Prehistory of the Mendip Hills, Somerset, England


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by Graham Mullan & Linda Wilson
Gough's Cave, at the foot of Cheddar Gorge in southwest England is well-known for its extensive deposits of both Late Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic archaeology, which demonstrate that the outermost parts of the cave were used from the very beginning of the Late Upper Palaeolithic through to the middle of the Late Glacial Interstadial (Jacobi 2004) and that the site was reused after the close of the last Ice Age, during the Early Mesolithic (Burleigh 1986) and later. For this reason, Gough's Cave was an obvious candidate for study in the light of the discovery of Palaeolithic parietal cave art in Britain, at Creswell Crags, in 2003 (Bahn et al. 2003). This cave is situated immediately below Long Hole in which can be found engravings of probable Mesolithic age, which have already been reported on (Mullan & Wilson 2006).


Much of the rock surface in this cave has been modified since it was opened to the public by Richard Gough in the 1890s. However, during a careful search of the remaining original surfaces by the authors the image shown in Fig. 2 was noted on 22 June 2003. It is located in a small alcove on the south side of the show cave between the Fonts and the blasted section of passage that indicates the end of the cave as known in prehistoric times.
Gough's Cave Mammoth Engraving
Figure 2
Gough's Cave Mammoth Engraving
Figure 1
Fig. 1. Location map. Fig. 2. Line drawing of the possible mammoth figure, indicating natural and engraved parts. Sections indicated by the arrowed lines A and B are the parts which most clearly show human workmanship.
This can be seen most clearly on the back of the head and in the middle of the line of the back. The remainder of the line of the back and the dome of the head, although clearly a single feature, is faint and partially infilled with sediment which obscures its character. However the cave, including the area in which the figure is located, has been subject to repeated flooding which will have had a direct effect on the preservation of the rock surface. A line of this shape and type is not replicated elsewhere on the rock wall, either in direction or in texture. It does not follow the grain of the rock and has a distinctive appearance from the obvious natural lines on the alcove wall. Certainly there is no line which either takes the same direction or shows similar changes of direction to this one.
What may be engraved lines appear to complement natural features in the rock surface which insinuate the trunk and possibly also the tusks of the mammoth. The latter parts have a higher relief than the rest of the figure and seem to be in keeping with the texture of the remainder of the rock surface in this alcove. Similarly the 'eye' appears to be a natural feature. The incorporation of natural features in an engraving to create animal depictions is a well attested phenomenon in Palaeolithic art. Given the still somewhat controversial nature of the Creswell finds (Bednarik 2005; Ripoll et al. 2005) we approached the authentication of this find with a great degree of care. The find was carefully recorded, by photography, laser scanning and drawing, and a careful study undertaken of how natural processes acting in the cave might have affected the rock surface. Details of this work can be found in Mullan et al. 2007. We also sought the opinion of Jill Cook of the British Museum, who gave her backing to the view that the line of the back and head of the figure were reasonably likely to have been made in antiquity using a stone blade.


Gough's Cave has yielded much archaeological material over the past century. Jacobi (2004) gives a comprehensive account of the Late Upper Palaeolithic lithic finds and Burleigh (1986) lists relevant radiocarbon dates for both the Pleistocene and the early Holocene. In summary it can be said that the site was used by Late Upper Palaeolithic hunters from the beginning of human recolonisation of the British Isles at about the start of the Last Glacial Interstadial for more than a millennium through to the latter part of that Interstadial, when it was deserted. After the cold event known as the Younger Dryas, the site was reused in the Early Mesolithic, at which time the skeleton known as Cheddar Man was interred. Both of these periods have produced parietal art, but the former is the period most likely to have produced representational art such as a mammoth.
The last mammoths in England disappeared around 12,000 years BP. Whether there were any in southern England at any point during the Last Glacial Interstadial is unknown, but there are well dated mammoths from as close as Shropshire at this time (Coope & Lister 1987). It is also the case that artefacts of mammoth ivory have been found at Cheddar (Currant et al. 1989) as well as at other cave sites, Kent's Cavern, King Arthur's Cave, and Pin Hole, from which lithics of similar, Creswellian, types are known (Jacobi 2004). A double-bevelled ivory rod from Gough's Cave has been directly dated. This is: OxA-1890: 12,170 ± 130 BP (Hedges et al. 1990). It is therefore clear that the LUP inhabitants of Cheddar would have been familiar with mammoths.


Paintings and engravings of mammoths are known from numerous sites in France. Probably the best known collection, and certainly the most comprehensive, is that from the Grotte de Rouffignac, where 154 of the approximately 300 known Palaeolithic images of mammoths can be found (Plassard 1999). The artwork in this cave was recorded and comprehensively studied by Barriëre (1982). He gives (p. 175) a table showing the various different styles of tusk to be found there together with sufficient illustrations to show that, in stylistic terms, Palaeolithic depictions of mammoths can vary from the highly detailed to extremely simple, almost caricature, twin-humped lines. These latter are, however, easily recognisable with very little experience. Whilst it is the case that many examples of Palaeolithic art are highly detailed and true to life, many are deliberate caricatures. The apparent mammoth depiction in Gough's Cave would fit comfortably within the corpus of work known from Rouffignac and from the Palaeolithic as a whole.


Photographic and laser recordings seem to support the observation that the engraved lines visible on the alcove wall may constitute deliberate drawing. No similar markings have been seen on the walls of this cave. Some parts of the figure are clearly natural in origin but the line of the head and the back show features consistent with it having been engraved with a stone tool. These have been partially obscured by the presence of the figure in a part of the cave that has been subject to repeated flooding. The figure appears to be that of a mammoth. Such an interpretation is consistent with a Late Upper Palaeolithic origin.
There is thus a possibility that this represents a genuine example of Late Upper Palaeolithic cave art, the first such to be noted in Southern England.
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