Cold Case: Skeleton Cave , Leigh Woods

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.

10-03-08-leigh-woods-michaels-hill-golden-cap-022The 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.

img_1386Pleistocene 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.

10-03-08-leigh-woods-michaels-hill-golden-cap-023Bristol Suspension Bridge and the Avon Gorge from Stokeleigh Camp Iron Age hillfort.

It was analysed a few days ago and we await the result.

 

 

 

 

Brean Down: Reindeer to Battery

Brean Down is a ridge of rock that sticks out into the sea on the south side of Weston Super Mare. Nearly all of it is a scheduled monument and rightly so, this is definitely an A* site for archaeology.

Brean Down looking NW a  carboniferous limestone ridge on the south side of the Bristol Channel entrance.

Brean Down looking NW a carboniferous limestone ridge on the south side of the Bristol Channel entrance.

Approaching it from the south across the Somerset Levels..through the caravan parks. The carboniferous limestone cliff looms up. A giant wind-break..the silts and sands are stopped by Brean and thousands of years worth of evidence of people’s lives has been buried by its slow accumulation.

At the bottom are reindeer bones.., some were remains of meals left by communities of hunters about 12,000 years ago.

The sand cliff  from the beach looking east. The deposits have built up against the limestone cliff over thousands of years. The wind sweeps off the  levels from the south and has buried archaeology from the remains of hunted reindeer 14,000 years old at the bottom to a Dark Age cemetery of AD 5th-6th century near the top.

The sand cliff from the beach looking east. The deposits have built up against the limestone cliff over thousands of years. The wind sweeps off the levels from the south and has buried archaeology from the remains of hunted reindeer 14,000 years old at the bottom to a Dark Age cemetery of AD 5th-6th century near the top.

Higher up have been found Neolithic flint tools covered by Bronze Age salt-working remains and near the top a Dark Age Christian cemetery below a Tudor rabbit farmer’s cottage. It’s virtually a… you name it we’ve got it ..sort of place and there is much more to be discovered.

Along the crest of the Down are visible earthworks,’celtic’ fields (remains of the Bronze Age to Romano-British farming), these small enclosures are intermingled with Bronze Age burial mounds, an Iron Age fort and a 4th century Roman temple.

The top of the Down looking east towards the Somerset coast. There are the remains of prehistoric fields and Bronze Age burial mounds here as well as an Iron Age hillfort and Romano-Celtic temple.

The top of the Down looking east towards the Somerset coast. There are the remains of prehistoric fields and Bronze Age burial mounds here as well as an Iron Age hillfort and Romano-Celtic temple.

Other mounds have possibilities. Nick, who carried out the National Trust survey for Brean a few years ago wonders whether one mound facing the Bristol Channel might be a Roman light house or signal post which once guided trading vessels towards the mouth of the River Axe. He and Mark will test this theory in May with a couple of small trenches. Their geophysics has provided some encouraging results.

The Down is well worth a visit. Park in Brean Cafe’ car park beside the beach and take the long climb up the steps over the Brean sand deposits until the summit is reached. There are great views across the levels to the south or across Weston Bay and the Bristol Channel to the north. Follow the undulating spine of the ridge until you start to descend at the west end and there in front of you are the remains of a military base.

The first concrete bunker you come to was the command centre. It is a shell now but there is a WWII photo that shows the soldiers here with range finders, radios and charts on the walls. From here looking down to the left perched on the cliff is one concrete searchlight building, the other lies at the western tip of Brean.

Plan of the Palmerstonian fort gun emplacements before they were covered by new gun positions in WWII.

Plan of the Palmerstonian fort gun emplacements before they were covered by new gun positions in WWII.

The main thing to look at here is the fort built to guard against potential attack by Napoleon III’s French troops. By the time it was ready in 1872 and the gunners were stationed there, the French had largely been defeated by Germany and the string of forts ordered by the Prime Minister along the south coast became known as ‘Palmerston’s Follies’

The barrack block built for 20 men only had about 4 or 5 men living there according to the census returns of 1881 and 1891. The officer’s house was lived in by the Master Gunner along with his wife and 6 children aged 1-11 years old. His army career had taken him to various parts of the Empire as his children had each been born in exotic foreign places.

