AN ANCIENT cave which proves the existence of human life in Wales more than 12,000 years ago is set to receive greater protection from heritage body Cadw after vandals destroyed 70% of its archeological secrets.
The Gower site is home to Britain’s oldest recorded Palaeolithic cave art – but much of it has been destroyed in what has been described as a “mindless attack”.
The site’s importance means its exact location is a closely guarded secret, but protection work is set to commence to preserve what is left.
A Welsh Government spokesman said: “Since the discovery of the rock art in 2010 and the distressing deliberate damage to it, Cadw has been in discussion with the Forestry Commission, National Museum Wales, the Countryside Council for Wales and the finder of the art to agree how best to protect the site, which is also an important bat roost. The site has been scheduled and works to safeguard it are due to commence shortly.”
Dr George Nash, an archaeology lecturer at Bristol University and consultant employed at SLR Consulting in Shrewsbury, discovered the engraving while undertaking field work in 2010.
“It was a fairly amazing experience,” he said.
“We were there because that area around Gower happens to hold fantastic evidence of the Palaeolithic era.
“After giving a lecture in the cave I just had a hunch that we might find something special and after a look around I stumbled across an engraving of probably a reindeer.
“This is a site of huge international importance, and research by a team of specialists has dated the paintings as being 12,572 years old, plus or minus 600 years. At that time this area of Wales experienced summers of -10°C and we know there was a huge ice sheet just four or five kilometres north of the cave.
“It’s not only the oldest rock art ever found in the UK but, until a few years ago, history books would have told you that human beings could not have survived here in such severe conditions, clearly now this is not the case. This evidence proves that they could, and did.”
Dr Nash added: “We’ve also been incredibly lucky at this site because you can only date engravings like this if something overlies them such as flowstone (stalagmite).
“For some reason, and by complete coincidence, the person who engraved this art over 12,000 years ago did so on a piece of rock where a flowstone later grew over it, which is the only reason we could work out its history.”
Archeologist Karl-James Langford called for better protection of such sites.
He said: “No effort has been made to present the work to the public, or even to protect it.
“On the other side of the border however, at Creswell Crags, Derbyshire, Palaeolithic cave art has its own interpretation centre, and guides to show off this fairly unique example of our ancient past.
“Here in Wales, we make very little effort to protect much of our past, when there is a large amount of money available to protect it elsewhere in Great Britain. On a visit only last week with one of my students, we examined the cave, and found various amounts of rubbish in it, and the Palaeolithic cave art discovered two-and-a-half years ago of a reindeer has been smeared over with mud.”
Dr Nash said: “From a scientific point of view we can treat these vandals with utter contempt because we managed to get all the recorded data that we needed before the site was damaged. But from a historic point of view it really is a tragedy for the people of Wales because this was a significant part of our past, and an amazing site.”
“But from a historical point of view it really is a tragedy for Wales because this was a significant part of the country’s past, and an amazing site.
“I’d love to know why they did it.”
He added: “The good news is that steps are being carried out to stop vandals getting back in there and what remains will be protected for many, many more years.”
Gower is also home to the Red ‘Lady’ of Paviland, an Upper Paleolithic-era human male skeleton, which is the first human fossil to have been found anywhere in the world. It is thought to be 33,000 years old.
Nash, George; van Calsteren, Peter; Thomas, Louise. 2011. Marks of Sanctity? Discovery of Rock Art on the Gower Peninsula, South Wales, Time and Mind, Volume 4 (2): 149-154.
The engraving, measuring around 15 x 10 cm appears to have been engraved with a flint point by an artist using his or her right hand (this assumption is based on the position of the niche in relation to other rock surfaces within the niche.