the Creswell Crags cave by someone, having been brought from some other place. Dawkins (in Heath

1880: 5) stressed that he, unlike Heath, had been present in Robin Hood Cave when Mello made the discovery. In the course of a protracted discussion in the Manchester City News, a certain John Plant, FGS, of Manchester (who had visited the caves, but played no part in the excavations) stated the following:

We have now heard from both sides their versions of the incidents attending the finding of the incised 'bonelet' and of the Machairodus tooth. It appears these objects were found within four days of each other, in July, 1876. The incised bonelet was the first to be found; it was picked up in the dark Cave by Mr Mello himself, Mr Tiddiman and Professor Dawkins being present. There is no dispute about this object on either side. It is admitted to be identical in colour, style, and feature with similar engraved pieces of bone common to Cave deposits in France and Italy, and is probably a contribution of an etching of a horse from a Palaeolithic School of Art in the Caves at Perigord, to the Pre-historic Exhibition at Creswell Caves. I have seen and studied this early artistic effort of Pre-historic man, and am satisfied that it comes from a French Cave. There is no such thing yet known as a piece of bone bearing marks of intelligible ideas or natural forms from any Pleistocene deposit in the isles of Britain. The broken Machairodus tooth was next to be found by Professor Dawkins, in the presence of Mr. Heath, Mr. Hartley, and a workman. One can gather from the several reports upon these Caves . . . that, from April, 1875, to the end of the Explorations, in 1878, not less than eight thousand separate bones and Pre-historic objects were dug out of the floor deposits by the workmen at Creswell Caves—an enormous quantity it will be admitted. Yet these two specimens—the bone and tooth—are more extraordinary in every point than the whole of the eight thousand other specimens put together. Yet it fell to the happy lot, during a cursory visit to the Caves, of the Rev. J. M. Mello and Professor Dawkins, to pick them up for themselves, almost in the same spot, and within so short a time of each other. The doctrine of chances is acknowledged to be be inexplicable; but to my mind this is an instance of coincidences and lucky chances beyond all precedent... (in Heath 1880: 22)

In short, the engraved horse came under suspicion first because no such object had been found in Britain before—but why should it not be the first?— and secondly because of its association in space and time with the even more suspicious tooth. Plant's conclusion (in Heath 1880: 24) was that 'both the tooth and the incised bone were buried in the Creswell Cave not very long before they were found, in 1876'.

In addition, Frederic Stubbs (who had worked in the cave), in a letter to the Manchester Guardian (Heath 1880: 33), wrote that:

Both Professor Dawkins and Mr Mello affirm that the Machairodus tooth, and the thin white bone with the scratched outline of the horse, came out of the dark cave earth, pretty near the modern surface of the Cave floor; and if so, like the other bones and objects obtained from the Cave, they ought to have been brown, much discoloured, and stained by ages of contact with the damp earth. Instead of this, the tooth and incised bone are very pallid, dry, and white—the two exceptions out of thousands of bones.

It should be noted, however, that a later analysis of the Machairodus tooth strongly supported its authenticity (Oakley 1969: 42-3)—its chemical composition agreed with that of local Upper Pleistocene cave mammals, while its tiny fluorine content was markedly different from that of specimens on the continent. It may simply have been a local fossil picked up by Palaeolithic people.

Subsequently, in Dawkins's words (1925), the Creswell horse was the first proof of the range into Britain of the wonderful art of the French Caves, and the discovery made in the seventies by myself [sic] was published, after a careful scrutiny by Sir John Evans, Sir Augustus Franks, Lord Avebury, General Pitt-Rivers and other leaders, in the quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London. It has remained unchallenged for more than 40 years, and has passed into the literature of anthropology.

However, these words were prompted by the reappearance of the controversy, when, in an edition of his famous book Ancient Hunters, W. J. Sollas (1924: 530) wrote that 'There is a singular absence of any attempt at art in all the paleolithic Stations of England. The horse Wgured here is, I am assured, a forgery introduced into the cave by a mischievous person.'

Dawkins's reaction was swift and severe (1925), stressing that

The charge of forgery is now to be made without clear evidence. In answer to a letter asking for this, Professor Sollas writes to me that it is based on what he was told 'some years ago, I think 1919' by a clergyman since dead, who declined to give names or other particulars. This means that the charge of forgery is founded on gossip without a shred of evidence and unworthy of further notice.

Sollas (1925) himself then explained that he obtained his information from a 'conversation with the Rev. A. A. Mullins, Rector of Langwith-Basset, well known by his exploration of the Langwith Cavern, which is situated within easy reach of Cresswell Crags'. Mullins had told him that the horse engraving had been surreptitiously introduced into the cave, with more than one person having been concerned in 'this nefarious proceeding'. He had refused to name names, but assured Sollas that he spoke of his own personal knowledge. However, in the light of Dawkins's response, Sollas withdrew the statement in his book, and said he would delete the footnote at the earliest opportunity.

