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William Buckland & the Red Lady of Paviland

William Buckland, mezzotint by Samuel Cousins after 1832 painting by Thomas Phillips, published by Molteno & Graves, 20 May 1833. GSL/POR/53/7). Buckland is holding a hyena skull from Kirkdale Cavern, a map of the area is on the wall.

William Buckland (1784-1856) was Professor of Mineralogy at the University of Oxford from 1813 and became its first Reader in Geology in 1818. Although principally a scientist, Buckland was ordained in 1808 and spent many years attempting to reconcile his religious faith with the geological evidence before him – particularly in relation to the Biblical Flood.

Buckland's most important early geological work was on fossil cave faunas, notably his excavation of the Kirkdale Cavern, Yorkshire in 1822. There he discovered the bones of hyenas and other exotic animals such as an elephant, hippopotamus and rhinoceros. His theory that the cave was a hyena den and the exotic animals had been dragged in as their prey won him the Royal Society's Copley medal in 1822.

Buckland, like many geologists in the early 19th century, held the widespread belief that humanity was of recent origin, specifically ‘post-diluvian’ that is deriving from after Noah’s Flood. Therefore when he discovered in a cave in Gower, Wales, a partial human skeleton amongst the remains of creatures which were identified as ‘antediluvian’ [pre-Flood] he confidently dismissed it as “clearly not coeval with the antediluvian extinct species”.

Paviland Cave

'Section of the Cave called Goat's Hole', from William Buckland, Reliquiae diluvianae; or, Observations on the organic remains contained in caves, fissures, and diluvial gravel, and on other geological phenomena, attesting the action of an universal deluge. 2nd edn. London: John Murray (1824). 

This section shows the skeleton found by Buckland in 1823 in situ. The bones had been dyed by a red ochre and nearby were ivory beads, hence why it was named ‘The Red Lady of Paviland'. Buckland suggested that ‘she’ was a Roman era prostitute connected to a military garrison thought to have been in the area.

It would be subsequently discovered that the Red Lady was in fact male but Buckland was correct that he was deliberately interred at a later date than the surrounding finds. The skeleton, however, is still estimated to be around 33,000 years old. The ivory beads were not elephant but came from mammoth tusk.

Kent's Cavern

Kent's Cavern
‘A view of the interior of Kent's Cave near the entrance taken from the excavation’, pencil drawing by John Marten, [1825-1826]. (archive ref: LDGSL/400/22)

Just a few miles up the coast from Brixham Cave is Kent’s Cavern. It had long attracted visitors as a natural curiosity but first came to scientific prominence in 1824 when Mr J Northmore, a tourist in Torquay, was recommended to visit the site in his pursuit of possible Mithraic artefacts. There were no signs of druids but he did find mammalian remains.

William Buckland was alerted but not having the time to oversee the excavation himself encouraged the Roman Catholic priest Father John MacEnery (1797-1841) to undertake the project. Between 1825-1829 McEnery found the bones of extinct animals such as bears, hyaenas, rhinoceros and deer. Most controversially MacEnery claimed to have found evidences of man-made flints in amongst the animal bones. These again were identified as post-diluvian by Buckland.

MacEnery wolf
Wolf skull and hand worked flints found in Kent's Cavern, from John MacEnery, Cavern researches, or, Discoveries of organic remains, and of British and Roman reliques, in the caves of Kent's Hole, Anstis Cove, Chudleigh, and Berry Head. London: Simpkin, Marshall and Co.; E. Cockrem (1859). MacEnery's findings would not be published until 30 years later.

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