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The Red Lady of Paviland

It’s no exaggeration to say that Paviland Cave is one of the most important in Europe, if not the world. It was here, in 1823, that the Reverend William Buckland – the first Professor of Geology at Oxford University – excavated the remains of a body that had been smeared with red ochre (naturally occurring iron oxide) and buried along with a scattering of periwinkle shells and ivory rods. He didn’t know it at the time, but Buckland’s discovery would prove crucial for tracing the origins of human life in Britain…

At first, Buckland thought it was the body of a customs officer, murdered and hidden by smugglers. He then decided it was a Roman prostitute, mistakenly believing that the Iron Age fort on the hilltop above the cave was Roman.

So it was that the headless skeleton became known as “the Red Lady of Paviland” – and it is still called the Red Lady, even though we now know two things Buckland didn’t: the remains are those of a young man and they were buried 34,000 years ago! Not only does this make Paviland Cave the site of the oldest ceremonial burial in Western Europe; it also makes the Red Lady the oldest ‘modern anatomical’ human skeleton found in Britain (meaning the oldest skeleton of Homo Sapiens, the same species as today’s humans).

Buckland died long before the true story of the Red Lady became known, but his discovery proved to be one of the most important archaeological finds ever uncovered in Britain.

The full story of the Red Lady will of course never be known – the best we can do is make educated guesses about who he was and how his body came to lie in the cave. Researchers who came after William Buckand found thousands of flints on the floor of the cave, suggesting it was in regular use. Some believe that the cave is a sacred place and the presence of ivory rods, found buried with the body of the Red Lady, suggest that he was some sort of shaman or religious leader. Others believe that the body is simply that of a hunter, who was laid to rest here by his companions after suffering a fatal accident.

What we do know for certain is that the Red Lady is the body of a once healthy man who died at a young age. Studies of the bones show that he would have stood 6ft tall and had narrow hips – more African than European in body shape and typical of a person who had to cover long distances on foot (as Stone Age people often did). The skeleton is missing its skull and other bones, which may have been washed away by the sea during times when the cave has been flooded by large waves.

Paviland Cave has been carefully excavated since Buckland’s historic discovery. The area in which the body of the Red Lady was found has yielded more than 4000 flints, teeth, bones, needles and bracelets, many of which are exhibited at Swansea Museum and the National Museum in Cardiff.

The body itself is kept at Oxford University, where it has remained since its discovery by Buckland in 1823 (at the time, Wales had no museums where the body could be stored). Most recently, requests have been made to bring the Red Lady back to the place of his discovery in Gower.