Staggering. Continued investigations turned up numerous carvings on the cave ceiling.

Ice Age Sistine Chapel Found

Last year, archaeologists discovered Britain's first Ice Age cave art: half a dozen 13,000-year-old images of birds and animals scraped into the walls of a Derbyshire cave. Now, systematic surveys have revealed that the same cave contains more than 10 times that number of carvings, making the site one of the most important finds from Ice Age Britain.

Carvings of an ibex and other animals made a splash last year (ScienceNOW, 20 June 2003) because Britain's only other rock art is just 5000 years old. Although spectacular paintings have been discovered at Ice Age sites such as Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain, these early masterpieces were thought to be beyond the ability of Paleolithic Brits.

Now, more detailed analysis at Creswell Crags in the north of England has turned up a wide array of weathered, barely discernible carvings, says Paul Pettitt of the University of Sheffield, one of the archaeologists behind last year's find. The newly found engravings depict bears, horses, and bison, all of which became extinct in Britain 10,000 years ago, at the end of the Ice Age. Other carvings represent stylized female genitalia and dancing women, he says, and resemble images found in mainland European sites. The new finds were announced by the University of Sheffield last week.

Stalactites have formed over the top of some of the carvings, hinting at the antiquity of the find. Uranium-series dating carried out at Oxford University "will end up verifying the great age of the art beyond any doubt," says Pettitt, who adds that the results will be released soon. "This demonstrates that Britain was not a cultural periphery at the edge of mainland Europe at this time [and] was capable of producing works of art equal to those found much further south."

The survey at Creswell Crags has revealed "the most ornately decorated late Ice Age cave ceiling in the world," comments Jon Humble, inspector of ancient monuments for the government body English Heritage, who is based in Northampton.

Related sites
Creswell Crags
The Cave of Lascaux in France