Raiders of the Lost Cave Spiders

Chapel Cave SpiderIf you’ve ever wondered why archaeologists become archaeologists, ask them about their first ever dig. Some will curse the day, others will gush with delight, but all will admit to the life changing moment when they found their first find.

My own occurred at Chapel Cave – a Mesolithic cave overlooking Malham tarn in the Yorkshire Dales. The site is set in a south facing limestone scar overlooking a narrow stretch of dry land next to the marshy ground at the edge of the Tarn. It was in an ideal position to intercept game moving around the edge of the lake, and I chanced upon a worked bone point lost on just such a mission.

The last day on site at Chapel Cave: (L-R) Bill Hauter, Ian White, Brendon Wilkins, Nige Steel, Neil Stuart… (can’t remember the other two!) and Nash Gaddas taking the pic.

I was transported back to those first days digging this summer when I attended the funeral of the site supervisor – Ian White. A sad loss to us all, Ian was a skilled caver, and had come to archaeology late in life, having explored some of the best caving systems in the world. With enthusiasm tempered by great technical skill, I remember rope pulleys, scaffolding, tarpaulin and all manner of contraptions that testified to Ian’s work with the Cave Rescue Organisation. In spite of the worst efforts of students like myself, the archaeology was in very safe hands.

Ian White at Chapel Cave

In a perfect example of the law of unintended consequences, Chapel Cave made the headlines recently when the National Trust began renovation of a derelict orchid house at the building we used as our dig headquarters on the edge of the Tarn. They discovered to their amazement a colony of Britain’s rarest and largest spiders – more than 150 of the cave-dwelling species Meta menardi and Meta bourneti. Adapted to live underground, the spiders measure up to 8cm (3.1in) across, and usually remain hidden in cave roof cocoons, from which they sally to find prey, they and will nip if repeatedly provoked.

Tracing the spider’s journey back to our project 10 years earlier, the conservationists realized that we had used the building for storing samples and the spiders had made their way to the orchid house on our clothes and equipment. They were repatriated to Chapel cave shortly after, where they remain guarding the archaeology from future generations of Indiana Jones’s.

Starting next Friday, and published in three installments, we will be running a special cave feature – Under the Uplands – focusing on new discoveries in the Yorkshire and Lancashire Dales. Can’t wait? Check out the new Current Archaeology HERE…

Now settle back and enjoy the film!


It’s relocation, relocation, relocation time for cave spiders in Yorkshire Dales from National Trust on Vimeo.

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