In 1900, Gunner Haynes decided to fire a shot into the Gun Battery’s magazine and blew himself and part of the military base into bits. By 1913, the old Brean Battery had been turned into a Cafe’ and day-trippers came to use the old military base as a recreation area which had a swing and a see-saw. People went down into the munitions stores and signed their names on the walls. Brean NT volunteers have photographed and transcribed them and written a report. The cafe’ was in use throughout WWI but it closed down in 1936.

Brean Down Fort was a cafe' from 1913-1936 and graffiti in the underground Victorian ammunition stores shows many visitors there during WWI.

Brean Down Fort was a cafe’ from 1913-1936 and graffiti in the underground Victorian ammunition stores shows many visitors there during WWI.

WWII and the base was re-occupied. A series of bases for Nissan huts can be seen on the north side of the Battery and two new gun emplacements were built over the old Victorian gun sites. The Bristol Channel was a strategic position and needed to be guarded.

Towards the end of the war, as the invasion threat receded, the boffins moved in. Known locally as the ‘wheezers and dodgers’ they were based in Weston in the old Victorian Birkbeck pier and used the Down and beach beside it to test rockets and other devices, particularly in advance of the D-Day landings of 1944.

Beyond the gun battery is the rocky headland with the view towards the islands of Flat Holm and Steep Holm in the Channel. A WWII searchlight building can be seen. Part of its roof has been flipped back by a violent storm. To the right are the rails for an experimental rocket launcher created by the 'wheezer and dodger' boffins based in a requisitioned pier in Weston-Super-Mare.

Beyond the gun battery is the rocky headland with the view towards the islands of Flat Holm and Steep Holm in the Channel. A WWII searchlight building can be seen. Part of its roof has been flipped back by a violent storm. To the right are the rails for an experimental rocket launcher created by the ‘wheezer and dodger’ boffins based in a requisitioned pier in Weston-Super-Mare.

At the end of Brean, beyond the Battery survives a pair of rails used as a rocket launching device.

Take a trip and go and look. Brean is stunning for nature conservation too but this is an archaeology blog after all so I won’t mention the Peregrines and the rock roses…oh I just did.

Deep Time in Ebbor Gorge

I do this each year and usually alone. I took Simon the wildlife adviser once.. and at this stage.. perhaps it falls more within his department.

The Somerset Levels looking towards Glastonbury Tor from the Mendips above Ebbor Gorge

The Somerset Levels looking towards Glastonbury Tor from the Mendips above Ebbor Gorge

I drive up onto the Mendips, turn left at Priddy, follow a narrow twisting lane and park. The views out though the gateway are immense. The sweep of the Somerset Levels, with Glastonbury Tor and Burrow Mump projecting from the flat lands.

Burrington Coombe and Cheddar have roads running through them but Ebbor Gorge is only accessible by narrow footpaths. From the grassy car park you cross a stone style and plunge into woodland. As you descend the steps, you start to feel that the modern world has been lost. Who knows what ancient creature might emerge from the dense vegetation. It feels like a remote place and the bottom of the gorge is warm, still and humid. Then there is the steep ascent up the other side, pausing for breath from time to time, keeping an eye open for the slight hidden path created for the dig between the trees, along the gorge edge.

The woodland path into Ebbor Gorge.

The woodland path into Ebbor Gorge.

There it is. I weave up and down and start to hear faint voices. Turn a corner and the cave is there. Much activity and a welcome from Danielle who has been expecting me.

Many of the Ebbor Caves were discovered by Victorian and Edwardian explorers and dug away. There are displays of some of their finds at nearby Wookey Hole. They were big on enthusiasm but their techniques were not great.. so to find an unexcavated cave is exciting and rare.

The Gulley Cave in 2005 before excavation.

The Gulley Cave in 2005 before excavation.

Ebbor is a Natural England reserve leased from the National Trust. Bob Corns, the NE ranger showed me the potential of Gulley Cave in 2005 and Danielle and her team from Royal Holloway College, London have been investigating the site since 2006. They are top experts in the Palaeolithic and each year descend a little further into the remote past. They tell me that this is an extremely important site. 40% of the cave deposits have been preserved for the future and have been kept in place by scaffolding.

