When three archaeologists decided to search for rock engravings at British Palaeolithic sites (reasoning that painting would have already been discovered if there was any but engraving is much harder to spot) they decided to start at Creswell Crags, a narrow valley on the Nottinghamshire / Derbyshire border. It was a wise choice as, on 14th April 2003, the team discovered an engraving in Mother Grundy’s Parlour (every cave has its own unique name). Job done, they packed up and were about to leave for Gower (where they would find rock engravings at a later date). Fortunately, the head ranger at Creswell persuaded them to have a look at Church Hole Cave on the Nottinghamshire side of the valley. They had already discounted this cave as not worth searching but, humouring him, the team took a look. What they found was later described (with a knowing hint of exaggeration) as an Ice Age Sistine chapel.
What surprised the team was that Church Hole was north-facing and therefore got very little daylight penetrating the interior; they assumed this would mean no engravings. Moreover, directly opposite this cave, on the south-facing side of the valley, was another cave – Robin Hood Cave – where there was copious evidence for Ice Age living but absolutely no rock engravings (except a few indistinct lines). It seemed counter-intuitive, but a closer look at the arrangement of these two sites – which were inhabited at the same time, around 13,000 to 11,000 years-ago – may provide the key to explain how people related to their valley home.
Robin Hood Cave, where people lived, was in sunlight and the large chamber just inside the door provided space for people to cook, prepare hides, and gather socially. This was a cave of light and life. In contrast, Church Hole Cave was on the dark side of the valley, reached by crossing a river that flooded the valley bottom, and showed no sign of habitation. People engraved images but did not live there. This suggests the cave was reserved for ritual use, a place of darkness and possibly death.
The evidence for Ice Age people having a shamanic worldview is now widely accepted and formed the basis of my book, Prehistoric Belief, published in 2010. Often, a journey to the shamanic otherworld (usually made in trance) involves crossing water, a symbolic element attributed to the phenomena of hearing sounds like rushing water. Another common element of trance is entering a long, dark passage and moving along it. At Creswell Crags, people visiting Church Hole Cave from their base in Robin Hood Cave, would do both. Setting off, they would travel down to the river, which they would need to cross. Climbing up to Church Hole Cave, they would then enter a long, dark passage. While most of the rock engravings they encountered were in the front of the cave, there were others further back, where the original artist would have been in total darkness. Could the cave have represented a shamanic otherworld to these early people?
I had the good fortune to visit both Robin Hood and Church Hole Cave last summer. It was an awesome experience getting up close to the rock engravings but I also began to ponder their wider symbolism. The engravings at the back of the cave were initially thought to be of water birds, until one of the team compared them with contemporary Magdalenian art from the continent, notably from Gönnersdorf and Lalinde. They suggested the images were not birds but stylised women, adopting the late Palaeolithic shape for women as tall and slender but with large buttocks (this replaced the near obese women from the early Palaeolithic). To me, it suggested that the cave was a place where female (and conversely, not-female or male) identity was important.
Looking at the carvings on the same side of the cave as the stylised women, I found images of triangles which, using analogies with other Palaeolithic sites, may represent female pubic triangles. One even had a trace of another triangle within it, possibly relating to pregnancy. In fact, all the images on this side – the eastern side – of the cave featured images related to females.
Conversely, on the other side – the western side – the images were mostly of animals. These included an ibis, a stag, a bison, and a horse, along with other animal shapes that are harder to determine. To me, this represented both the spiritual power of the animals (animal spirits would be expected in the shamanic otherworld) but also, more prosaically, their utility as prey. It is perhaps not too great a step to identify hunting as a male sphere of influence, allowing for the probability that certain women also hunted alongside the men. The image of the stag had a row of notches beneath it and, as I started to count them, I hoped they would total 13, the number of moons in an annual cycle. They did, perhaps denoting the times when the animal was available to hunt, assuming they would have seasonally migrated (as the people may have done themselves). It also hinted at a link to the female images opposite.
It seems that Church Hole Cave was divided between female images on the right side of the cave (east), and hunting prey, potentially a male realm, on the left side of the cave (west). Whether rituals that may have been performed there were segregated – with each group using the cave at specific times – or whether both groups visited and interacted with each other is difficult to tell but the cave itself would have taken a relatively large group. It is only towards the rear of the cave that the passage narrows and this is where the stylised female figures are located. This may be an inner sanctum visited by only a few, perhaps girls on reaching adulthood, initiating them into the mysteries of womanhood.
The Palaeolithic people who inhabited Creswell Crags had massive challenges with hostile weather and a lack of available game. Church Hole Cave may have been a response to this, initiating the young into the roles of adulthood. It taught womanhood, fertility, hunting prowess, and the proximity of the spirits. It was a shamanic journey made real.