Category: Features

Under the Uplands – Part 2

Kinsey Cave is a scheduled ancient monument, situated north of Settle and Giggleswick on High Scar above the 300-metre contour. It was excavated sporadically from the 1880s onwards, with major work taking place under the direction of J Wilfred Jackson and W Kinsey Mattinson between 1925 – 1931.

A carved reindeer antler tang and five chipped stone tools dating to the end of the Ice Age approximately 13,000 years ago were recovered from the cave environs, although their exact find location was not detailed in the records.

On this basis, the cave was scheduled in 1949. In addition, significant quantities of Roman artefacts of cultic appearance were recovered from the upper layers of the cave, including perforated bone spoons and round pieces of perforated pottery, as well as items of dress jewellery. Romano-British deposits of this type are known from a number of Dales caves, including Victoria, Attermire, and Sewells – seeming to indicate that Roman cults utilised the caves for rituals. This was a well-known practice for many of the Roman auxiliary troops stationed in the north, such as Dalmatians, Sarmatians and Dacians, who would have identified the rocky terrain as similar to the Karst landscapes of their homeland in southeast Europe.

Faced with a lack of stratigraphic control and detailed publication records from the original excavation, the first step for the project was a comprehensive assessment of the existing archive.

Kinsey Cave, High Scar, on Giggleswick Scar showing the narrow enterance that leads deep into the rock

What followed was an analytical integration of the Kinsey Cave archive, with 22 new high-resolution dates from human bones and domestic and wild animals. Beyond the cave mouth, a programme of remote sensing was used to identify the spoil heaps and any potential voiding within the talus slope (the area of debris and scree outside the cave mouth). This helped direct the new excavation strategy, with three-dimensional recording of all recently exposed bone and 100% sampling of all disturbed sediments. By establishing a micro-excavation of badger movements, determining the integrity of the remaining cave sediment and the main areas of damage, the team could report to English Heritage and English Nature with recommendations for the cave’s future management.


The Kinsey Report

Despite the large preponderance of Romano-British artefacts in the site archive, the cave had been seen as a predominantly Palaeolithic site on the basis of lithic and worked antler material, and associated animal bone from long extinct species. A reassessment of the archive material, though, casts doubt on this, challenging the earlier assumptions that the cave contained intact Palaeolithic archaeology. Mattinson and Jackson, the original excavators, had recorded their finds in a number of illustrated notebooks, attributing human bones to a catchall ‘bear horizon.’ Given the associations of animal bone from ‘ancient’ wild species such as bear and lynx, they assumed that the cave was used in the immediate post-glacial period for human burial – an interpretation supported by the carved antler and lithic artefacts.

Excavating the interior of Kinsey Cave

By taking a distribution of 22 radiocarbon dates in the existing cave archive, cross-referenced with the new excavation, the team established that rather than originating from one single phase of activity, the ‘bear horizon’ excavated by Mattinson and Jackson contained material dating to three main phases separated by over 10,000 years. The earliest dated evidence was from a brown bear specimen dating to 12,500 BC, but this predated evidence for humans by at least 1,000 years. A carved reindeer antler tang found during Mattinson’s excavations inside the cave dated to 11,400 BC, corresponding to chipped stone tools that date to this time, and likely to have been found after the excavation on the slope outside the cave.

This demonstrates that the cave may well have been a significant site to late glacial hunters, but the most important result came from dating the human bone. This was expected to be Palaeolithic, but in fact dated to between 3960-3790 BC, making it some of the earliest Neolithic material dated in this part of the Dales. Rather than late glacial hunter burials, these could plausibly be viewed as part of the founder population of incoming farmers. During the Mesolithic/Neolithic interface similar remains were deposited at sites like Gough’s Cave in the Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, associated with complex cannibalistic burial rites. Green bone processing, curation and secondary burial are known from contemporary sites, and these dates point the way towards research into similar practices in the upland cave archive.