The finds consist of animal bones, beautifully preserved because of the lime-rich conditions of the soil. Danielle tells me about the extreme cold following the last glaciation. We would have to go to the Russian Steppes to find such conditions today and the animal bones in the cave reflect this. Lemming, arctic fox, wild cat, an extinct type of wild pony, reindeer and hundreds of tiny animal bones. These are the remains of voles and other small rodents probably brought to the cave as pellets from hunting birds like owls. They have provided a range of radiocarbon dates from 10,000-13,500 years ago. The changing types of rodent reflect the fluctuations in temperature during the Holocene.

The limestone soil preserves bones extremely well. Danielle holds a wildcat jaw and the massive bone in the background is the femur an extinct species of giant cattle (aurochs)

The limestone soil preserves bones extremely well. Danielle holds a wildcat jaw and the massive bone in the background is the femur of an extinct species of giant cattle (aurochs)

The hope is for evidence of human occupation but no tools have been found. The larger meat bones have been discovered welded to the back of the cave with a hardened lime solution, which seeped from the cave wall over time.
The massive bones, representing the haunch of an giant extinct type of cattle (aurochs) were found there. Not something that would be tip-toeing around the gorge and probably too large to be brought there by wolves. Another long bone showed burning and had been fractured to extract marrow.

These are the clues at the moment that a family hunted and brought meat joints hear, roasted them on a fire and had meals in Gulley Cave, perhaps cleaning up the bones by placing them at the back of the cave. The south facing view from the cave mouth across the gorge would make it a good secure, sheltered home.

The cave has filled up over many thousands of years. Beneath a thin crust of lime which has dripped and accumulated from the cave roof is a breccia deposit of soil and stone deposited during post-glacial cold tundra conditions 11-14,000 years ago,.

The cave has filled up over many thousands of years. Beneath a thin crust of lime which has dripped and accumulated from the cave roof is a breccia deposit of soil and stone deposited during post-glacial cold tundra conditions 11-14,000 years ago,.

This year, Danielle told me, the finds have been few. The excavation has entered the last ice age. 15,000-25,000 BC was a very cold time and people probably didn’t live in Britain then. The soil has changed to frost fractured fragments of rock. Below this, about 30,000 year ago, might be found remains of woolley rhino, mammoths and perhaps earlier remains of Neanderthal man.

The story continues. I think that I will be visiting this cave each summer in years to come. This is rare evidence for deep time and Gulley Cave is yielding a fabulous stratigraphy.

Gulley Cave this year. Below the tundra soils is a deep deposit of frost fractures stone. These accumulated during the last glaciation which was too cold for people to live in Britiain it is thought.  Depth of this glacial period of cave filling is unknown but scaffolding has been inserted to hold back the reference section as the cave gets deeper. The next soil layer and warmer period will indicate deposits about 30,000 years old.

Gulley Cave this year. Below the tundra soils is a deep deposit of frost fractures stone. These accumulated during the last glaciation which was too cold for people to live in Britiain it is thought. Depth of this glacial period of cave filling is unknown but scaffolding has been inserted to hold back the reference section as the cave gets deeper. The next soil layer and warmer period will indicate deposits about 30,000 years old.

Conservation Audit

A few years ago we carried out an archaeology audit for NT Wessex. We gave a significance grade for all the properties A* to D (we are renewing it this year).

There were some obvious top hitters, like the famous Wiltshire World Heritage site(s) but there were the other A* places like Whitesheet Hill on the Stourhead Estate and Brean Down jutting out into the Severn Estuary. Collections of concentrated archaeology spanning the Palaeolithic to the Cold War.

The Cottage in which Thomas Hardy wrote his first poems and novels near Dorchester

The Cottage in which Thomas Hardy wrote his first poems and novels near Dorchester

Many properties were acquired with no thought of archaeological significance but it is hard to find a place that has nothing worthy of interest. Thomas Hardy’s cottage near Dorchester is perhaps just another 19th century cottage, a new build on heathland. I try to grade it low but when a trench uncovers a scythe, a medicine bottle and a marmalade pot used by his family, there is suddenly a physical link to the great Dorset writer that is difficult to ignore (he wrote “Far from the Madding Crowd” here).

19th century debris, once used by Hardy's family and found during an excavation last year.

19th century debris, once used by Hardy’s family and found during an excavation last year.

As for Max Gate, the nearby house he designed and lived in later in life, the property is massively important. Not for the Victorian house (unless by association with the great man) but because it lies above a Middle Neolithic enclosure almost 5000 years old. It is one of the closest matches to the earthwork around Stonehenge. It was discovered in the 1980s when the Dorchester bypass was constructed and all that remains (over 50%) lies under Max Gate.

