Open University Uranium-Series Laboratory  
Earth and Environmental Sciences, The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK  

Dating cave art (Dr A Pike, Bristol, small project)

Engravings representing Britain’s first apparently Pleistocene cave art were discovered in Church Hole and Robin Hood caves, Creswell Crags. Representations of a deer, highly stylised females or birds and vulvae were engraved into the bedrock, and in some cases had been covered with a thin layer of flowstone. Uranium-series disequilibrium dating was undertaken (Pike et al., 2005) on these flowstones to provide minimum ages for the engravings. We have shown that the oldest motif was carved earlier than 12,800 years ago which is consistent with radiocarbon dates.

Image and sketch showing U-series sample locations for the ‘notches’ immediately below the hind leg of the deer in Church Hole, from Pike et al., 2005.

The dates are consistent with Late Upper Palaeolithic people, whose archaeology is well represented at Creswell, being the makers of the engravings, and clearly rules out the possibility of forgery. A series of radiocarbon determinations, largely on human-modified arctic hare bones found in association with Late Upper Palaeolithic stone artefacts from Robin Hood Cave, Church Hole and Pin Hole, give a tight cluster of calibrated dates in the range 13.2-15.7 ka BP (Hedges et al., 1989, Hedges et al., 1994). Our U-series dates are in excellent agreement with these radiocarbon dates and represent the best ages obtainable for occupation of Creswell Crags by humans in the Late Upper Palaeolithic. The discovery and verification of cave art in Britain has important implications for the understanding of the Late Pleistocene hunter-gatherers who created it. The contemporaneity and stylistic similarity of the Church Hole and Robin Hood cave engravings with many examples on the continent, reveals the connection between the continental Magdalenian and the Late Upper Palaeolithic technology at Creswell. At least in terms of art, it seems that Europe was unified a very long time ago.


Hedges et al. 1989 Archaeometry datelist 9; Archaeometry 31 (2) 207–234.
Hedges et al. 1994 Archaeometry datelist 18; Archaeometry 36 (2) 337–374.
Pike et al. 2005 Journal of Archaeological Science 32 1649–1655.
Dating archaeological bone (Prof. R Hedges, Oxford, IP/700/0301, NER/A/S/00471)

Traditionally employed models of U uptake based largely on simple mathematical assumptions, are inadequate and often yield ‘ages’ far from reality. The diffusion-adsorption model (Millard and Hedges, 1996) uses a physico-chemical description of U uptake and predicts the spatial distribution of U within the bone. We currently use this model to predict concentration profiles in bone and where measured profiles agree with the diffusion-adsorption uptake model, an open system correction can be applied to the calculation of U-series ages (Pike et al., 2002). This approach represents a significant advance in improving the reliability of U-series dates on bone.
The relative sequence of faunal change in Britain remains poorly supported by absolute dates for some of its parts. One important assemblage-zone is named after Banwell Bone Cave, in the Mendip Hills, Somerset (Rutter, 1829). This is a low diversity vertebrate fauna within which bison (Bison priscus) and reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) are the dominant elements (Currant and Jacobi, 2001).

We have dated bones from Wood Quarry, a locality where a fauna attributed to the Banwell Bone Cave mammal assemblage-zone is represented (Pike et al., 2005). By directly dating the bones from Wood Quarry we can better constrain the age of the Banwell Bone Cave mammal assemblage-zone. We use U-series dating of bones and the diffusion–adsorption model-based methodology (Millard and Hedges, 1996; Pike et al., 2002) to account for uranium uptake. The results for Wood Quarry bones give a weighted mean date of 66.8±3.0 ka, placing the assemblage within or just before Marine Oxygen Isotope Stage 4. This fauna is correlated with the Banwell Bone Cave mammal assemblage-zone of the Early Devensian in Britain. Our results support the idea that this assemblage-zone immediately precedes the assemblage in nearby Pin Hole Cave at Creswell Crags which is contemporary with the Mid-Devensian and correlates with MIS 3. Our dates, and dates for the Banwell Bone Cave mammal assemblage-zone from Stump Cross Cavern and evidence from other sites may indicate a longevity for this fauna, spanning at least two interstadials.

The absence of evidence for human activity in this mammal assemblage, despite the evidence for interstadial conditions when a human presence might be expected, is of interest. During the Late Pleistocene in Britain humans appear to have been present from some time contemporary with the Pin Hole mammal assemblage-zone. The key to understanding the re-colonisation of Britain by humans may lie in the understanding of the chronologies of the Banwell Bone Cave and Pin Hole mammalian assemblage-zones and their relationship to the changing geography and climate at these times.


Currant and Jacobi 2001 Roebroeks eds. Publications du CERP 8 105–113.
Millard and Hedges 1996 Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 60 2139–2152.
Pike et al. 2002 Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 66 4273–4286.
Pike et al. 2005 Journal of Quaternary Science 20 59–65.
Rutter 1829 Rees & Co. London 349 pp.
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© Peter van Calsteren
Last updated: December 23, 2011 10:53