Return the Red Lady

December 22, 2023 6 Comments
Paviland Cave

Languish is the right word.  In a corner of a remote museum there languish some ancient human bones.  They were discovered by William Buckland in 1823 in Paviland, or Goat’s Hole, one of the many caves that punctuate the limestone cliffs on the south coast of Gower.  The bones belonged to the person who became known as ‘The Red Lady of Paviland’ –   except that, as it turned out, the Red Lady was a man.  Soon after his resurrection he was kidnapped by Buckland, and he’s lived in obscure exile, over 170 miles away in the Oxford Museum of Natural History, ever since. 

The Red Lady is one of the most significant individuals ever discovered on these islands, for two main reasons – his age and his mode of burial.  His is possibly the oldest known ceremonial human burial in western Europe.  Scientists have used radiocarbon dating to estimate that he lived between 33,000 and 34,000 years ago, in the Upper Palaeolithic age, during a warm spell before the ice returned.  He was clearly an important young person, because his burial was elaborate: red ochre was scattered over his body, which was decorated with a rich array of grave goods: beads made from seashells, ivory rods, animal bones and antlers.  On top of all that, Paviland Cave is one of the richest early Palaeolithic sites yet found in Britain.

William Buckland

It was two locals from Reynoldston who began to find prehistoric bones at Paviland, Rev. John Evans and Daniel Davies, a surgeon.  Their finds attracted the attention of Lewis Weston Dillwyn, a gentleman botanist in Swansea and one of the founders of the Royal Institution of South Wales.  He in turn indirectly alerted his friend William Buckland, the first reader in geology in the University of Oxford.  Buckland arrived in Gower in January 1832 and immediately took charge of the excavation.  It was he who unearthed the Red Lady, close by one of the walls of the cave.

While the Red Lady’s bones are real, his/her identity have been – and still are – subject to all manner of interpretations.  This process was started by Buckland himself.  He was as far as it’s possible to imagine from the sober, rational scientist of today (archaeology was still in its infancy).  He was still partly in thrall to the Biblical timetable of human history, including Noah’s Flood – he was later Dean of Westminster – and so found it impossible to imagine the deep antiquity of the Red Lady, and ignored the fact that his remains were associated with those of long-extinct mammals.  His guesses about the Lady’s identity, beyond his sex error, were fanciful.  His first was that the body belonged to a customs officer murdered by smugglers.  Then he pronounced that it belonged to a witch.  And finally he proposed that the Lady was a prostitute attached to the Roman army. 

(Buckland admittedly had a strange, not to say scatalogical sense of humour, and it’s not always clear when he’s joking.  In his rooms at Christ Church College he would serve his dinner guests with toasted field mice, crocodile steaks, hedgehog, puppy, ostrich, and snail.  ‘His avowed ambition’, says one of his biographers, ‘was to eat his way through the animal kingdom, and he lost no opportunity in sampling a new member.’)

The Red Lady in Oxford

Buckland’s worst mistake in his trip to Wales was what he did with the bones.  He made off with them and took them back with him to Oxford, where he deposited them in his local museum.  He, and those who allowed him to purloin them, could defend the decision on the grounds that there was no established museum in Swansea at the time.  Dillwyn and his chums didn’t set up the Swansea Philosophical and Literary Institution, later the Royal Institution, until three years later, and they didn’t build and open the Institution’s museum, now Swansea Museum, until 1841.  (Swansea Museum eventually had to make do with replicas of the bones, which you can see there today.)

Recently, two local activists, Matthew Smith, poet, and Helen Nicholas, educator, have begun a new campaign to have the Red Lady returned to Swansea.  ‘Repatriation’ is an idea that’s gathering momentum, with cases like the Benin bronzes, looted, removed and sold by the British army during their vicious, punitive attack on the kingdom of Benin in 1897, and the ‘Elgin marbles’, stripped and shipped to Britain under dubious circumstances by the noble Earl.  Return of antiquities is a complex issue, but it’s interesting that the Red Lady shares some of the same circumstances as the Elgin marbles.

The Museum of Natural History in Oxford, like the British Museum, would claim that it came by its antiquities entirely legally (though who, I wonder, gave Buckland the right to snatch them for his own town?).  They would also say that ‘the bones are safe with us’, and are available for the public to view.

Red Lady’s burial (Gino D’Achille)

On the other hand, there are two powerful arguments in favour of restoration.  Just as the Parthenon sculptures in London mean so much more to the Greeks than to the British (or English, or Londoners), the Red Lady carries far more significance to the people of Wales (or Swansea or Gower) than he ever has had, or ever will have, to the good people of Oxford.  For negative evidence of this you only have to make the trip to Oxford to see the Red Lady in situ.  He’s located in a far corner of the building – the Dodo is given pride of place – and there’s little to suggest how important he is to the prehistory of the European human.  The bones are poorly exhibited and inadequately explained.  The positive evidence is the strength of feeling in the current campaign (as well as in earlier ones).

The second basis for repatriation is that in his current location the Red Lady isn’t only exiled from his home, amid the alien dreaming spires of Oxford, he’s divorced from his archaeological context.  Swansea Museum has in its collections a mass of palaeolithic material excavated at various dates from Paviland, which, if he were united with them, would help to give him a comfortable home and us a better chance to imagine, as far as we’re able, life in the early stone age.  Bringing the objects of Paviland together would have the same effect as gathering in the Acropolis Museum the Parthenon sculptures that are currently scattered to the winds (and not only in London).

Swansea Museum

As it happens, there’s a fine opportunity coming up to give the Red Lady a suitable new home.  Swansea Museum will shortly be going through a process of modernisation and extension – one that might at last allow it to escape from the long shadow of Dylan Thomas’s adage that it’s ‘a museum that should be in a museum’.  It would be wonderful to imagine that those in charge of the project had the vision and resources to negotiate the transfer, or long loan, of the Red Lady back to Swansea, ensure his continued preservation, and make him the centrepiece of a major display that would honour his importance. 

(And while they’re at it they could do a similar job on the productions of the early Swansea photographers, also of international significance but insufficiently recognised.)

Comments (6)

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  1. Sian Evans says:

    What a great investigation. Please note that the remains have a sex but NOT a gender (that would require knowing how the Red Lady identified as).

  2. Michael Norman says:

    I support both your case for the return of ‘The Red Lady’, as well as your appended, reiterated call to make John Dillwyn Llewelyn’s (et al) unique photographic archive at the Museum accessible again on-line.

  3. Gillian Lewis says:

    Couldn’t agree more Andrew, it would be great to have a comprehensive display of all the artefacts recovered from the cave with the Red Lady remains as the centrepiece, in Swansea. All the discoveries are both hugely important and hauntingly fascinating… Likewise the history of the early photographers.

  4. jeff towns says:

    I whole heartedly agree and would lend whatever support I could to a campaign to bring the bones back to Swansea

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