Two hundred years ago, scientists unearthed one of the most intriguing and controversial finds in the history of Welsh archeology.
On January 18, 1823, the Red Lady of Paviland was discovered in a cave on the Gower peninsula in Swansea by William Buckland, a priest and Oxford University’s first professor of geology.
“It” was immediately transferred to the University of Oxford museum, and a two-century campaign began to have the remains returned to Wales.
Still, for at least the first century after the discovery, no one was quite sure what they had found.
A skeleton covered in red ocher, which is naturally occurring iron oxide, Prof Buckland hypothesized that the Red “Lady” was a Roman prostitute or witch.
However, further research over the centuries revealed that “he” was a “she” and actually dates from 33,000 to 34,000 years ago.
But Prof George Nash of the University of Liverpool and the University of Coimbra in Portugal believes we shouldn’t judge Buckland too harshly.
“In 1823, the science of archeology was more in its infancy,” he said.
“There was no careful lifting and recording of the artifacts without stratification, large quantities of material being picked up from the ground by unskilled workers and dumped in a big messy heap.
“There were indications that the skeleton might have been a female, due to the shell beads and ivory wands found around it.”
Prof Nash, who is also the meeting chair of the Welsh Rock Art Organisation, added: “You should also keep in mind that Buckland was a cleric and creationist, and that his conclusions – almost half a century before Darwin – didn’t sound so strange at the time.
“He was not a man of letters, he believed that the creation of the Bible in seven days was a metaphor for the seven billion years of development of the world, but this assumption led him to make some major mistakes in his dating.”
The first breakthrough in the quest to determine the Red Lady’s true identity came in 1912, when archaeologist William Solace revisited Goat Cave in Paviland, where “the girl” was discovered and found flint arrowheads and tools.
Solace accurately dates its history from the Mesolithic period (4-10,000 BC) to the Paleolithic era (35,000/10,000 BC) in the last 100 years.
Prof Nash said this fits better with what we know about the climate and landscape at the time.
“It’s likely that many of the early attempts at carbon dating were contaminated by modern DNA rubbing against the fingers of scientists processing the exhibits,” he said.
“It was only in the 1980s that we began to get a more reliable date, and even that has been mastered over the years as technology has improved.”
Prof Nash added: “It makes much more sense as it coincides with the warming period before the last Ice Age, 33,000 years ago, when the Welsh ice cap began to expand in mid-Wales and eventually covered all of Wales.”
In those days, Gower explains, the landscape would look very different, with sea levels retreating by now, making it possible to walk from North Africa to southern England and then over the Bristol Channel to several navigable sections. South Wales.
“The Red Lady and her companions were likely tracking herds of mammoths, deer or bison, and the ceremonial nature of her burial illustrates one of the earliest examples of spiritual thought in Western Europe.”
Lord Davies of Gower, officially the Byron Davies Member of Parliament for Gower, has long campaigned for the Red Lady’s remains to be brought back to Wales.
“I grew up in Port Eynon, just below Paviland, so I was always fascinated by the story, but when I went to Gowerton Grammar School my English teacher piqued my interest and I went to visit the cave for myself.
“As a politician, I started to participate in the campaign to bring the Red Lady back to Wales, but given how fragile the remains are and the cost of finding a permanent home in Wales, I’m not sure that will ever happen again.”
Lord Davies acknowledges that local councils and the Welsh government probably have more pressing demands regarding their finances given the cost of living crisis, but said he would never give up on his dream entirely.
However, Prof Nash warns against the “Welsh Mysticism” that has been created over the years around the Red Lady.
“Some have tried to portray the remains as some kind of ancient Welsh ancestor, which is blatant nonsense,” he said.
“Whoever was almost certainly of African or Arab segregation was fleeing conflict or overcrowding in their more hospitable homeland.
“Furthermore, after the brief thaw of the Paleolithic era, Wales was cut back for several thousand years, so there is absolutely no chance that these remains have any genetic or cultural association with any modern Welsh people.”
Still, Prof Nash agrees with Lord Davies in some respects.
“It may not be part of our genetic ancestry, but it is an important part of Welsh History.
“If there was a way that the remains could be safely brought back to Wales – which is a huge ‘if’ – I think it would definitely be the right thing to do.”