One of the factors which seemed to add weight to the authenticity of the horse-head at this time, and which was cited by both Dawkins and Sollas in their exchange, was the new discovery by Leslie Armstrong and G. A. GarWtt of'incised figures of bison and reindeer' (Dawkins 1925) at Creswell Crags,

'especially as they relieve the Aurignacian inhabitants of these islands from the unmerited reproach of an indifference to art' (Sollas 1925). The new finds, made during work carried out between June and October 1924 and first reported in The Times of 22 December that year, came from an excavation in front of Mother Grundy's Parlour: here, amid Palaeolithic stone and bone tools and numerous bones of Pleistocene animals, there had been found engraved bones bearing 'a spirited drawing of a reindeer, another a part of a bison with the head, and a third fragment too small for identification' (see Nature, 115/2879 (3 Jan. 1925), 24) (Fig. 1.2).

Armstrong's account of the excavation (1925) provided drawings and photographs of these three objects (p. 169 and pl. XXII). The reindeer is clear enough, albeit badly drawn, with its outline highlighted in Chinese white for the photograph, an unfortunate and distracting habit of Armstrong's. The 'bison head' looks extremely implausible. As for the lines on the third fragment, Armstrong has by now decided that they depict a rhino head, and he compares it with three known rhino heads from French caves. However, it looks far less plausible than even the highly dubious bison head. Interestingly, an account in Nature (115/2896 (2 May 1925), 658-9) revealed that, after Armstrong's paper was read to the Royal Anthropological Institute in April, a letter from Dawkins was read 'in which he entered a caveat against acceptance of the engravings on bone from Mother Grundy's Parlour as of human origin. In his opinion they were due to the action of roots.' In the ensuing discussion, Sollas had said that he had no doubt they were of human origin, while Garrod stated that 'she was authorised to say that the abbe Breuil, who had examined the fragments that day, was convinced that the reindeer, and some at least of the lines forming the figure which was thought to be a rhinoceros, had undoubtedly been engraved by man. The bison, however, was more doubtful and might possibly be due to root action.' In a later publication, Armstrong (1927: 11) notes that Burkitt agrees fully with his own judgement of the two doubtful pieces, while Dawkins considers that the bison and the rhino muzzle are rootmarks, while everyone admits the 'rhino horn' to be the work of man.

At this point, one must state that the reindeer seems to be of human origin, albeit extremely crude; Garrod (1926: 145) says of it: 'on one [fragment] the lines are undoubtedly made by man, and may represent a cervine animal, drawn on a very small scale, with a fine, rather uncertain line.' The photograph in the British Museum's catalogue (Sieveking 1987: pl. 129) is unclear, but in the description (ibid. 102) it is stated that the bone bears a 'group of lightly engraved lines that can be interpreted as an animal figure (head, neck and trunk of a cervid?) facing left. The engraving is minimal, however, and the perceived animal may owe its existence to a fortuitous grouping of lines'.

Even if the 'rhino' lines were of human origin, their interpretation by Armstrong seems highly tenuous. As Garrod says, 'Mr Armstrong has deciphered a rhinoceros, but although the lines of the supposed horn are clearly and deeply incised, the line which forms the muzzle is due to the action of roots on the bone' (Garrod 1926: 145). As for the 'bison', the opinions of both Dawkins and Breuil seem very sound, and are supported by Sandra Olsen (cited in Sieveking 1987: 102). Garrod says that 'the third engraving, interpreted by Mr Armstrong as the head of a bison, is so much mixed up with lines undoubtedly caused by roots that it is diYcult to decide whether it is the work of man at all' (1926: 145).

In short, therefore, Armstrong appears to have been prone to wishful thinking and overinterpretation of largely natural marks, although his deer image may possibly be acceptable. Shortly afterwards, in 1928, during excavations in Creswell's Pin Hole Cave, he discovered the famous 'Pin Hole Cave man', an engraving on a rib bone which he interpreted as 'a masked human figure in the act of dancing a ceremonial dance' (1928: 28) (Fig. 1.3). He stated that the image was discovered after the bone had its stalagmitic film removed with a solution.

At first sight, all seems well here but, as J. Cook has shown (pers. comm.), the Pin Hole man in fact belongs at least in part to the same category of wishful thinking, reinforced by excessive and inaccurate application of pigment. Exactly the same phenomenon had already occurred with other similar finds by Armstrong elsewhere in England before this period. The flint mines of Grimes Graves are now well established as being neolithic, but in the 1920s and 1930s some researchers believed passionately—and tried to prove—that they dated back to the Palaeolithic. In 1915, an enigmatic piece of'flint crust', with lines cut directly into the cortex, was found by Armstrong, who was a firm believer in the site's Palaeolithic age. Another such piece was found,

Fig. 1.3. The Pin Hole Cave anthropo-morph apparently by Peake, in 1920' Following this discovery Armstrong made sure that 'every fragment of flint crust' unearthed during the course of his excavations was duly carefully examined. Sure enough, in the days that followed, more startling discoveries were made 'a second cortex engraving... portrayed the head and upper torso of a horse with an ''impaling arrow or lance'' apparently penetrating its neck. The depictions were crude' (Russell 2000: 37-8; Armstrong 1922a, 1922 b).

