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Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Paviland and the ice edge

 Goat's Hole Cave, Paviland, on the Gower Peninsula.  Below: an artist's reconstruction of the laying out of the young man whose bones are now dated to c 26,000 years BP

I have done a few posts in the past about Paviland and the Red Lady -- use the search facility to find them.  In some recent posts I have been speculating about what might have happened in the Carmarthen bay and Cardigan Bay areas during the Early and Middle Devensian -- and Paviland is one of the few places where evidence from archaeology and geomorphology might come together to give us some answers.

A good summary of the state of knowledge about Paviland is found here:

and there was a somewhat imaginative reconstruction or dramatisation of the interment of the young man (mistakenly referred to for many years as "The Red Lady") in the opening sequence of "The Story of Wales" on BBC1 the other evening.  (You can see this sequence on the BBC  iPlayer.)

To quote from Stephen Aldhouse-Green:

At the time when the young man was ritually interred, there is no substantive evidence in this remote part of Europe for a human presence that was other than episodic. Indeed, faunal compositions and densities probably oscillated over time and space. Human presence in the British early Upper Palaeolithic may plausibly be linked to a 'biomass expansion', an overall increase in the availability of animals and other forms of food, centred on the 29th millennium. The coincidence of the dating of burnt bones to this period, combined with the presence of burnt Aurignacian artefacts, supports this as the most likely time for Aurignacian presence at Paviland. Radiocarbon dating of an Aurignacian bone spearpoint to around 28,000 bp at nearby Uphill lends additional weight to this interpretation.
Gravettian visitation is attested by a scatter of large tanged points occurring across southern Britain, including Paviland. Such points are generally dated to 28-27,000 BP, although their use may possibly extend down to the time of the 'Red Lady' burial..........

............ Restudy of the Goat's Hole lithic collections has confirmed material ranging from about 40,000 BP to about 13,000 BP (including Mousterian, leaf point, late Aurignacian, early Gravettian, Creswellian, and Final Upper Palaeolithic phases), although the earliest and latest phases are not dated by radiocarbon. Aurignacian finds form the dominant element. These artefacts were made from a range of imported and local raw materials.

So the signs are that there was possibly continuous -- or more likely intermittent -- occupation of this Carmarthen Bay coastal area right through from the Early Devensian to the Late Devensian.  The most favourable conditions for occupation might well have occurred during the episode known as the Upton Warren Interstadial.   Did the occupants of Goat's Hole and the other limestone caves around this coastal lowland (including the Caldey Island caves) also live here and die here at the peak of the Devensian glaciation, around 23,000 years ago?  With Devensian glaciers coming down from the Welsh valleys and creating end moraines not far from the position of the present coastline, did the hunters of the time occasionally stray onto the ice, or hunt along the ice edge?  Or was there such a hostile environment at the time that they retreated southwards, and returned once the glaciers had started to melt away?  And what is the relationship of Paviland Cave to the Paviland Moraine  (supposedly of Anglian age)  of Prof David Bowen?

Could Devensian ice have actually flowed across the mouth of the cave and sealed it off for a while?  The current consensus is that this did not happen, and that the ice edge lay maybe a couple of miles to the north, across the middle of the Gower Peninsula;  but I am not all that convinced by the evidence for that, and as I have said earlier, I think that Devensian ice might well have overridden Caldey Island and substantial parts of the territory now submerged beneath the waters of Carmarthen Bay.

Lots more questions.....


Robert John Langdon said...

The dating evidence is the main concern here. 1960's carbon dating of 18K BCE has become 26K BCE a massive difference in the geology of this areas (should we re-date all 1960 carbon dating finds including Stonehenge?)

Red ochre-staining is classic European Neanderthal burial, but the body is far too small although the right height. The Aurignacian tool kit found in the cave is Cro-Magnon, who also used red ochre.