A further surprise for the excavators was that the cave produced the latest recoded date for wild lynx in the British Isles, placing the animal’s extinction around AD 425-600. This has significant implications for our understanding of the landscape, and the part humans have played in shaping it. Until recently, it was believed the Eurasian lynx was believed to have become extinct when the climate became cool and wet around 4,000 years ago. Eurasian Lynx depend on a habitat with at least 40% tree cover, and the presence of large predators suggests a wild landscape, artificially maintained as a ‘wild forest’ during the early medieval period.

Once this land was brought back into cultivation, the lynx was then driven into extinction. This has important implications for modern zoology, and the reintroduction of wild species into the contemporary landscape. The European Union’s Habitats Directive obliges member states to consider reintroducing a species that have been killed off by human action. If the National Park committee applies the results from Kinsey Cave literally, ramblers in the Dales might soon find their pace quicken!

The Upland Cave Network

The Kinsey Cave investigation results demonstrated the great benefits of target excavation coupled with scientific analysis of existing archives. The remains disturbed by badgers in 2005 were shown to come from small pockets of remaining archaeology within a cave that had, for all intents and purposes, been emptied of its archaeological fill. If, however, the Victorian and 20th century ‘cave hunters’ have cleared out many of the more accessible and larger caves in the limestone uplands, real opportunity still exists for archaeological investigation in caves that are harder to access.

Carefully transporting animal bones to the surface from deep within Shuttleworth Pot

A growing number of reports of animal bone finds by cavers working in smaller caves and potholes led to the realisation that greater collaboration was needed between cavers and archaeologists. This led to the creation of ‘The Upland Cave Network’ – a group run by Dr Hannah O’Regan from Liverpool John Moores University bringing together cavers, geologists, archaeologists, palaeontologists and others interested in archaeological aspects of northern caves. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the group has hosted seminars to present recent work and develop guidelines for excavating and conserving caves in future. Additionally, by putting cavers in touch with local archaeologists and other experts, the group fosters communication so that anything of interest discovered during cave exploration can be properly assessed and understood. This has been so successful that Dr O’Regan and John Howard have set up a special cave archaeology group under the umbrella of the British Cave Research Association. There have been many examples of cavers in the Yorkshire/Lancashire area coming forward with new discoveries, but the best case so far was ‘Shuttleworth Pot into Witches Cave II’ published this summer by the Council for Northern Caving Clubs.

And that is the subject of the concluding part 3 – read more here…

Or download the full article here…


Under the Uplands – Part 1

Caves are one of the most investigated site-types in Yorkshire’s limestone uplands, but also the least understood. In the first of this three part series, we report on new projects and links being built between the caving and archaeological communities to protect preserve and research this threatened resource.

Breathtaking archaeological discoveries are made all the time, but rarely are they made by dogs. One early summer evening in 1837 – not long before the accession of the young Queen Victoria – a Yorkshire Terrier chased a rabbit into what appeared to be a normal foxhole, only to find himself stuck in one of the finest, archaeologically-rich caves thus far unearthed. Inching his way into the narrow passage to retrieve his hapless hound, Michael Horner recovered numerous Roman coins and metalwork.

Sleepless in Settle – Victoria cave in full glory

The cave became the site of major excavations, systematically emptied of many metric tonnes of archaeological deposit, turning quickly from a terrier-sized space to the vast chamber visitors can see today. Even still, Victoria Cave fared better than many other early cave excavations in the north of England: the great hunt was on for the ‘missing link’ following the discovery of primitive human remains in the Neander valley in Germany. The 18th century tourist trade kindled the first wave of interest, with affluent gentry making the tour to the Lake District stopping to enjoy the crags and caves of the Dales on the way. The 19th century saw vast earth-moving excavations take place at cave sites like Victoria, Elbolton Cave, and in the earlier 20th century along Giggleswick Scar at Sewells, Greater and Lesser Kelco, and Kinsey Cave.

Early cave excavations were driven by the rivalry of major participants – Boyd Dawkins and Richard Tiddeman in the 1870s, and Wilfred Jackson and Arthur Raistrick in the 1930s.

