Twenty years since the rock art discovery at Creswell Crags
On the 14th April 2003, Dr Paul Bahn, Professor Paul Pettitt and Professor Sergio Ripoll visited Creswell Crags as their first stop of a tour of British caves. Their mission: to discover Ice Age rock art in Britain.
Although Ice Age rock art had been known in Europe since at least the 19th Century, there was yet to be any found in Britain. This was despite the presence of Upper Palaeolithic (Homo sapiens) tools and some portable art in Britain. It therefore stood to reason that Palaeolithic rock art should be present in Britain.
So, on the 14th April, the three archaeologists began their exploration. They first searched the caves on the Derbyshire side of the gorge. Being south-facing, and therefore on the ‘sunny side’ of the gorge, they seemed ideal places for human occupation and therefore rock art.
A couple of pieces of rock art were found in Robin Hood Cave and Mother Grundy’s Parlour, although there was nothing that was particularly spectacular. It was the Head Ranger at the time, Brian Chambers, who encouraged the archaeologists to search Church Hole on the opposite side of the gorge, in Nottinghamshire. This was when success occurred.
The discoveries were spectacular, including a red deer stag, and some figures variably interpreted as birds or women. Yet while this was incredibly exciting, the work had only just begun. The archaeologists returned to Creswell Crags to thoroughly survey the caves and record the art present within.
The art also needed to be dated to confirm its Ice Age origin. The first line of evidence came from comparing the depictions at Creswell Crags to Ice Age art found elsewhere in Europe; the depictions were similar in style. The second line of evidence involved applying uranium-series dating to flowstone (calcium carbonate deposits). Flowstone overlying the art yielded dates of 12,800, 12,639 and 7,320 years ago, meaning that the underlying art is older. This further confirmed the Ice Age origin of most of the rock art.
In the twenty years since the discovery of the art, techniques have been developed and improved. In 2022, Creswell Crags welcomed Dr Izzy Wisher, Dr Barbara Oosterwjlk and Dr Lisa-Elen Meyering, who employed some of these techniques. Their work brought to light new information about the rock art, in addition to the creation of 3D models of some of the images, which can be explored here: https://sketchfab.com/CreswellCragsProject
If you are interested in finding out more about the rock art here at Creswell Crags, you can book onto a cave tour (https://www.creswell-crags.org.uk/explore/the-caves), and visit a temporary exhibition (https://www.creswell-crags.org.uk/explore/museum-and-exhibitions).