But again the skeleton is too short and small unless it was a child and the age a guess was based on Homo Sapiens from Africa - which I suspect as the report also states "modern humans in Europe were characterised by tropically-adapted body proportions, arising from their African ancestry"

Which is now proven inaccurate through DNA analysis, as this lineage left Africa 24,000 - 32,000 years before this man was found and had migrated from southern 'Siberia' where he's ancestors would be used to these harsh conditions.

Haplogroup R1b (M 343): Cro-Magnon

Mystery solved!


BRIAN JOHN said...

Robert -- the recalibration of radiocarbon dates is nothing new and nothing sinister. It has been going on ever since the technique was first developed. The same applies to ALL dating techniques -- they are refined over time.

Robert John Langdon said...


Will always accept recalibration as part of science development, but this is a difference of 45% a touch more than recalibration.

That would now place Phase I of Stonehenge (Bluestones) currently 5000 years ago at 3000 BCE add 45% and we have a new date of 5250 BCE, which is probably more realistic.

NB. In my original comment I placed the dates as BCE it should be BP - apologises.

chris johnson said...

The 1960 carbon dates are not reliable, but I think it premature to correct them all by a few thousand years willy nilly. Ideally the work should be redone wherever it is critical to our understanding.

Red Ochre was widely used for tens of thousands of years - I have a piece in my shoebox picked up with some mesolithic stuff. It also has some scratch marks on it but I did not think yet to sell my photo to the Independent with a story about early art. This is not something to link with dates or cultures, imo.

A lot of smart people have studied the Red Lady and the consensus seems to be 24k BC. What strikes me is the decision to bury a corpse in a shallow grave in a premium dwelling - presumably the people who did this were not planning on returning any time soon.

Brian would know better, but if I am right the decision to vacate this cave was made a few thousand years before the Glacial Maximum. A few thousand years in which the ice might have continued to move south/south east. I don't know how fast the glacier was moving, but this might give a basis for a hypothesis where it might have ended up.

Paviland is prime property and would not have been abandoned until the last possible moment, imho. This would mean the advancing ice was close in 24kBC and still have had some 6000 years to advance further.

Robert John Langdon said...


I would not picture these people as 'cave men'. Sure caves were used for a purpose such as burials and maybe other social events and hence the fires and bones from communal feasting, but they were more symbolic than living quarters and hence the art work in the French caves at this time.

It may also be why they 'reconstructed' of caves inside long barrows in the Mesolithic, where they buried and layout their dead.

Also, these people were highly intelligent and the sleepy environment we see today is not as they would have experienced in 24K BCE. For in this period of time Brown bears (who also like caves)would have outnumbered men by 6 to 1 and the lion population - who also enjoyed caves, were of equal number.

There was also arctic foxes, , hyenas, leopards, tigers, wild boar and wolfs in north western Europe (the British Isles did not exist for another 14,000 years) - so the fact they buried them, rather than just laying them out and sealing the entrance is interesting.


chris johnson said...

Thanks for pointing this out, Robert. I am indeed being too quick to jump to conclusions. Caves have a long heritage in belief systems.

Caves were used too as temporary shelters it seems from the evidence - I can imagine that with the North wind howling off the encroaching glacier I might have been tempted to scare the bear away and use his/her cave.

Maybe you have visited Paviland - I have not. Judging by second hand impressions it does not seem to have the liminal qualities that are often associated with ritual use or might make one think of a long barrow womb-like effect. There is no art I think.

I don't suppose we can know for sure but it would be interesting to hear other opinions..

On reflection I think my main point is still valid - whether we see Paviland as a ritual place or a shelter. Fact is that it seems to have been abandoned in 24k BC. The front edge of a glacier is fertile territory for a hunter whether you live in the cave or nearby. Leaving means the glacier is moving forward and it is getting unpleasant cold - I surmise.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Chris -- "Fact is that it seems to have been abandoned in 24k BC......." Not sure about that. I imagine that the people who interred the body of that young man would not have thought it a bundle of laughs to carry on living there, with a rotting corpse to keep them company. So we can assume that they moved out following the interment -- but there are artifacts that seem to be as young as 14,000 PB -- so they were back. My impression is that the archaeologists think the cave continued to be used intermittently for almost another 10,000 after the laying out of the young man.

chris johnson said...