Elbolton Cave – Wharfedale, excavated by Rev E Jones in the 1880s. It contained numerous human and cremated remains, probably dating to the Neolithic period

Cave Hunting,’ by Boyd Dawkins, captures the spirit of the times when large collections of bioarchaeological and archaeological remains were built up by societies, field clubs and individuals. Unfortunately much of this data was kept in private hands, and has subsequently been lost, along with any records that may have been made regarding excavation methods and stratigraphy.

Despite the problems with these early excavations, enough evidence survives to suggest that caves and overhanging rock shelters in the north of England were used and reused from the Upper Palaeolithic to the Medieval period. Caves act as natural sediment traps, preserving remains of past human activities that would otherwise have been removed by glaciations on open-air sites. All the more alarming then, that when two archaeologists visited nearby Kinsey Cave in 2005 (originally discovered in the 1870s, and known to contain Upper Palaeolithic archaeology) they discovered freshly exposed human and animal bone.

Cold Case Archaeology

Cave archaeology has entered an exciting period with the development of new scientific techniques such as AMS radiocarbon dating, stable light isotope analysis and OSL dating. These advances enable archaeologists to reassess existing museum archives and collections, whilst underpinning a high-tech approach to strategic and targeted excavation. The disturbed human bone at Kinsey Cave offered an opportunity to employ new technical methods to re-analyse the cave as a repository for Palaeolithic burials; but the first step was to establish who, or what, had been tampering with the cave.

Kinsey Cave: the site team at work, three dimensionally recording all deposits disturbed by badgers

By nature, cave sites are vulnerable to damage by both people and animals, as destinations for ramblers, dog walkers, cavers, climbers and those wishing to use the site for other purposes such as metal detecting, campfire parties or rough sleeping. The major natural threat is from burrowing animals like badgers, and whilst there was no evidence of human disturbance at Kinsey Cave, it looked increasingly likely that the site was an active badger set.

Fresh tracks were found, as well as remnants of badger fur, bedding, and various freshly dug passageways in close proximity to the disturbed bones.  Given the archaeological potential of the undisturbed material that still survived in the cave, Dr Timothy Taylor from the University of Bradford put together a rescue team comprised of caving specialists and archaeologists, supported with funding from English Heritage, to devise a cold case investigation.

What happened next? Tune in next Friday for part 2 in this three part series…

Postscript – How to make a cave

Limestone pavement at Malham Cove

The popular impression of unspoilt scenery beloved by visitors to the Yorkshire Dales National Park is a far cry from the reality of a landscape that has been altered almost beyond recognition, exemplified by the enigmatic black holes one occasionally sees leading deep into the limestone hillside. Elemental forces created caves during the Ice Age, but their continued use during prehistory and systematic ‘emptying out’ by Victorian excavators makes them equally artefacts of human intervention.

The process began 350 million years ago, when the region’s principle bedrock, Great Scar Limestone, formed from coral on the bed of a subtropical sea.  The main outcrops were first exposed 2 million years ago. Alternating climatic conditions throughout the Ice Age resulted in contrasting types of erosion. During warm interglacials, water would be the main agency of change, enlarging tiny cracks in the limestone to make gaping fissures and cave systems. When the ice returned, the valleys were deepened, leaving fossil cave systems high and dry. An abundance of water flowed into lower cave systems, leaving relict caves as ideal repositories for deep archaeological and natural sediments.

Barbed Harpoon Point from Victoria Cave

These deposits were crucially protected from later periods of glaciation, when the same forces re-sorted, removed and greatly disturbed contemporary Pleistocene open air sites. At Victoria Cave, excavators found a series of ‘cave earths’ containing large quantities of animal bone separated by successive layers of clay – evidence for a changing glacial landscape dating back 600,000 years. The earliest of these bones included hippos, narrow-nosed rhino and elephants. They lived in a warm interglacial (subsequently dated by modern techniques to the Upper Pleistocene, approximately 120,000 years ago) and were probably scavenged by spotted hyenas using the cave as a den. The upper deposits were laid down at the end of the Ice Age, and contained brown bear, lynx, and reindeer bones, and crucially, the first evidence for humans in the Yorkshire Dales: an 14,000-year-old implement carved from reindeer bone.

Read Part Two Here…

or download the full article here…