Deeper Time in Ebbor Gorge

This week I took another trip to see the work of Royal Holloway College in Ebbor Gorge led by Danielle.

I last wrote about this in 2013.

I visit most years…. but the last time I came to this lost world was in 2018.

In 2019 we were excavating the Late Bronze Age burials at Long Bredy while the Ebbor cave excavation was on… and of course last year was Covid and nothing happened.

So I was looking forward to seeing the progress on site as I took my Gorge-edge walk to the cave mouth.

The mouth of the cave with the lower entrance now revealed. Originally only the collapsed roof entrance, partly visible at the top of the picture, was known.

The cave looks like a mini-amphitheatre now. It reminded me of a huge megalithic long barrow entrance. There is a sense that this would be a great place to sit beside a camp fire and look out over the Somerset landscape.

In 2005 we pulled back the vegetation and crawled into a narrow crease. At that time, it was the only gap between the cave filling and cave roof. We had no idea how deep it would be.

Since then, the excavation has journeyed back many thousands of years, the roof is now 5 or 6 metres above us.

The roof of the excavated cave,

The first finds were 10-14,000 years old ….deposited in tundra conditions.. arctic fox and aurochs, thousands of tiny rodent bones, deposited over many 100s of years, by owls and other large hunting birds regurgitating food waste as pellets onto the cave floor.

Things have changed a lot since then.

The next episode of excavation had travelled through the last ice age.

You may know the 1960 film ‘The Time Machine’ an adaptation of the H.G.Wells story. Once the inventor (Rod Taylor) has realised that his amazing machine works, he throws caution to the wind and pushes the time leaver to its limit.

Suddenly, the dials spin ever more rapidly backward through thousands of years until the temperature grows cold and the machine becomes buried under rubble.

At Ebbor, the ice age cave filling turns from gravels and silts to large frost fractured rocks..the very cold period was from about 15,000 to 25,000 years ago and there were no animal bones in this deposit.

So cold… that perhaps the ice pressure fractured part of the roof and it fell into the cave.

Danielle’s team moved the fallen blocks of stone and emerged in a time before the 10,000 year cold snap. They found the bones of bears of various ages and sizes. How did they get into the cave?

The top edge of a lower cave entrance was found and near it the first struck flint flake. Somebody had come into the cave about 30,000 years ago.

At a lower level, more and more animal bones were found including the teeth of a wooly rhinoceros.

This year, Danielle said, the finds showed that they had penetrated deep into the Middle Devensian of the Late Pleistocene. She showed me a jaw of a mature adult Hyaena, the teeth worn and perfectly preserved in the limestone geology of the cave.

The jaw of a mature hyaena from the cave in Ebbor Gorge that lived there 40-45,000 years ago.

At this level, the climate was warmer and the cave was being used as a hyaena den. They were dragging in fragments of red deer, reindeer and pony to eat. She showed me their teeth marks on an antler fragment.

The dig has reached back about 45,000 years now. Radiocarbon dates will confirm this in the next few months but the presence of British hyaena is a timeline giveaway.

It was almost the last day of the 2021 season.

In the trench outside the cave, the gravel was giving way to a siltier deposit. Who knows how deep the cave will be and for how many more seasons the dig will continue.

Perhaps a Neanderthal occupation site lies just a few centimetres deeper.

It is one of the best preserved and most carefully excavated cave deposits in the country. It demonstrates clearly climate change through time. It is evidence that our rapid recent weather change is phenomenal by comparison with the gradual climate changes of this deep time story…..revealed in the rare stratigraphy of these Ebbor cave deposits.


3 thoughts on “Deeper Time in Ebbor Gorge

  1. Dear Martin Papworth would you mind if I used your photo of the front of the cave this August , for an article I am writing for the Mendip Society newsletter ‘Mendip’ please?

    • Dear Judith

      Good to hear from you. Yes I am happy for you to use the image but for the security of the site, please be vague about the site’s location within Ebbor Gorge.

      With best wishes


      • Dear Martin.
        thank you for that; we’ve been taking a group of members up during the dig for the past 5 years, as the society is one of Danielle’s sponsors, my write -ups are always very general and mainly only reach as far the members. Luckily it’s enough of a slog up to deter most people from even thinking about trying to find it.

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