According to many historical accounts, William Buckland was an interesting, even eccentric, man. Stories about the famous geologist indicate that he was a colorful guy who gave captivating lectures, had a strange sense of humor, and had a deep interest in fossils. My personal favorite tale of Buckland is the legend that he carried around a blue bag full of fossils, everywhere he went. Eccentrics aside, Buckland was an incredible naturalist, remembered for his extensive work in paleontology and geology. He studied a variety of fossils, some of which later came to be known as dinosaurs (the term was not yet coined when Buckland studied the creatures). Today, for Buckland’s birthday, I’d like to share a bit about one of his interesting finds: the Red Lady of Paviland.
Buckland, a Professor of Geology at Oxford,
discovered the Red Lady in 1823, after being contacted by locals who had found other fossils in the cave. Paviland Cave, also known as Goat’s Hole Cave, is located on the Gower Peninsula in South Wales. There, underneath about six inches of sediment, Buckland uncovered the bones of a human, the find included a left arm, leg, foot, part of a pelvis, and ribs. Interestingly, the bones were stained with red ochre, a natural pigment.
Once excavated, Buckland began speculating the possible age, life, and history of this interesting fossil. This was an interesting task, as Buckland (a man of his time) was trying to reconcile concepts of creation and the Bible with geological formations and ancient fossils. Buckland argued that the bones of the Red Lady had to be more recent than Noah’s flood.
The Red Lady as A Witch
At first, Buckland thought the skeleton belonged to a man, joking that the man could have been murdered and buried in the cave by smugglers, which were prevalent and well known in this area. However, Buckland quickly changed his mind and decided the skeleton was a female, possibly even a witch! He speculated that maybe she was a fortune teller, letting his imagination run wild based on the other objects found near her body, which included jewelry.
Buckland based his determination of sex on the beads and rings found associated with the bones. He argued that “there never was, nor ever will be a period, when, even among uncivilized races, the female part of our species were not, and will not be, anxious to decorate themselves with beads.” For a deeper analysis of Buckland’s beliefs and how that led to his determination of the Red Lady as a witch, check out historian Marianne Sommer’s book on the Red Lady fossil.
Recent Studies of the Red Lady
As Sommer has shown with her biography of the fossil, The Red Lady has lived many lives since her discovery by Buckland. She has been interpreted by different scientists to be various things for various reasons. She is now known to the skeleton a modern human (Homo sapein) male, dating back to the Upper Paleolithic, approximately 33,000 years old (according to radiocarbon dates). Her legacy, however, as a the Red Lady, lives on.
And as for Buckland’s legacy? Well, his eccentricities continued on even after his death. Apparently, the plot Buckland reserved in the local graveyard rested (as the comedic geologist obviously knew) directly on top of an outcrop of solid Jurassic limestone. Apparently, the Jurassic rock was just inches below the surface, and explosives had to be used to make Buckland’s grave.
Fun Fact: Buckland was a friend of paleontologist Mary Anning, he often described fossils she had discovered, and even raised money for her once.
Fun Fact: A controversy recently erupted on where the bones should be housed, read more about it here.
Rupke, Nicolaas A. The great chain of history: William Buckland and the English school of geology (1814-1849). Oxford University Press, USA, 1983.
Sommer, Marianne. Bones and ochre: the curious afterlife of the Red Lady of Paviland. Harvard University Press, 2007.
William Buckland http://www.oum.ox.ac.uk/learning/htmls/buckland.htm