Essay / Uncanny Valley

Should Paviland’s Red Lady “Come Home”?

Two archaeologists explore the complicated story of 33,000-year-old human remains—and calls for their repatriation to Wales.
A photograph features a person in a red hooded cape standing in a dark forest, looking back at the viewer.

Ancient, red-tinted human remains were whisked off to Oxford from a cave in Wales by geologist William Buckland in the 19th century.

Eva Carollo Photography/Getty Images

This article was originally published at The Conversation and has been republished with Creative Commons.

WHEN WILLIAM BUCKLAND from the University of Oxford grabbed his trusty collecting bag and headed for the Gower peninsula in south Wales in January 1823, he ended up discovering more than he had bargained for.

Two hundred years ago, the geology professor happened upon one of the oldest human burial sites in Western Europe, kicking off an archaeological debate that would last for the next two centuries. The anniversary of his discovery has once again sparked a debate about whether the human remains should now be repatriated from Oxford to Wales.

In December 1822, Buckland had received a package containing an elephant tusk and skull (which was really a mammoth), along with a basket full of animal bones. The finds from Paviland Cave had been sent by Lady Mary Cole, who lived in Penrice Castle, Gower. The package was so intriguing to Buckland he decided he needed to visit the location in person.

Buckland, an Anglican priest, was operating at an important juncture in the study of human and geological time. He was about to publish his seminal work, Reliquiae Diluvianae, in which religion and science were thrust together as one.

At the time, European accounts of human history were still largely dictated by the chronology of the Bible. This meant Buckland clung to the idea of a cataclysmic biblical “deluge.”

He was adamant any extinct animals found during his explorations had been washed into the caves by the great flood. This idea became his biggest problem when trying to decipher the depth of time presented at Paviland.


Paviland, or Goat’s Hole Cave, is a limestone cave between Rhossili and Port Eynon on the Gower coast. Today, as at the time of Buckland, the cave is cut off by the tide for most of the year. Buckland visited during winter when tides are at their lowest, meaning he was able to enter and start his excavations immediately.

It wasn’t long before he found an undisturbed burial of human bones and objects, all stained red with ochre. The remains lacked a skull, but on excavation, they were found to be surrounded by ivory objects (including rods and rings), a clutch of periwinkle shells, and worked flints. Buckland took them back with him to Oxford.

From inside a dark cave, a photograph features a rocky tear-shaped cave opening looking out on blue seawater.

The entrance to Paviland Cave frames Bristol Channel.

A photograph features a rocky landscape that ascends into a large mountain. A small teardrop-shaped opening is visible on the mountain’s right side.

Paviland Cave, known by locals as Goat’s Hole Cave, also gave evidence of ancient animals such as mammoths, giant deer, and reindeer.

leighcol/Getty Images

At first, he thought the human bones were those of a man and joked that they belonged to a tax collector who had been murdered by smugglers, for which this coastal area was notorious.

Next, Buckland suggested the remains belonged to a witch due to the presence of a “blade bone of mutton.” Based on his knowledge of Welsh customs, he imagined this was used as some kind of conjuring tool.

Finally, he argued the skeleton was that of a painted female prostitute, which made the shell beads implements of gambling, while the rings were jewelry made from Roman elephant ivory. This was the story he stuck to and the one that best fit his biblical flood theory.

The real issue is it seems Buckland did not study the human bones in detail. Perhaps even if he had, he wanted to suppress what he found. Had he examined the bones properly, he would have noticed the individual wasn’t female but a young male, aged 25–30, who stood about 5 feet 7 inches in height.

Buckland’s theories had buckled.


In 2008, radiocarbon-dating techniques conclusively showed the bones belonged to an individual buried around 33,000 years ago.

Paviland, at this time, would have been located at least 60 miles inland, on a cliff above a grassy plain. The landscape would have been teeming with prey such as mammoths, woolly rhinos, giant deer, bison, and reindeer.

Buckland was spinning a yarn, however, and wanted to largely ignore the human burial, as it did not fit his theories. As a result, Wales lost its opportunity to be at the forefront of Paleolithic studies, which shifted instead to a European focus.

Between their discovery and the present day, the Paviland bones have been on a journey from tax man, witch, prostitute, and Paleolithic hunter to the more recent suggestions of shaman or spiritual figure. People now visit the cave as a form of pilgrimage. But there have also been calls for the skeleton to take another journey—back to Wales.


Buckland did return some of his finds from Oxford to Wales. The hyena jaw bones are displayed at Swansea Museum, while an ivory staff is stored at St. Fagans National Museum of History in Cardiff.

But the remarkable human remains are still on display at the University of Oxford’s Museum of Natural History. Some have called these bones the “Welsh Elgin marbles.”

A photograph features a gray stone castle on a grassy hillside flanked by trees on all sides.

Lady Mary Cole, who lived in Penrice Castle (shown here) in Gower, Wales, originally sent animal bones from Paviland Cave to Buckland.

With the real Elgin marbles now poised to make their way back to Greece from the British Museum, is it time for the human remains from Paviland to come back to Wales?

Repatriation is a complex issue. From the Mold Gold Cape to the Benin Bronzes, returning materials to nations or regions attracts controversy.

The Paviland remains are well cared for where they are, so there’s a question as to whether they should “come home” at all. A further debate is whether they should be returned as an ancestor or an exhibit.

However, the importance of this individual to European and global histories means their return would certainly enhance the Welsh national collection—and shine a spotlight on the unique archaeology and caves of Wales.

From the shoulders up, a photograph features a smiling person with long straight brown hair, a black t-shirt, and black rimmed glasses.

Ffion Reynolds is an honorary research fellow at Cardiff University who specializes in ancient Britain and Ireland. In 2011, she joined Cadw, the historic environment service for the Welsh government, to work as a community archaeologist in the south Wales area. Reynolds oversees the public programs for Cadw across 130 sites in Wales. She also co-directs a public archaeology project in the multi-period landscape around the important site of the Bryn Celli Ddu Neolithic passage tomb on the island of Anglesey.

From the shoulders up, a photograph features a person with short white hair looking straight at the viewer against a black background.

Jacqui Mulville is an archaeologist with over 35 years of experience in professional, field, and academic archaeology. She is a professor of bioarchaeology and the head of archaeology and conservation at Cardiff University. Mulville specializes in archaeological science (particularly zooarchaeology and bioarchaeology), the archaeology of islands and coasts, heritage management and archaeological practice, and contemporary and historical archaeology.


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