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U-series dating suggests Welsh reindeer is Britain’s oldest rock art

The image was carved using a sharp-pointed tool, probably made of flint

The image was carved using a sharp-pointed tool, probably made of flint Dr George Nash

29 June 2012

A reindeer engraved on the wall of a cave in South Wales has been found to date from at least 14,505 years ago – making it the oldest known rock art in the British Isles. The engraving was discovered Dr George Nash from the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology while he was exploring the rear section of Cathole Cave on the Gower Peninsula.

The engraving was discovered in September 2010 by Dr George Nash from the University of Bristol’s Department of Archaeology and Anthropology while he was exploring the rear section of Cathole Cave, a limestone cave on the eastern side of an inland valley on the Gower Peninsula, South Wales.

Found to the rear of the cave on a small vertical limestone niche, the engraved cervid – probably a stylised reindeer – is shown side-on and measures approximately 15 x 11cm.  It was carved using a sharp-pointed tool, probably made of flint, by an artist using his or her right hand.  The animal’s elongated torso has been infilled with irregular-spaced vertical and diagonal lines, whilst the legs and stylised antlers comprise simple lines.

The reindeer was engraved over a mineral deposit known as a ‘speleothem’ (cave formation), which itself developed over a large piece of limestone.  Extending over the left side of the figure is a flowstone deposit (speleothem cover) which extends across part of the animal’s muzzle and antler set. 

In April 2011, Dr Peter van Calsteren and Dr Louise Thomas of the NERC-Open University Uranium-series Facility extracted three samples from the surface of the speleothem covering the engraving.  One of these samples produced a minimum date of 12,572 years BP (before present), with a margin of plus or minus 600 years.  A further sample, taken in June 2011 from the same flowstone deposit, revealed a minimum date of 14,505 years BP, plus or minus 560 years.

Dr Nash said: “The earlier date is comparable with Uranium-series dating of flowstone that covers engraved figures within Church Hole Cave at Creswell along the Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire border.  However, the new minimum date of 14,505 + 560 years BP makes the engraved reindeer in South Wales the oldest rock art in the British Isles, if not North-western Europe.”

Paper

‘A discovery of possible Upper Paleolithic parietal art in Cathole Cave, Gower Pensinsula, South Wales’ by George H. Nash, Peter van Calsteren, Louise Thomas and Michael J. Simms in Proc. Univ. Bristol Spelaeol Soc.