The Peculiar Narrative of the Red Lady of Paviland, A Man from Paleolithic Wales
During the 1800s, archaeologists discovered human remains in one of the most famous caves in the world. The bones were dated to be 33,000 years old. This is one of the oldest ceremonial burials of a modern human discovered to date in Western Europe.
The cave was discovered at the beginning of 1800s and explored in 1822 by the surgeon Daniel Davies and Rev. John Davies at Port Eynon on the south coast of Gower, in Wales. When they searched the cave they found animal bones. They informed Miss Theresa Talbot of Penrice Castle about this place, and she joined the expedition – with the goal of finding the bones of elephants, or the tusk of a mammoth. The pear-shaped cave has an entrance 10 meters (32.8 feet) high by 7 meters (23 feet) wide. It was found within the limestone cliffs of Paviland. The biggest cave was named the Goat's Hole, and it quickly became an important place for excavations.
The First Exploration of Paviland Cave
The head of works in 1823 was William Buckland, an English theologian who became the Dean of Westminster and Professor of Geology at Oxford University. He was a paleontologist, geologist, and writer. He published the first full study on a fossil of a dinosaur which he named the Megalosaurus.
Buckland was fascinated with the oldest history of the Earth. He also believed that he had found geological evidence of the biblical flood. He arrived to the cave on January 18, 1823 and spent a week at the Goat's Hole, when his famous discovery took place.
Drawing of Goat’s Hole cave in 1823 from William Buckland’s book ‘Reliquiae Diluvianae’. (Public Domain)
During the first explorations, archaeologists found mounds of decorative shells with bones, two ivory rods, and the remains of an ivory mammoth ring. They also discovered a body which had been stained with red ochre, so the bones were a very deep red.
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In his book Reliquiae Diluvianae (Evidence of the Flood), Buckland described his discovery as such:
“I found the skeleton enveloped by a coating of a kind of ruddle... which stained the earth, and in some parts extended itself to the distance of about half an inch around the surface of the bones ... Close to that part of the thigh bone where the pocket is usually worn surrounded also by ruddle [were] about two handfuls of the Nerita littoralis [periwinkle shells]. At another part of the skeleton, viz in contact with the ribs [were] forty or fifty fragments of ivory rods [also] some small fragments of rings made of the same ivory and found with the rods ... Both rods and rings, as well as the Nerite shells, were stained superficially with red, and lay in the same red substance that enveloped the bones.”
William Buckland, circa 1845. (Public Domain)
Buckland was a Creationist who believed that no human remains could be older than the Biblical Great Flood, so he misjudged the age of the remains. He also mistook the individual’s gender. He believed that the discovered skeleton belonged to a woman because there were decorative items around the burial. Buckland called the discovered person ‘The Red Lady’. However, modern analysis has shown that the skeleton is male.
Regarding excavations made during the first half of the 1800s, it is important to remember that most of the archaeological methods which serve modern professionals were unknown. Nevertheless, Buckland summarized the discovery well, explaining that it contained proof that ceremonial burials appeared in Europe much earlier than scholars used to believe. Unfortunately, the details of the culture and ceremony of this period remain a mystery.
In the Cave of the Male of Paviland
The skeleton of the man is fairly complete and dated to the Upper Paleolithic. It sounds unrealistic, but the second archaeological excavations only took place in this magnificent cave in 1912. This time, the researchers weren’t looking for animal bones, they were searching for more remains from the Paleolithic period. The results of both excavations were dated many years later, as the method of carbon dating was invented in the 1950s.
Finally, in the 1960s Kenneth Oakley published the results of radiocarbon analysis of the “Red Lady’s” bones. Tests made in 1989 and 1995 showed that the man lived about 26,000 years ago. In 2007, an analysis by Dr. Thomas Higham of Oxford University and Dr. Roger Jacobi of the British Museum suggested the age of the remains as 29,000 years old. Two years later, when dating methods were further improved, researchers repeated the analysis. This time the results showed that he lived 33,000 years ago and died between the age of 21 and 25.
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The analysis of bone protein indicated that the ''Red Lady'' lived on a diet which was 15-20% fish- suggesting that he may come from a semi-nomadic tribe, or that his body was transported from the coastal region to be buried. His diet also included reindeer, woolly rhinoceros, and mammoth. The climate in the area was perhaps like present-day Siberia during his life. It was not a friendly environment, which offered temperatures between 10°C (50 °F) during the summertime and -20°C (-4 °F) in winter. According to the newest dating, it is possible that he lived in a warmer period.
The Shadow of the Red Lady
When the skeleton was found Wales had no museum, so the Red Lady was housed at the Museum of Oxford University. In December 2007, the skeleton was loaned to the National Museum in Cardiff. Other artifacts discovered during the excavations in Paviland, like flints, teeth, bones, needles, and bracelets, were exhibited at Swansea Museum and the National Museum in Cardiff.
The ‘Red Lady’ of Paviland, on display in the National Museum of Cardiff. (Sciency Thoughts)
Nowadays, the area of Paviland is still recognized as a unique archaeological area. It is considered as a magical Shamanic location for many, and it attracts visitors from all over the world. The story of the Red Lady also became an inspiration for many artists. He became sort of a national treasure, proving that the history of people in Britain is much longer than once believed.
Featured image: An artistic representation of the burial at Paviland Cave. Source: National Museum of Wales
Sommer, M., Bones and ochre: the curious afterlife of the Red Lady of Paviland, 2007
Rupke, N., The Great Chain of History: William Buckland and the English School of Geology 1814–1850, 1983.