rock art dated
Uranium-series dating shows cave engravings oldest in Britain
An overdrawn photo of the stag engraving in Church
Hole (please credit Sergio Ripoll)
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
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."