'Favourable comparisons were immediately made between the new discoveries and examples of Old Stone Age art from the south of France. Those who

Fig. 1.4. The Grimes Graves deer

had long argued that the British flint mines predated the Neolithic now had just the evidence they needed' (Russell 2000: 38). In 1921, Armstrong, with his colleague Dr Favell, found four more blocks of floorstone with incised representational depictions—two found by Armstrong himself featured an 'elk or hind', and 'three animal heads, two with horns, seen as deer or ox'. The other two, found by Favell, comprised an unidentified animal, and three parallel lines. Armstrong, in his report, stressed that, since the art of engraving on bone and stone has long been looked upon as a distinctive feature of late Palaeolithic times, then the finding of such items at Grimes Graves was 'of more than ordinary importance' (ibid.).

The pieces of engraved cortex were shown to many eminent scholars: Smith believed in them and regarded them as Palaeolithic; Reinach saw the deer as a likely forgery, while the abbe Breuil ascribed them 'to the time of the dolmens of Portugal' (Varndell 2004). One can only assume that their examination was perfunctory, since the drawings as published bore scant resemblance to true prehistoric imagery. This is especially true of the appalling deer found by Armstrong (1922a; see also Russell 2000: 40) (Fig. 1.4). According to Armstrong, authorities at the Natural History Museum believed this to be an elk, but Breuil was 'equally satisfied' that it was a red deer.

It is also worth stressing that Armstrong (1922a, 1922b) apparently saw no problem or contradiction in the fact that his engravings were closely associated with what he considered to be Mousterian tools, in particular 'large Levallois flakes'.

Russell (2000) wonders who was responsible for these clumsily fabricated engravings, and he notes that only one person seems to have been present every time, over a five-year period, that such finds were made: Armstrong. He also underlines the 'urgency with which Armstrong later defended the Palaeolithic origins for the Norfolk site, and the passion with which he attacked those . . . who doubted him' (Russell 2000: 41). It is even possible that one final piece of evidence, a 'venus figurine' was planted at the site in 1939 amid increased criticism of the Palaeolithic theory—this was the famous 'chalk goddess' of Grimes Graves, found in the last shaft to be dug by Armstrong there. If this is indeed a modern fake, it is by no means clear whether Armstrong made the piece himself (especially as, by this time, he himself was starting to doubt the Palaeolithic age of the site) or was the victim of a hoax.

A new analysis by Varndell (2004) of the Grimes Graves flint crust figures has revealed that, once the Chinese white has been removed, the engraved lines are either barely visible or do not exist—Armstrong selectively joined up a variety of natural marks and scratches to produce animal figures. Such figurative engravings were only found at Grimes Graves during the Armstrong years—none has been found since.

It is unpleasant, of course, to cast aspersions on the reputation of an archaeologist who can no longer defend himself. And while Russell (2000) clearly implies that Armstrong was involved in fakery in one way or another, it is doubtless fairer and more accurate to deduce with Varndell (2004) that, where portable engravings were concerned—whether at Grimes Graves or Creswell—he was the victim of an overactive imagination, of wishful thinking, and of simply seeing things which were illusory.

Finally, it is worth noting that a further flurry of argument about the Robin Hood Cave horse head arose in 1956, when Geoffrey Grigson published an article in which he accepted the Pin Hole engraving, but resurrected the old arguments against both the Machairodus tooth and the horse-head engraving, declaring that the latter was clean, white, and dry, unlike the thousands of other, grubby, brown and damp bones in Robin Hood Cave (see also Grigson 1957: 33-5). He declared that the horse was genuine Upper Palaeolithic art, probably from France, and possibly bought from a continental dealer, and planted in the cave by either Mello or Dawkins. A ferocious reply from Armstrong (1956) stressed that Grigson's accusation was libellous and unsupported by a shred of evidence. But he failed to come up with any fresh insights into the problem horse. Indeed, the situation regarding that object has not changed since Garrod's astute assessment ofit (1926: 129), that is, certainly not a forgery, but a possible plant:

has every appearance of being ancient. The lines are very fine, but they are not fresh, and there is no trace of the flaking of the surface which would be produced in drawing on a bone already partly fossilized. Moreover, on the opposite side of the rib there are a number of wavy lines, evidently drawn with a slightly blunted instrument, which in every way resemble those left by a Xint point on fresh bone. The more general view appears to be that it is a genuine palaeolithic drawing, imported from a French site, but this seems very improbable.

Very improbable indeed, but not impossible. In short it is supremely ironic that the very objects which drew us to search Creswell Crags for cave art and to discover it there, that is, its examples of Wgurative Ice Age engravings, the only ones in Britain—may perhaps be a planted intrusion in one case, and illusory and non-existent in the others.

Further relevant evidence will come, of course, from the future excavation and careful sieving of the mounds of sediments lying in front of Church Hole, Pin Hole, and Robin Hood Caves at Creswell—if they are found to contain quantities of portable art missed in the 1870s, it will be very interesting; if, on the other hand, modern excavation techniques fail to Wnd any further examples of portable art, that will be equally interesting, for very different reasons!


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