The Paviland Red Lady

In 1823 geologist Reverend William Buckland, responding to local reports of elephant bones in Goats Hole Cave on the Gower Peninsula of South Wales scaled a sheer cliff face to access the cave. When there he immediately started taking notes which demonstrated an archaeological skill well ahead of his time. There were indeed mammoth bones evident in the cave but as Buckland started methodically excavating bones started to emerge that were not those of mammoth but human…or at least hominid. The bones were stained red with ochre and a narrative immediately started to present itself to Buckland.

Despite his clear scientific and archaeological prowess Reverend Buckland was a religious man and a staunch creationist. To him it would have been impossible for the bones to date older than the biblical flood some six thousand years previous. The cave was situated near a known Roman settlement, there appeared to be a necklace of elephant ivory which Buckland knew could only have arrived in Britain during or after Roman occupation. Also the body was clearly laid to rest rather than merely disposed of he could only reconcile the lack of a Christian burial in one way. This must be the body of a dead roman prostitute dating at no more than two thousand years old. And thus the Paviland Red Lady was named. Buckland published his findings in the brilliantly named Reliquae Deliviani or Relics of the flood. As Wales at the time lacked a museum the bones were sent for keeping at the Oxford University Museum which is where they remain today.

The story of the Red Lady only truly begins in the last decade or so when anatomical and biochemical analysis has developed to a reliable science and radiocarbon dating has been fine tuned to the point we now have a date of around thirty three thousand years. Additionally the bones were not those of a lady but of a young man. The elephant ivory necklace was found to be mammoth ivory as were the elephant bones found in the cave.

Using what we know of the time, a new narrative presents itself. Britain was not an island at the time it was a peninsula, it would not become separated from the continental mainland until the underwater collapse of the Storegga Ice shelf in about 6100 BCE. Additionally the Goats Hole Cave would not have been coastal but about a hundred kilometres inland. The bones of who we still curiously call The Red Lady and those of several mammoth were placed in the cave in what William Buckland rightly considered to be a ceremonial burial so someone had to have been there to bury them. We also know that a single hunter is unlikely to take down a mammoth, hunting such animals was a collective effort. The revised thirty-three thousand year estimate places this mans life before the Younger Dryas (Little Ice Age) and even before the last full glaciation that hit Britain. Its reasonably argued that the climate in which this man lived would have been very similar to the climate of Britain today.

This account is littered with speculation however accounts for all of the detail presently available. A young hunter travelling with a group engages a Mammoth, the group kill it but not before one of their number is killed or fatally wounded. Once the meat and workable bone that necessitated the hunting of the animal is removed it is carefully laid to rest in a nearby cave along with the body of their fallen brother. A burial showing respect to both the hunter and the hunted.

Analysis of the human bones, which are still to this day revealing their story, indicated the young man had a diet of at least one quarter fish, with a number of indicators suggesting salt or brackish water fish. This would suggest significant travel either seasonally or as part of a nomadic community. At the time of writing this Oxford University are working to extract genetic material from the bones in order to perform a DNA analysis that could reveal a great deal more about who he was and where he came from. It may even be possible to identify any possible descendants alive today.

I find it hard to criticise the conclusions drawn by Reverend Buckland, he created a plausible narrative based on what he at the time knew to be fact. His technique was flawless, he sketched and documented everything meticulously and it took a century and a half of scientific advancement to develop on his narrative. Whilst this entry in The Bloody Isle is not necessarily one of conflict, I cant even prove that he was a hunter or that he died whilst hunting. It feels that these people, whoever they were had both a respectful and an adversarial relationship with nature with elements of this ceremonial burial being mirrored in warrior burials throughout human history.

Further Reading

I used a wide range of sources to pull together this relatively short account. I have relied more heavily on the most modern sources as these can account for ongoing scientific analysis. For the most accessible read I would recommend A History of Ancient Britain by Neil Oliver.

Dinnis, R. (n.d.). Identification Of Longhole (Gower) As An Aurignacian Site. Lithics: The Journal of the Lithic Studies Society, 33, 17–29.

Oakley, K. P. (1971). Biological sciences: radiocarbon dating of proto-solutrean in Wales. Nature, 231(5298), 112-112.

Oliver, N. (2012). A History of Ancient Britain. Hachette UK.

Sommer, M. (2004). ‘An amusing account of a cave in Wales’: William Buckland (1784–1856) and the Red Lady of Paviland. The British Journal for the History of Science, 37(01), 53-74.

Weston, R. (2008). John Traherne, FSA and William Buckland’s ‘Red Lady’: An Archaeological Perspective. The Antiquaries Journal, 88, 347-364.

Willoughby, P. R. (2010). Book review: Bones and Ochre: The Curious Afterlife of The Red Lady of Paviland. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 142(2), 337-338.