Ice Age Rock Carving Of Mammoth Found In Cheddar Gorge

By Rose Shillito Published: 16 August 2007

Shows rough wall of cave with subtle markings on it

The rare Ice Age rock art image of a mammoth. Photo: Andrew Atkinson, Steve Cottle and Graham Mullan

Archaeologists have discovered an extremely rare Ice Age rock engraving in a Cheddar Gorge cave, made by our Stone Age ancestors 13,000 years ago.

It’s considered to be the most exciting find of its kind since the famous carvings discovered at Creswell Crags four years ago.

What makes the new find all the more sensational is that unlike the abstract rock art previously found in the area, this image reveals the clear outline of an animal – a mammoth, in fact.

The Upper Palaeolithic carving was found in a small alcove of Gough’s Cave, the main showcave of the popular attraction at Cheddar Caves and Gorge, just yards from where tourists view the caves every day.

It has remained undiscovered until now because erosion to the rock surface made the markings very difficult to detect. Now experts are convinced that it shows humanly engraved marks added to a natural pattern in the rock, a technique seen in the famous French and Spanish decorated caves.

Shows line illustration highlighting markings of cave drawing

This line illustration helps to identify the carving, showing the back and head of a mammoth complete with two tusks and an eye. © Graham Mullan

Graham Mullan, who led the team from Bristol University, said: “We are more confident that at least part of it was humanly made and the subject material places it firmly in the latter part of the last Ice Age. Finds of mammoth ivory of that age have been made in this cave in the past indicating that these animals would have been known to the inhabitants.”

The last Ice Age started about 50,000 years ago and ended around 8,000 BC. Ice covered Britain as far south as Wales and the midlands and the south was frozen tundra. Temperatures were about minus eight degrees Celsius.

Research into the discovery is being carried out with the British Museum’s Department of Prehistory and Europe.

Shows wall of cave covered with coloured line drawings of animals

A stag panel (with animal image outlined for clarity) is one of the bas reliefs on the ceiling of the Church Hole cave at Creswell Crags. Courtesy of UNED

Jill Cook, Deputy Keeper at the department, said: “Cave art is so rare here that we must always question and test to make sure we are getting it right. Opinions on this may differ but we do seem to be looking at an area of ancient rock surface and the lines which appear to form the head and back of the mammoth could have been made by a stone tool. They are certainly different from natural markings on the cave wall.”

"This little cartoon might well represent a moment of quiet reflection by someone using the cave 13,000 years ago. It is yet another aspect of the site which suggests that the cave may have been special to the people who used it at the end of the last Ice Age.”

The find compares with the spectacular discovery of Ice Age rock art at Creswell Crags, the limestone gorge in Derbyshire, in 2003.

Shows ceiling of cave bearing carving of a bison

The carving of a bison found at Creswell Crags. Courtesy of UNED

More than 80 engraved figures were found in the soft limestone walls and ceiling of Church Hole Cave during two years of research. Subjects include horses, bison, birds and stags and are similar to those found in continental Europe.

The area remains one of Britain’s most important Palaeolithic sites and one of the best places to see evidence of human settlement during the Ice Age.

It’s hoped that fresh evidence will be unearthed during excavations currently taking place and due to finish on August 19 2007.

Meanwhile, a project to protect and conserve Creswell Crags was completed last month, with the opening of a £200,000 bridleway. The new trail replaces the B6042 and allows riders, cyclists and walkers access to the ancient site.

Creating the trail included building scree banks along its 700m length to recreate what the gorge would have looked like 10-50,000 years ago.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned: