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Event celebrates 200th anniversary of ‘Red Lady’ of Paviland’s discovery

19 Jun 2024 4 minute read
Left half of Red Lady of Paviland’s pelvis. Image: University of Oxford

A special event takes place this weekend to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the discovery of Western Europe’s oldest ceremonial burial – the ‘Red Lady’ of Paviland.

The Red Lady Festival takes place on Saturday 22 June at Gower Heritage Centre featuring a guided walk and talks aimed at bringing to light the important history behind the ‘Red Lady’.

The event will also include local food and ales, live music and stalls demonstrating prehistoric skills like flint knapping, foraging, prehistoric jewellery making, and red ochre painting.

History

The most famous archaeological find in Gower was made in 1823 by William Buckland, Oxford University’s first Reader in Geology.

Invited to visit the cave on the south Gower coast by Mary Talbot of the Penrice Estate who had noticed the burial site on her explorations of the coastline.

The presence of red pigment on the bones, ivory beads and other ornaments led Buckland to conclude that the bones were of a woman, and the find quickly became known as the ‘Red Lady of Paviland’. 

Bones of the left foot. Image: University of Oxford

Buckland also assumed that the ‘Red Lady’ was from the Roman period, around 2,000 years ago, as he still held biblical views that the remains must be from after the Noah’s Flood as depicted in the Book of Genesis. 

Subsequent studies revealed more about the age and significance of the site.

Controversy

As early as 1912, W J Sollas, Professor of Geology and Palaeontology at Oxford, and President of the Geological Society realised that the bones were male and much older, as well as uncovering spectacular finds at the site like a mammoth ivory pendant. 

In 2008, scientists used improved radiocarbon-dating techniques, which showed that the bones are around 33–34,000 years old (from a less cold episode during the last glaciation), making the ‘Red Lady’ one of the oldest examples of a ceremonial burial in Western Europe.

Stone tools and burned animal bones show that he could have been one of the hunters that used the cave over many thousands of years. 

Fragments of ivory rods. Image: University of Oxford

How he died remains a mystery, but the evidence indicates that he was buried ceremonially. The body was covered with carved ivory beads and painted with red ochre made from a rock pigment found at nearby Port Eynon Bay, artwork was also detected on fragments of mammal bone. 

Replicas of the bones are displayed in Swansea Museum. The bones and many of the artifacts were taken to Oxford, as Wales was said to not have any suitable museums at them time.

This situation is controversial, with many calling for the bones to be returned to Wales.

What is the Red Lady Project? 

In response to the 200th anniversary of the discovery, Tourism Swansea Bay felt more work was needed to celebrate the story (or indeed stories) of this internationally important find.

Generously funded by the UK Government’s Levelling Up Fund, they set up the Red Lady Project to explore innovative ways to celebrate the importance of this site and the prehistory of Gower. 

Ivory Pendant found with the ‘Red Lady

The cave itself is not easily accessible; it can be quite dangerous. Fortunately, you do not need to actually visit the site to learn more about the Red Lady and experience some of the story. 

Tourism Swansea Bay, in partnership with local businesses is putting together a number of different activities based in the Gower Heritage Centre cumulating with the Red Lady Festival at the Gower Heritage Centre on 22 June 2024.

Get involved

If you would like to volunteer for the project, or would like more information on the Red Lady Festival activities at the Gower Heritage Centre (flint knapping, prehistoric jewellery making workshops), contact [email protected] or visit the Gower Heritage Centre website.

Find out more about this Saturday’s event here.


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