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Site Details

© Copyright and database right 2020. All rights reserved. Ordnance Survey licence number 0100022206

NPRN 300251

Map Reference SS48NW

Grid Reference SS43718588

Unitary (Local) Authority Swansea

Old County Glamorgan

Community Rhossili

Type of Site CAVE

Broad Class DOMESTIC

Period Palaeolithic

Site Description Goat’s Hole mouth at Paviland (known as ‘Paviland Cave’) lies west of Port Eynon on the south coast of the Gower peninsula. It is the most prominent of several closely-spaced cave openings beneath a 30m high Carboniferous Limestone cliff, flanked on either side by valleys. It consists of a short passage some 23m in length, aligned north-east by south-west, with a roof chimney on its east side.
The cave was used throughout Prehistory but is most notable for its Early Upper Palaeolithic occupation. Now accessible only at low tide, when it was occupied by Palaeolithic hunters it would have overlooked a grassy plain supporting abundant mammalian fauna, including wild horse, mammoth, woolly rhino, reindeer and bison. Predators such as wolf, hyena and brown bear were also present. Sea level was about 70m below that of today and Britain formed the north-western peninsula of the European land mass.
The cave is one of four Welsh (out of six British) find spots of the Aurignacian period (c.37,000 - 30,000 C-14 BP) believed to have been created by the first modern humans to successfully occupy Europe. They first appeared in the British peninsula c.32,000 C-14 BP, or 37,000 years ago, during Greenland Interstadial 8, a warming phase of the last ice age, prior to the Last Glacial Maximum (1). It is the richest Aurignacian site in Britain and has a long and complex history of collection and excavation. Artefacts and bones have been collected since at least 1822. The most recent exploration was in 1997 by S.Aldhouse-Green who excavated part of the filling of a natural hollow near the cave entrance (2). The most important episode was that of Buckland in 1823, with the discovery of the so-called ‘Red Lady’ burial, and Sollas in 1912, the latter producing the largest sample (c.80%) of lithics from the cave. Due to coastal erosion the cliff face has probably been cut back by cliff retreat leading to the loss of platform deposits in front of the cave (3).
Recent assessment of Buckland’s excavation notes and the events surrounding his discoveries have undermined the credence of his reported stratigraphy (4). Most of the artefacts and mammalian remains are unstratified and their understanding in current research depends on typology, comparison with well-stratified assemblages in neighbouring regions, and the careful use of radiocarbon dating.

In all about 5000 lithics have been found. The oldest artefacts from the site are of Late Middle Palaeolithic age in the form of ‘leaf points’ indicating a date of 38-36,000 C-14 BP, and were possibly made by the last Neanderthals to occupy this part of Europe. Those lithics which can be considered securely Aurignacian comprise Paviland burins, carinated burins, thick nosed scrapers, burins busqués, and non-bladelet-core flat nosed scrapers (3). In the absence of stratigraphic information it has not been possible to link these finds with any particular radiocarbon date. Although in the main an Aurignacian assemblage, the collection actually contains material from several Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic occupations and there are no spatial data with which to attempt their stratigraphic separation (1).

The ‘Red Lady’ partial skeleton, actually the bones of a healthy young adult male who died in his early 20s, is the oldest anatomically modern human skeleton found in Britain. Paviland, it is claimed, is the site of the oldest ceremonial burial in western Europe. Red staining of the bones is thought to come possibly from ochre scattered over the body or absorbed from ochre colouring used in the preparation of clothing. Finds which can be relatively securely associated are ivory rods and perforated periwinkle shells which may have been strung. A mammoth skull allegedly associated is now lost. The skeleton has a history of radiocarbon determinations going back to the 1960s when a date of 18,460 ± 340 BP was obtained, a date considered to be too young. Results published in 1989 and 1995 suggest that the individual from the cave lived about 26,000 years ago (26,350 ± 550 BP, OxA-1815). In 2007 re-sampling using ultra-filtration methods suggested a dating of 29,000 years ago (5); a recent recalibration in 2009 gave an age of 33,000 years.
It is still unclear whether the Red Lady burial belongs to the Aurignacian or to the succeeding Gravettian period (1).

(1) R.Dinnis, ‘The timing of Aurignacian occupation of the British Peninsula’, Quartär 59 (2012) : 67-83.
(2) S.Aldhouse-Green, Paviland Cave and the Red Lady: a definitive report (Bristol 2000).
(3) R.Dinnis, ‘A survey of northwestern European Aurignacian sites and some comments regarding their potential chrono-cultural significance.’ In N. Ashton & C.Harris (eds), No Stone Unturned: Papers in Honour of Roger Jacobi, 59-76. (2015, Lithics Studies Society Occasional Paper 9).
(4) R.Weston, ‘John Traherne, FSA, and William Buckland’s ‘Red Lady’’, Ant.J. 88 (2008), 347-64.
(5) R.M. Jacobi & T.F.G.Higham, 'The 'Red Lady' ages gracefully: new ultrafiltration AMS determinations from Paviland', Journal of Human Evolution 55(5)(2008), 898-907.

David Leighton, RCAHMW, 28 February 2020

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