Art in the eye of the Beholder?

Deer (best view)
It’s a deer. This is the most eas­ily seen of the carvings.

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.

Creswell Crags Gorge 2

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.

A bison?

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.

Ice Age Pornography?

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.

Creswell Crags Gorge 3

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.

There’s also pages at The Megalithic Portal and The Modern Antiquarian and The Bradshaw Foundation.

I’ve put my pho­tos up under a Creative Commons licence.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.