Inora Newsletter #42
CHURCH HOLE: A CONTROVERSIAL SITE
While I would eagerly welcome the discovery of new Pleistocene rock art, be it from England, Tajikistan or Timbuktu, there are several aspects of the recent claims from Church Hole (Ripoll et al. 2004) that need to be clarified:
1. The incoherent mode of announcing the finds. On 14 April 2003, three of the authors visited the site and found three engravings they thought might be of the Pleistocene. A week later, without any analytical work, they submitted an article about this find to a major refereed journal, which was accepted for publication the same day it was received, i.e. without being refereed (Bahn et al. 2003). In this paper, they identified the main image as a “caprid, possibly an ibex”, “with both horns depicted”, of Leroi-Gourhan’s Style IV, and around 12,50012,000 years old. This dating is entirely based on style, and much space was given to a now embarrassing discussion (embarrassing for the authors) of what the depiction of an ibex in England implies.
A few months later the authors visited the site again, finding another nine figures. During a third visit, a year after the first, just before an international conference on the discovery was to be held, another thirty figures were found. Church Hole now “possesses the most richly carved and engraved ceiling in the whole of cave art”. The “ibex”, however, had become a “red deer stag”, and further “surprises” are predicted. If we compare the two published versions of this figure (Fig. 1), we are at once reminded of Bahn and Vertut’s (1988: 43) admonishments of Breuil’s recordings: “Spot the Breuil’, we were then asked (1988: Figs 20, 21). Should we perhaps now “spot the Ripoll”?
2. The quality of data presentation. The published reports lack proper data to facilitate testing or independent assessment. There are no quantified observations of speleo-weathering, speleothem deposition or groove morphologies, but it is obvious from the few photographs that the cave contains many markings that were not considered. For instance, even the most cursory examination of Ripoll et al.’s Fig. 1, the “deer” image, shows that a series of ten to twelve engraved sub-parallel lines, up to 20 cm long, extend downwards from the quadruped’s cheek or upper neck region. All of them clearly connect to the outline of the “deer” figure, thus forming part of the image, yet they were omitted from the recorded rendering. The photographs in Figs. 2, 4, 5 and 6 all feature numerous petroglyphs, including a variety of geometric markings, which were omitted from the recordings.
On the other hand, there is nothing to indicate that the markings in Figs. 4 and 5 are anthropic depictions of a “bison’s forehead” and a “bear”. The latter, in particular, is almost certainly a natural feature, except for a variety of circular and square petroglyphs, which the authors have chosen to ignore. If we were to assume that the examples depicted in the paper are the best available, this assemblage would boil down to a cervid image with a “beard” (or “blood” streaming from the neck, or “sacred breath”, or whichever one of many other possible symbolisms one prefers) and an engraved date of 1948, apparently by “P.M.”, plus a bird head that looks decidedly untypical for Palaeolithic rock art. This is not adequate to propose a Pleistocene age for any corpus of rock art, be it in a region where such art has been demonstrated, or in a region such as England, where it has not.
3. The exclusion of scholars from the site. In October 2003 I travelled to England, hoping to subject the petroglyphs reported from Church Hole to detailed microscopy, together with another cave art specialist. We were told by one of the authors that we were unwelcome, we could not expect him “to drop everything at [Bednarik’s] whim when he so deigns to be in the UK. There are polite methods to obtain access to such sites.” Besides, we should consider the privacy of the bats in the cave.
Together, these factors suggest that the research team lacks the expertise to assemble a scientific case, and it is not adequately confident about its own pronouncements to permit them to be subjected to uninvited review. Publication of the finds occurred with such haste that most of their first publication has already been refuted by the investigators themselves. Their controversial claims were published without peer review. If the Church Hole claims were found to be valid which may still be the case this precipitous publication of an inadequate paper in Antiquity would have prejudiced such an acceptance.
The case for Palaeolithic rock art in Britain has considerable similarities with that for such art in Germany. Claims have been made there throughout the 20th century, and after various early finds were discredited, a small number of instances in Germany remained as possible candidates. They were exhaustively analysed, which resulted in the refutation of all cases. There is thus currently no known instance of Pleistocene rock art in Germany (Bednarik 2002). Similarly, many other sites often listed as Palaeolithic rock art sites are either bereft of such art, or its Pleistocene antiquity is most tenuous. Among them are Mladec (Bednarik and Oliva in prep.), Byci, Hillebrand, Kapova and Ignatiev Caves, and Stubwieswipfel, Kienbachklamm and Siega Verde, but the same applies to many others currently listed as Palaeolithic.
If the authors wish to avoid the same fate for Church Hole, they need to present exhaustive analytical results from binocular microscopy as well as other scientific methods. Alternatively, they need to invite examination by sceptical rock art scientists. Until this occurs, the Pleistocene status of any rock art in Church Hole remains controversial. I have no idea whether there is any Pleistocene rock art in this cave, but what we have been told so far seems to speak against it. If there is, then the poor quality of these reports has prejudiced acceptance.
Robert G. Bednarik
P.O. Box 216, Caulfield South, VIC 3162, Australia