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Palaeolithic Cave Art at Creswell Crags in European Context edited by Paul Pettitt, Paul Bahn, Sergio Ripoll and Fransisco Javier Muñoz
Oxford University Press, 2007, 292 pages, 118 figures, 15 plates, (hb) ISBN 978-0-19-929917-1 (£60)

The discovery of engravings on the limestone walls of one of Britain’s best known palaeolithic sites marks a major development in our knowledge of the activities of early prehistoric people. Not only does the art confirm patterns of behaviour observed amongst contemporaneous groups in other parts of Western Europe, but equally importantly it marks the most northerly extension of such practices. Characteristic stone tools, sometimes associated with the bones of now extinct animals, have long been recognised in Britain, and offer the evidence for the sporadic inhabitation of both cave mouths and open air sites in the closing millennia of the Pleistocene. But at last the decoration of rock surfaces completes the package of information, glimpsed at by rare portable pieces, but more comprehensively witnessed in geographic areas farther south. It offers proof - if this were needed - that the Upper Palaeolithic inhabitants of Britain expressed philosophical ideas in exactly the same way as their neighbours on the Continent.

The works that form the subject of this book comprise modest engravings, some more easily discerned than others, in Church Hole Cave at Creswell Crags, which locally marks the border between Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. The fact that the small caves within the Crags have been crawled over by experienced archaeologists for more than a hundred years, without any of them recognising the engravings, demonstrates the insubstantial nature of the images, and the particular skills necessary to identify them. Indeed, the nature and meaning of some of the scratched lines remain open to interpretation, and debate about some continues long after the submission of the text of this book. Credit must therefore go to the editors of this book, who between them had the insight, experience and application to set out to find parietal art in the conviction that there was no reason why it should not have existed within our shores. (They include Fransico Javier Muñoz who for some inexplicable reason is not listed on the title page). The old advice of ‘Seek and ye shall find’ – together with a large dose of good luck – provided the desired result.

Any suggestion of comparison with the stunning paintings of Lascaux and Altamira, or the engravings of Les Combarelles would be inappropriate - not only because of the insubstantial nature of the images but also because ‘a beauty parade’ misses the point about the significance of the works, and the importance of their discovery. Many sites in Western Europe, even the most lavishly decorated, include simply sketched designs, some of which are totally incomprehensible. The representations at Creswell Crags are therefore typical of many others throughout Western Europe.

The book includes 15 short papers, most of which were presented at a conference held in April 2004 to mark the first anniversary of the discoveries in Church Hole cave. They are written by a variety of experts drawn from Britain, Spain, France, Italy and Portugal. Each draws upon their own experience and discusses themes that are pertinent to the authentication, dating and contextualisation of the Creswell Crags engravings. The content often provides previously unpublished information, largely on the continuing research of specific decorated sites. The papers include: the background to the Creswell research (Paul Bahn); a description (with a limited number of illustrations) of the representations discovered so far (Sergio Ripoll and Fransisco Muñoz); U-series dating of the flowstone that covers some of the engravings (Alistair Pike, Mabs Gilmour and Paul Pettitt); the recording of certain images by laser scanning (Alistair Carty); an assessment of the contemporaneous fauna, and the likely identity of the animals depicted (D W Yalden); a review of other caves in the region (Andrew Chamberlain); a definitive analysis of the archaeological remains from Church Hole (Roger Jacobi); a suggested interpretation of certain images as schematic female figures (Paul Pettitt); a revised account of the decoration in the cave of Gouy near Rouen, the most northerly decorated cave in France (Yves Martin); a presentation of evidence for the spread of Upper Palaeolithic people into isolated areas, as evidenced in Sicily and Sardinia (Margherita Mussi); an analysis of the changes through time of the style of horse representations in Quercy, using the author’s detailed study of the cave of Roucadour (Michel Lorbanchet): an account of the on-going study into the fragmented roof of the incomparable sculptured shelter of Roc-aux-Sorciers, near Poitiers (Geneviéve Pinçon); the dating, using complementary methods, of the paintings in the extraordinarilly well-preserved cave complex of La Garma, near Santander (César González Sainz); a summary of the circumstances of discovery, protection and presentation of the remarkable open air friezes in the Côa Valley Archaeological Park in northern Portugal (António Martinho Baptisa and António Pedro Batarda Fernandes); and an appreciation of the conference (Claire Fisher and Rob Dinnis).

This small volume, therefore, presents a substantial, if preliminary, assessment of the rock engravings of Church Hole cave. From the weight of evidence from direct dating, style, physical and cultural context, it can be stated confidently that most of the recognisable work is of late Upper Palaeolithic age, dating to the thirteenth millennium BP (uncalibrated), and is comparable with the parietal and portable Magdalenian art of Western Europe. This is not a final corpus of the images represented in this nationally important site, nor a definitive statement on the conclusion of research, because much remains to be resolved. Despite the commendable sponsorship of English Heritage, the cost of the volume will deter some potential buyers. Nonetheless, it makes essential reading for anyone interested in the early prehistory of Britain, in Upper Palaeolithic artistic traditions, or more generally in the global phenomenon of rock art. The neatly produced book is a credit to Oxford University Press. It makes a welcome contribution to their worthy tradition of publishing important archaeological matters, which previously included the Upper Palaeolithic syntheses of John Campbell and Dorothy Garrod.

Andrew J Lawson,

Review Submitted: September 2007

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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