By Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News

July 13, 2004 — An elaborately decorated cave ceiling with artwork dating to 13,000 years ago has been found in Nottinghamshire, England, according to a press release issued today by the University of Sheffield.

The site of the find, Church Hole Cave at Creswell Crags, is being called the "Sistine Chapel" of the Ice Age because it contains the most ornate cave art ceiling in the world. The ceiling extends the earliest rock art in Britain by approximately 8,000 years and suggests that a primary culture unified Europeans during the Ice Age.

Depicted on the ceiling are a number of animal figures that include deer, bears, birds and images that might be of dancing women. An ibex, a type of horned goat thought not to have existed in Britain, is among the overlapping animal images in the cave.

Although archaeologists and other experts have visited the Creswell Crags area numerous times over the years, the cave's vast overhead artwork went undiscovered until recently. Sergio Ripoll, an Ice Age art specialist at the Spanish Open University and a member of the research team who found the cave art, described the moment of discovery to the Times Higher Education Supplement.

"I saw a line and suddenly a head was there," said Ripoll, who later identified the head as belonging to a red deer stag image. "I then said a very big bad word in Spanish — it was so exciting."

Before the find, archaeologists remained in the dark about the artwork because of poor lighting in the cave and the fact that the images appear as subtle bas-relief forms amongst a multitude of rocks and crags. Bas relief — sculpture carved to slightly project from the background — was a sophisticated technique for such early artists.

Ripoll's colleague Paul Pettitt, an archaeologist at the University of Sheffield, believes that the cave carvers belonged to an Ice Age European culture called the Magdalenian, which he says marks the last time Europe was united on a grand scale.

Creswell's artists likely summered in the area of the cave, following the migrating reindeer that may have formed a large portion of their summer diet. During the winter, Pettitt thinks the cave men and women resided along what are now the lowlands near the North Sea, or in the Netherlands or the central Rhine region.

Pettitt further believes they kept in touch with other Ice Age Europeans and that the Church Hole Cave artwork was a way of reaffirming and expressing their shared culture.

While ancient cave art exists in France and other European countries, the British cave represents the most northerly site for the Magdalenians. Pettitt says that 20,000 years ago, Church Hole Cave was just 18.64 miles south of the ice cap.

Perhaps dancing helped to keep the cave dwellers warm. Some debate exists as to the "dancing women" figures on the ceiling, but Pettitt holds firm to his theory that they show women bogeying down.

"You see naked women in profile, with jutting out buttocks and raised arms," Pettitt told Britain's Guardian newspaper. "It appears to be a picture of women doing a dance in which they thrust out their derrières. It's stylistically very similar to continental examples, and seems to demonstrate that Creswellians are singing and dancing in the same way as on the continent."

British historians and art experts have expressed awe and praise for the cave art find, which has been called the most important discovery from the British Paleolithic since the unearthing of 500,000-year-old hominids in Boxgrove during the 1990s.

Jon Humble, inspector of ancient monuments for a preservation group called English Heritage, commented, "The text books say that there is no cave art in Britain. These will now have to be rewritten. It is remarkable to consider that some 500 generations ago people created pictures on the wall of the caves depicting the world that they knew, which certainly was not as we know it."

Plans are in the works to construct a museum and education center at Creswell.