Cave Art and Ice Age Alphabets

Nigel Dead Man's Cave

As an archaeologist and caver, I can’t imagine anything more exciting than entering a new cave and finding Palaeolithic art on the walls.

Although I have not discovered any yet in the Yorkshire Dales – my regular caving haunt – I have come across an increasing number of conjoined, V-shaped marks at the entrance to some of these caves. It turns out that these conjoined Vs are a 16th century symbol, signifying Virgo Virginum (the virgin of virgins). Some regard these as an entombing token, a symbol which once etched on the wall will keep any witches and dark forces locked within.

As fascinating as I found this, I was even more blown away by something posted earlier this week; a TED talk by archaeologist Genevieve von Petzinger. In it we’re reminded that sometimes (often!) we get distracted by things that look really impressive, but that important discoveries are hidden in things that look much more mundane. Ice Age cave art is the perfect example of this.

Virgo VirginumFor too long, she says, the huge animal depictions have drawn our attention, but take a closer look and between them you will see hundreds of little motifs and designs. Von Petzinger visited 52 caves across Europe, painstakingly recording each and every motif she saw. Although the caves she found them in are separated by great spatial and temporal distances, when she got home and analysed them, she found she’d recorded the same 32 motifs, again and again.

It’s stuff like this, the chance to catch something that other people would miss, that really draws me into cave archaeology because it’s here, hidden in the half-light, in the nooks and crannies, far from the gleaming gold and monumental architecture that captivates so many others, that we often find the small clues, overlooked by everyone else that somehow go to the very heart of being human.

Right now, I’m working on another behemoth of Ice Age archaeology, unboxing the archives of Victoria Cave. These archives contain a butchered horse bone and hunting tool carved from antler, which are the earliest evidence yet of hunters returning to the north of England after the last glaciers retreated.

Cave paintings in Yorkshire?

The people who left these clues in Victoria Cave are classified by archaeologists as Magdalenian – the same culture as some of the later painters of the famous caves in France and Spain. So did they leave any art in the UK, or even Yorkshire? What many people will find surprising is that the answer is… yes.  One of my favourite examples is that of Church Hole at Creswell Crags in Derbyshire, which has some interesting examples of engraved animals on the cave walls. One of the engravings is so deep inside the cave that artificial light must have been used to guide the artist’s hand.

The Yorkshire Dales lies within the boundaries of the ice sheets during the last glacial period and as such many authorities claim that any art would have been destroyed by the glaciers, or sealed behind the layers of flowstone that cover the walls. However, there are still those who believe that somewhere in Yorkshire, there could be a cave that just like Lascaux, was sealed to the elements after the artist had created their masterpieces. Who knows?

It may just be wishful thinking, but all it would take to spot is some sharp-eyed person exploring a brand new cave, just like the one we plan to start digging in 2016. And if you want to join us, you’d be most welcome. All you have to do is sign up to our email newsletter to listen out for announcements about how to join the team.

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Nigel Steel

Written by Nigel Steel

Community Archaeologist at DigVentures, Nige’s mission is to bring cave archaeology back into the limelight.

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