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Science
UNEARTHING MYSTERIES
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Creswell Cave Art
Tuesday 21 December 2004 11.00-11.30am 

There's no prehistoric cave art in Britain! Well, that had been the assumption until recently. Aubrey Manning goes caving with archaeologists who are determined to correct that assumption and transform our understanding of stone age Britain.

Creswell cave art
High on the wall of Church Hole cave, it's hard to see any art other than modern graffiti (above).But when the lines of a prehistoric engraving are highlighted (below), the outline of a stag becomes clear.

There's no prehistoric cave art in Britain! Well, that had been the assumption until recently. In this programme, Aubrey Manning goes caving with archaeologists who are determined to correct that assumption and transform our understanding of stone age Britain.
 Deep underground, in the faint light of a flickering flame, we can imagine an ancient ritual. Pigment is skilfully applied to the cave wall - the outline of a great bison perhaps, or the silhouette of a living human hand from 15 000 years ago. What it all meant, we may never know. But we do know that it happened, since we have the rich legacy of prehistoric art in caves such as Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain. But what about in Britain?

Spectacular paintings like those in France and Spain would have been noticed. But cave art experts such as Paul Bahn had never looked for the fainter lines of engravings scratched on the walls because, well, everyone knew there was no cave art in Britain!

Last year, Paul Bahn teamed up with Spanish cave art expert Sergio Ripoll of the Open University in Madrid, and Paul Pettitt, then at Oxford, now Sheffield. He studies the bones and other archaeology from cave site and knew how to gain access to the caves. The first place they visited was Creswell Crags, a pretty little valley on the Notts Derbys border, with caves in the soft magnesian limestone on both sides. They looked in the main caves on the sunny South-facing side and found nothing - except a few possible scratchings.
Pauk Bahn & Aubrey Manning in Church hole cave
Paul Bahn and Aubrey Manning perch on a ledge to examine a bas-relief, possibly of an ibis, on the roof of Church Hole.

As they were about to leave, the site ranger suggested that take a quick look at Church Hole on the North-facing side - less of a prehistoric 'des res' but still with signs of habitation. Sure enough, there were mysterious lines scratched on the wall of the dark interior. But it was only as they were leaving that Sergio noticed a line high on the wall of the entrance chamber. He climbed up two metres onto a ledge and the others heard a string of Spanish expletives! When he'd calmed down, he was able to show them the exquisite engraving of a large animal. At first they thought it was a goat or an ibex. Later they spotted the antlers of a stag. Britain has cave art after all.

This year, they have found more cave art in Church Hole, including some of the finest bas reliefs known - anywhere. And in this programme they announce the discovery of a cave painting and, at two other caves even further North, of more engravings. Britain in fact now has a rich legacy of cave art. Who put it there and why remains a mystery.

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