Sometimes names are a mystery… and until recently that was true for ‘Skeleton Cave’.
Back in 98 we commissioned an archaeological site survey for the National Trust’s Bristol property ..Leigh Woods. It found that one of its Avon Gorge caves (near the Clifton Suspension Bridge), was named Skeleton Cave. No explanation could be discovered, just an empty cave with a name.
The view from Stokeleigh Camp down to the Skeleton Cave at Leigh Woods
Bones preserve well in the carboniferous limestone caves and are often found when cavers dig there…though discoveries may be centuries old and poorly recorded.
Deep cave deposits can be of many periods. The National Trust has a good Somerset cave collection.. at Leigh Woods, Brean Down and the Mendips properties. Cave deposits tend to be very ancient indeed. At Cheddar there is a cave known as the Bone Hole where many prehistoric bones have been found. The Royal Holloway College has been carrying out exceptional research at Ebbor. Here, after a decade of excavations,through layers containing Pleistocene animal remains, some human occupation evidence has recently been found. This is over 30,000 years old and below layers containing bones of long lost British creatures like aurochs, arctic foxes, reindeer and bears.
Pleistocene animal bones from Ebbor Gorge
So Skeleton Cave is a cold case.. and an unexpected email from Graham at Bristol University reopened the files. First, and most obviously, it is Skeleton Cave because back in 1965 two men dug there and found prehistoric flint flakes and a skeleton. National Trust had no idea the excavation was taking place until a report appeared in the local paper. At that point the Bristol Spelaeological Society at Bristol University wrote to NT to raise their concerns.
Surviving cave deposits are rare and any excavation needs to be backed up with the resources and experience to analyse the finds and publish the information. So the excavation stopped and the finds were handed over to the National Trust. Bristol Spelaeological Society put together a file on what they could find out about the excavation.
Graham let me see the Bristol correspondence and hoped to find more from the National Trust files. The NT archive is curated in environmentally friendly conditions in old WWII tunnels near Chippenham, Wiltshire. The relevant files were called up and brought to our office at Tisbury. A morning of searching revealed very little additional information.
Back in the 1960s, the National Trust had very few staff compared with today and some properties were administered by local management committees. Some of the letters in Graham’s file were from the Leigh Woods committee and this reminded me of the tin trunk we once had in the cellar at our old office at Eastleigh Court, Warminster.
The box had been full of minute books and maps and other documents held by the Leigh Woods Management Committee and was transferred to the Leigh Woods property hub at Tyntesfield when we moved. I contacted the collections manager there and Graham went to Tyntesfield to look inside the box…Unfortunately, just committee stuff and nothing about Skeleton Cave.
Within the Bristol University files were letters from the old Wessex Regional Office at Stourhead. Perhaps the 2 boxes of finds from Skeleton Cave were taken there. No, they may be hidden somewhere but the Stourhead collection is largely catalogued and there is nothing from Bristol.
Another of Graham’s 1960s letters is from Lacock and this is a more likely place for something to be hidden. The Talbot family were finding things on their Wiltshire estate for centuries before it came to the Trust and there are numerous rooms and boxes all through the ranges of Abbey buildings. The collection is still being catalogued. Visions of the two lost Leigh Woods finds boxes hidden like Ravenclaw’s diadem within Lacock’s ‘rooms of requirement’ (Lacock featured in the early Harry Potter films).
No luck so far. Usually back then, NT archaeological finds would be deposited at the local museum which would be Bristol City Museum. They have no records from Skeleton Cave.
However, not all is lost. Graham has a drawn section of the cave, notes on the excavation and a precious human lower jaw which was given to the University by the finders. He will publish an account of the discovery and Lisa at Tyntesfield has found the money to provide a radiocarbon date for the mandible.
Bristol Suspension Bridge and the Avon Gorge from Stokeleigh Camp Iron Age hillfort.
It was analysed a few days ago and we await the result.