I should know better than to say anything like "fact is.." Seems the bones were reassessed in 2009 and now give a date of 32000 BC - in a warm period. So no glaciers.

Geo Cur said...

"I imagine that the people who interred the body of that young man would not have thought it a bundle of laughs to carry on living there, with a rotting corpse to keep them company."
He may have been buried post smell rotting .Quite common practice to have burials in the home from Catal Hoyuk circa 7000BC where burials are found under sleeping platforms to Cladh Hallan in South Uist 1300 BC .

BRIAN JOHN said...

Thanks Tony -- you are quite right! have checked, and found two more recent re-calculations of the age of the bones. One (based on C14 dating) at 29,000 BP and the other (based on isotope analysis of proteins) as c 33,000 BP. as you say, these new dates would put the occupation of the cave back into the interstadial or warmer period prior to the last large ice advance.

Robert John Langdon said...


We have moved from 18K BP to 33K BP - does this show that Radio Carbon dates are not as accurate as we have perceived?

If so its a massive 'game changer' and history once again becomes open to interpretation?

I freely admit that Carbon Dating up to the 'half-life' about 6000 BP is very accurate, but I'm aware there are concerns that that's before this period have yet to be 'fully' verified - this seems a clear case in point.


BRIAN JOHN said...

This is no big deal -- science always moves forward, and techniques always get improved, as more is understood about the factors influencing the results. By the way, the newest dates are C13 isotope dates, using a different technique from the old C14 (radiocarbon) dating methods.

In the end, the most reliable dating is done where several methods are used as cross-checks.

chris johnson said...

I was surprised when I checked - the 24k BC seemed to be a solid consensus ten years ago but recently oxford university has been doing work on trying to get a better fix on the paleolithic as part of the AHOB project.

It is quite a feat to have redated the Red Lady with the amount of contamination. It seems to be a very new technique so perhaps the last word has not been said.

I am puzzled how they did it so if anybody knows I would like to learn. From what I know C13 is a stable isotope - so does not decay like C14. It usually has a fixed ratio with the other carbon atoms so you can use it to cross-check or, perhaps in this case, backtrack. However, the ratio is not entirely fixed and deviates when material is buried, for example. Aberrant ratios are also a marker for extinction events. Revising this date so confidently seems a major miracle of science.

Robert said the skeleton is too short for Neanderthal whereas I read it was over 6 feet, and also read that it is assumed to be a Cro-Magnon male in early adulthood. It is also not far from where George Nash reports having discovered some cave drawings. I am confident Robert can throw light on the matter and trust we don't have to wait for his next book.

chris johnson said...

Dating is rather important to establishing a narrative, although less so in geological terms - rocks formed 450 million years ago may have been moved on several occasions by ice closer to stonehenge.

I agree with Robert's first sentence on the first post "The dating evidence is the main concern here". I have been trying to find out what Oxford University did to move the dates back by several thousand years with little success. Perhaps someone can help. It seems it is far from being public domain knowledge adopted by daters around the world.

There is some major weirdness in the dates we think we have and not least the big difference between Britanny and Wessex. There is the issue of contamination, and the scanty provenance for the carbon remains that have been dated. With the thought that Stonehenge has been rebuilt several times, maybe in different locations (Bluestone henge) how much value should be given to a date even when sourced from under a stone that we think has not been moved in 5000 years.

"Through a glass darkly"

BRIAN JOHN said...

Not sure there is any secrecy about all of this -- there is a big literature on radiocarbon calibration and recalibration. Exactly the same thing happens with the fixing of boundaries for the main geological periods -- they have been moved a lot since I was a student, as dating methods have improved.

One of the big issues is contamination and the nature of the organic material being dated -- but the dating labs are getting better at it all opf the time.