Saturday 17 March 2018

155 Red Lady of Paviland

155 The Red Lady of Paviland
South Gower is well known for bone caves like Bacon Hole and Minchin Hole, both of which are near Pennard’s National Ttrust car park, but its most famous cave lies between Mewslade Bay and Port Eynon, beneath the cliff top called Yellow Top.  Here are the Paviland Caves, and in particular Goat’s Hole, about 14 metres above sea level, where the earliest human skeleton in the British Isles was discovered.
In 1822 the curate of Port Eynon, Rev. John Davies (father of Rev. J.D. Davies who wrote the four-volume History of West Gower), together with Gower’s first resident doctor, Daniel Davies (no relation), found a large quantity of animal bones, flints and other implements in Goat’s Hole, which extends for about 18 metres.  They brought this to the attention of Miss Emily Talbot of the Penrice estate, and of Lewis Weston Dillwyn, naturalist and Fellow of the Royal Society.  The archaeologist William Buckland, a clergyman who in 1845 would become Dean of Westminster, was summoned from Oxford.  He arrived on 18th January 1823, and his investigations uncovered a partial skeleton without a skull, which he assumed was a female because it was buried with various decorative items, some carved from the tusk of a mammoth: thus it became known as “The Red Lady of Paviland”.  Buckland, Oxford’s first Professor of Geology, dated the bones from Roman times, believing there had been a Roman camp on the cliff top above, whereas in fact the bones were far older, from an Iron Age hill fort.  Although Paviland is now on the coast, at the time of the burial it would have overlooked a great plain rather than the sea, and been 60 or 70 miles inland.
Subsequently the cave was explored by several amateur archaeologists, and even a group of boys from Clifton School in Bristol dug there in the 1880s.  A more comprehensive investigation was undertaken in 1912 by anthropologist William Sollas, who like Buckland was an Oxford Professor of Geology.  He dated the skeleton from Palaeolithic times, far earlier than Buckland’s estimate, and identified the human bones as those of a young man, rather than of a woman.  Radio-carbon dating now indicates that the bones are about twenty-six thousand years old.  The young man was about 1.73 metres tall, weighed about 73kg, and ate much fish.  The colouring came from red ochre that had seeped from the roof of the cave and discoloured the bones, as in Bacon Hole, where it was once thought to be prehistoric cave painting.  Although William Buckland was incorrect in certain matters, he was a pioneer - and quite an eccentric, for example keeping a hyena in order to observe how it broke bones.  He also published the first description of a dinosaur.
Goat’s Hole is only accessible for a few hours at low tide, so much care is needed to reach it.  Swansea Museum contains many items from the Paviland caves, with other finds being in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff and elsewhere.  In 1823 there was no Museum in Wales, and Buckland was Oxford University’s first Professor of Geology, so the bones of the Red Lady of Paviland were removed to Oxford’s Museum of Natural History.  Subsequently some have called for the bones to be returned to Swansea, but at least in 1998 a replica set was presented to Swansea Museum by the Gower Society to mark its 50th anniversary, and in December 2007 the actual bones were loaned for a year to Cardiff’s National Museum of Wales.     
An immense number - over 5,000 - of the Early Upper Palaeolithic artefacts discovered have come from Paviland cave, and Malcolm Ridge, long-time chairman of the Gower Society, described Buckland’s findings as being “one of the most important finds of human remains ever made”.   Rather than hidden history, Goat’s Hole is history on our doorstep whose magnitude is generally unappreciated.  


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