Monday, 19 July 2010 18:03

The "Red Lady" of Paviland

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Yellow Top Cliff, Gower

Scarring the massive limestone outcrop of Yellow Top Cliff (named after the yellow-orange lichen that decorates its rock face) on the south coast of the Gower Peninsula are numerous caves of various sizes and of differing archaeological significance. These are known collectively as Paviland.


The most important cave in the Paviland Series is Paviland Cave itself (pictured above). More accurately known as Goat's Hole (SS 437 858), the cave offers moderately easy access during low tide conditions only. A watchful eye should be kept on the sea, however, as the cave becomes isolated with the incoming tide. There is access to the cave at other tidal conditions, though these routes are far more difficult to navigate and have led to several deaths in the past. Formed by wave action, when the sea level was up to 8 metres higher than today, the cave entrance is pear shaped and faces S40 degrees West. Standing 10 metres high by 7 metres wide, the entrance leads onto a passage which continues at walking height for some 30 metres into the limestone cliff. This chamber leads into a chimney, from which daylight can be glimpsed 20 metres above, and to two hollows in the ground. These depressions are the remnants of the two major excavations of the cave, dated 1823 and 1912.

Goat's Hole was first excavated in 1822 by Mr. L W Dillwyn and Miss Talbot of Penrice Castle. Interested by the discoveries made here, the Very Reverend Dr. William Buckley re-excavated the cave the following year. It was during this secondary and more substantial exploration that one of the World's most important archaeological finds was uncovered. At the time, however, the discovery was completely misidentified. Buckley was the first Professor of Geology at Oxford at the time and was later to become Dean of Westminster. He was also a devout Christian and it was this latter fact that led Buckley into not recognising the full importance of his find.

Buckland believed that no animal or human remains could be dated earlier than the Great Flood that is recorded in the Bible. Misguided by his religious preconceptions, his dating of the skeleton was wildly off the mark. Another misconception of his also guided him into misjudging the sex of the skeleton as well.

Buckland originally assessed the bones as belonging to a Customs Officer murdered by local smugglers, who had buried the body in the cave to hide their crime. But by the time his excavation was published later that year, the Reverand had decided that the skeleton could not be that of a male because of the jewellery that had accompanied the human bones in the grave. This jewellery consisted of two handfulls of perwinkle shells (perforated in a fashion that suggested they had once been worn as a necklace) and various fragments of Mammoth ivory rings. In the official report of the discovery, the skeleton remains (which had been ritualistically stained red with ochre) were believed to have belonged to a local prostitute who serviced the sexual desires of the Roman soldiers stationed in the camp Buckland, again wrongly, believed had once been located on the hill above the cave. (This Roman fort was actually an Iron Age fort.) The bones were thereafter known as the "Red Lady of Paviland" - an erroneous title which has, unfortunately, stuck - even though they are now known to have belonged to an important male Shamen. As well as his bungled identification and misinterpreation of the historic importance of his discovery in Paviland, Buckland also lost the large Mammoth's skull which had also been buried with the other grave goods as a votive offering. This has yet to be rediscovered.

A further excavation of Goat's Hole, Paviland, and a re-examination of the "Red Lady of Paviland" skeleton was made in 1912 by Professor Sollas. Armed with more scientific means of dating and identifying the remains of Buckland's earlier discovery, Sollas identified the "Red Lady" as, in fact, a male and dated it to around the Stone Age.


Swansea Museum's Paviland Exhibit

The skeleton of the "Red Lady of Paviland", is now recognised as belonging to one of the earliest orders of modern man and offers one of only a few examples of the biology and behaviour of our ancient ancestors. His bones, which have been dated as being 29,000 years old, are still receiving scientific attention but they have already revealed a wealth of information regarding how this individual lived his life and of his importance amongst the people who sought his mystical wisdom.

The "Red Lady of Paviland" died when he was beween 26 and 30 years of age and had hitherto been a rather healthy person. He is believed to have been around 5' 8" tall and to have weighed in at around the eleven stone mark. During his life, the Bristol Channel was just a shallow river which meandered through the very rich hunting plains which then fronted the Paviland caves. Analysis of his bones show that fish formed an important part of his diet and it can be supposed that he often fished along this river. From the highly ritualistic nature of his burial and the presence of votive offerings and ivory wands (for the practice of magick) accompanying him in his grave, as well as the staining of his body and grave goods with red ochre, it is now believed that he was a man of some important spiritual standing - a Shaman with the power to guide and heal the people who obviously held him in very high regard. Whether the Shaman actually made Paviland his home prior to his death is unknown but it is believed that some important mystical attribute must have been attached to Goat's Hole Cave during those early times for it to have been chosen as his his burial site. It is now also believed that the "Red Lady's" grave was visited as a magical Shamanic shrine and attracted visitors from far afield.

It can only be imagined what the people of those early times would have made of the fact that, 29,000 years after the death of their important Shaman, he would still be honoured as the oldest ceremonial burial ever discovered in Western Europe.

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