The Red Lady of Paviland

Abbie Trayler-Smith, The Big O (2014)

‘The circumstances of the remains of a British camp existing on the hill immediately above this cave, seems to throw much light on the character and date of the woman under consideration; and whatever may have been her occupation, the vicinity of a camp would afford a motive for residence, as well as a means of subsistence, in what is now so exposed and uninviting a solitude. From all these circumstances there is reason to conclude, that the date of these human bones is coeval with that of the military occupation of the adjacent summits, and anterior to, or coeval with, the Roman invasion of this country.’

– The Reverend William Buckland, of the Geological Society of London, Reliquiæ Diluvianæ; or, Observations on the Organic Remains contained in Caves, Fissures, and Diluvial Gravel, and on other Geological Phenomena, attesting the Action of a Universal Deluge (1823)

Wrong. On every assumption wrong: on the date
Of the burial by thirty-thousand years,
Long before the Universal Deluge
Of Biblical myth or a clergyman’s
Fancy of a world before Eve and Adam.
Wrong, too, about her occupation: not
A prostitute for soldiers but a hunter
And gatherer who survived on fish from the
River Severn. Wrong, finally, about
Her sex: the Red Lady of Paviland
Having died a young man, still in his twenties,
His slender body anointed with ochre,
Necklaced with shells and ringed with ivory,
In the oldest remains yet discovered
In these Doggered isles of the burial rites
Of our anatomical ancestor.

I saw her sitting at the Tesco checkout
Of the Swansea Marina Superstore,
Servicing the second homes that surround
The former docks (now ‘Maritime Quarter’)
Where luxury yachts are tightly anchored
In the once fishingboat-bobbing sea
Of Dylan Thomas’s vanished town.
Her periwinkle eyes were empty as shells,
And no dolphin smile swam across her lips
As the fish-frozen fingers in her hands
Trawled across the sensors of her till.
A red-haired Penelope with no suitors,
Neither a hero at home nor to wait for,
Scanned by an electronic Cyclops, she
Unpicked the barcode of her digital life
To the distant lighthouse of her nightshift’s end.

They are wrong, too, about her. Wrong
About why she had her son: not to claim
Child Benefit and a higher rung on the
Housing List, but because she loved his father –
Before he left for an enemy’s shores.
Wrong about her occupation too: not
To sit day and night at this conveyor belt,
The cybernetic arm of a computer, but
To love and teach her child how to live better.
Wrong, most of all, about what to do with her:
Not ‘incentivise’ her out of poverty
By cutting her wages and sanctioning
Her benefits until she feeds her boy
From the food-bank tins she sells but cannot buy,
But to free her from this evolution’s end
In the camp of a foreign invader.

And set her running again across Gower:
Leaping the streams above dragon-clawed falls,
Trailing the hand of her goat-footed kid
To the wave-carved spirits of the rocks below,
To comb their ‘uninviting solitude’
For a stone that a boy picked up and threw
Thirty-three millennia and more ago
Into the ice-locked ocean twenty leagues south.
And scaling the cliff when the tide cries in
To the tear-drop eye of a limestone cave,
Ringed with quartz and carpeted with sand,
Place the skull of a mammoth on the grave
Of a man, not much older than she
Whose sunset head sank into the sea,
Last survivor of our Universal
Deluge, the Red Lady of Paviland.

Simon Elmer

The photograph of the young girl is by Abbie Trayler-Smith, a Welsh photographer, from her series The Big O, about obesity in young girls in the UK. That’s not why I chose it though. When I was trawling the internet for a photo of a red-headed Welsh girl, all I found was the usual fashion-magazine fodder of pouting waifs, until I stumbled across this very beautiful photo of the girl I never in fact saw in the Swansea Marina Superstore. The other photographs were taken during a visit to Paviland Cave (known locally as Goat’s Hole) in April 2018, and another this September to Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History, where the bones and other relics of the Red Lady are kept. Unfortunately, these don’t include the mammoth skull that the Reverend William Buckland found beside the burial but has been lost ever since, and which I suspect is gathering dust in the cellar of Penrice Castle.

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