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ArchaeologyPart of Humanities

Major grant to date Ice Age cave art

Published: 10 July 2013

Dr Alistair Pike, Reader in Archaeology, has been awarded a grant of £530,000 from the Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC) to use uranium-series dating to investigate the origins and development of Palaeolithic cave painting in Europe.

He will work with Andy Milton, in Ocean and Earth Science at Southampton and collaborators at the University of Durham, the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana, Burgos, Spain, the University of Barcelona, and the University of the Basque Country.

Although European cave art in the Ice Age is acknowledged as one of the most important sources of information about the belief systems, symbolic behaviour and aesthetic abilities of these earliest known artists, archaeologists need to know its exact age to understand more about our ancestors. The project in Spain, France and Italy will produce one of the largest bodies of radiometric dates for the core regions of Palaeolithic cave paintings and engravings in these countries.

“The results will allow us to determine whether Neanderthals created some of the earliest art or whether it was a behaviour restricted to our own species, explains Alistair. “We will see how it evolved thematically and stylistically over time from place to place. Providing reliable dates for particular artistic themes and styles will allow us to relate the changing artistic traditions to the social and behavioural changes that are recorded in the archaeological record below ground.”

A pilot project, which successfully dated 50 carbonate samples from 11 caves in northern Spain, has already shown that art in this region appeared 20,000 years earlier that was previously thought. This was during the period in which the last Neanderthals were disappearing and the first modern humans (Homo sapiens) were arriving. These results raised the possibility that Neanderthals created some of the earliest examples of cave art.

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