Tracing the Deer: Britain’s Earliest Art

BY TOM JOHNSON

 

Look at the photographs below, what do you see?

 Inside a cave at Creswell Crags. Photo by Tom Johnson
Inside a cave at Creswell Crags. Photo by Tom Johnson
Inside a cave at Creswell Crags, Photo by Tom Johnson
Inside a cave at Creswell Crags, Photo by Tom Johnson

Carved in to a rock, the letters PM are visible, together with a date, 1940, but there is something more. There is another image which is much harder to spot and which can be traced back much further in time than the Second World War.

The photographs are of a cave wall at Creswell Crags in Derbyshire, where marked on to the surface is the image of a red deer. On first looking at the piece it can be hard to make out the lines of the animal. But in tracing the marks on to the photographs, it is possible to see how one of the naturally occurring holes in the rock was used as the deer’s eye, providing a point from which the rest of the picture springs: the head, the neck, the body, the legs, and a deer’s most distinguishing feature, its antlers.

A tracing of the deer. Close-up. Photo by Tom Johnson
A tracing of the deer. Close-up. Photo by Tom Johnson
A tracing of the deer. Photo by Tom Johnson
A tracing of the deer, photo by Tom Johnson

The carving is one of many which were discovered at Creswell Crags in 2003, prompting much excitement about their origins. The images are now believed to date from around 13,000 years ago, making them Britain’s earliest known art.

One of the most interesting features of the deer image is the way the wall’s surface, with its change in depth at the animal’s neck, adds a three dimensional, sculptural quality to the piece. Moving around the carving, the deer takes on a slightly different stance depending upon the angle you view it from.

This idea of movement is furthered by the changing natural light which hits the piece. The image is in a position close to the cave’s entrance, in a spot where day light illuminates the surface, highlighting the different depths upon which the image is carved. Viewing the piece at night by torch light would likely have a similar effect, the flickering flame setting the deer in motion.

The more recent marks around the carving, including PM and 1940, were made before the public discovery of the animal, therefore it is assumed that the person or people who made them were unaware of the deer’s presence. But this in itself is a curious part of the story; as people share the rock’s surface it shows how different civilisations over vast expanses of time made their mark.

 

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