Art in the eye of the Beholder?
I went up to Creswell Crags on the bank holiday weekend to see the Ice Age art which had recently been discovered. As a trip I can highly recommend it. Even though it was a Bank Holiday weekend, there weren’t that many people there, which is odd because regardless of the archaeology the site is beautiful.
The gorge was formed millions of years ago, but the archaeological interest comes from occupation during the Ice Age. There’s evidence of Neanderthal settlement around 40kyr from the tools found in several caves in the gorge. The people would have been following animals to the summer grazing grounds. These could have been long migrations as Great Britain was still connected to the European mainland. There is some slight evidence for modern humans around 29kyr or so. This came to a halt when the climate became colder. The polar ice cap grew down to within 20 miles to the north of the caves, which suggests the tundra in the area was barren.
Around 13kyr the climate eased enough for modern humans to return. The tools of the period made Creswell the type-site for an Upper Palaeolithic culture. The flint itself seems to have been sourced in Southern England. The Creswellian culture is tied to the Magdalenian culture of Europe which came at the end of the Upper Palaeolithic. Elsewhere in Europe Magdalenian sites are known to have portable artworks. More famous is the static art of this period. This is the era of Altamira and Lascaux. During this period the mainland of Britain was still widely connected to Europe across what would become the Channel and the North Sea. The people were still moving vast distances across the continent following the herds. So why hadn’t anyone found cave art in the UK? This was the question Paul Bahn, Paul Pettitt and Sergio Ripoll asked and they went searching for it. Creswell is the first place they found it.
Having visited the site I can’t help but admire their eyes. The images are cut into the rock, which means they’re partly visible through light and shadow rather than pigment. Additionally there’s also a tendency for the artists to use natural features in the engravings. It makes sense because it cuts out a lot of the effort in making an image when you’re cutting into rock, but it does make your wonder if you’re seeing images that were intentionally created or if you’re pulling patterns out from random shapes.
This may be a bison with its head facing to the right. However now I come to write this I’m now wondering if this isn’t a couple of animals with their heads on the left. It could possibly be both. One interpretation is that there are several images overlaying each other. This makes sense if you seriously question what prehistoric art is.
Art in modern terms is something that you look at. It’s the end product. If you try and improve the Mona Lisa by painting a proper smile on it people would get upset. In contrast in other cultures, particularly some of the Aboriginal tribes of Australia, art is something you do. If the purpose of the image is to create it rather than admire it then it could lose its meaning once it’s finished. In that case there’s no loss in carving over the top of older images. It is possible that there is another clue in what the art was for, in where it was found.
The animal engravings are all on the eastern side of the cave. I initially though this was due to astronomy. The caves with engraving are on the southern side of the gorge. They’re occupied in the summer when the Sun is rising to the north of east and setting to the north of west. The animal engravings are all on the east wall of the cave, which would mean it would be illuminated by the setting sun. The animal engravings look better in the afternoon, which would seem to indicate the time of day when they were cut. However, these may not be the only artworks on the walls. On the west side are carvings interpreted as fertility symbols.
The triangle in the centre of the image above is, possibly, symbolic of female genitals according to one interpretation. I can’t see it myself, but maybe I should to get out more. If there is a divide between fertility in the east and animals in the west it would be interesting to see if this division was more widely found elsewhere. It could show that the placing of the art was important as well as the content, beyond simply finding a suitable blank patch.
If you can get to see it then I’d recommend packing a picnic basket and taking a trip out. The gorge itself is pleasant and has a nice meadow adjacent to it. If you’re keen on getting inside the caves then I’d also suggest that you phone up and book a place rather than turning up on the day if you can. The tour groups are limited in size and fill up quickly.
Unearthing Mysteries has an episode on the discovery of the cave art. Scroll down to the bottom of the page and click ‘Listen Again’ to hear it. This page also has a highlighted photo of the deer.