Snowshill in Gloucestershire, is also not known for its archaeology. It’s about a unique collection of stuff put together by eccentric Charles Wade in the early 20th century, but it occupies a medieval monastic lodge converted to a manor house.

Snowshill Manor. The site of Wolf's Cove lies on the left side of the main house.

Snowshill Manor. The site of Wolf’s Cove lies on the left side of the main house.

Snowshill was the last Conservation Performance Indicator meeting (see March 16th “Shall we Stack the Naked Acres”) for old Wessex this year. Strangely it was not held in the Cotswolds but in a wooden hut in Leigh Woods (just as nice).

Snowshill has a lost village called Wolf’s Cove which will be excavated this year. It will then be completely reconstructed based on documents and archaeological evidence.

Quirky and true to Snowshill’s spirit of place. Wolf’s Cove was a model village with canals, harbour and railway created and developed into the 1930s and then removed in the 1970s. It’s still archaeology.

Finished by lunch time, I was then released into the Spring. Leigh Woods is a fabulous place on the edge of Bristol. Purchased and given to NT over 100 years ago by the Wills family to prevent it being developed. It is fringed by grand Edwardian houses (a clue to what might have been) but it survives as a quiet haven.

The view across the gorge to Clifton hillfort from Stokeleigh. Brunel's famous bridge on the right.

The view across the gorge to Clifton hillfort from Stokeleigh. Brunel’s famous bridge on the right.

I asked Bill the ranger how the uncovering of Stokeleigh Camp was progressing and he told me about the work on revealing the outer rampart. I took my lunch and prepared myself for the view. On a day like this, with the fresh leaves all around, it was great to sit on the edge of one of the lesser known but massive Iron Age hillforts in the south west. I chose a good vantage point and looked down into the Bristol Avon Gorge towards Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge. Stokeleigh is the best preserved of the cluster of three forts guarding the gorge. Burwalls Camp has been largely destroyed by a housing development and Clifton, across the gorge, has been partly built on and gardened.

A freestanding copy of an Iron Age roundhouse built within the hillfort in 2009 as part of the celebrations for  the centenary of acquisition. Newly cleared ramparts behind.

A freestanding copy of an Iron Age roundhouse built within the hillfort in 2009 as part of the celebrations for the centenary of acquisition. Newly cleared ramparts behind.

Stokeleigh Camp is a conservation success story. Let to another organisation for many years it became overgrown and difficult to see and understand. The NT took it back in hand. In the last few years, the rangers and volunteers have returned it to woodland pasture leaving only the ancient pollarded oaks. No good clearing scrub from a site without grazing. A higher level stewardship scheme has provided the funds to introduce a few Red Devon cattle that keep the regrowth down. The place is now as it was in the early 19th century, when artists would come out from the city and sketch the landscape from the ramparts.

Object of the month – Oldest and smallest

A bit of a cheat this month as I am featuring two objects not one. They are both made from (broadly) the same material, flint and are both what we call prehistoric. They are the oldest and the smallest flint tools we have found while excavating sites on trust land in the Wessex Region or I should say ‘old’ Wessex region as we are now joined with Devon and Cornwall and are the South West region and I still haven’t seen everything from those two counties.

The oldest and the smallest

The oldest and the smallest (2cm Scale)

The oldest tool from the Upper Palaeolithic  (12000 to 40000  years old) was found in High Wood on the Kingston lacy Estate in Dorset, during an excavation of an enclosure in the woods. It has a beautiful patina on the surface and amber areas were the soil conditions have stained it. I remember finding it in the semi darkness under the trees in a yellowish orange clay. At the time all I knew was that it was a large flint  tool, but was not sure of its date. Phil Harding at Wessex Archaeology, ‘as seen on TV’ (Time Team fame) did the flint identifying and report on all the flint from the site and was very pleased to say it was a special find 🙂

Upper Palaeolithic Tool 12000 to 40000 years old

Upper Palaeolithic Tool 12000 to 40000 years old

He says ‘The importance of this object lies in its discovery. There is nothing of a similar age at the site to confirm occupation of the hill at this time although the presence of iron staining makes it likely that it represents a casual loss or was discarded at the site rather than a curio that was picked up by occupants of the later prehistoric/Romano-British enclosure. Traces of Upper Palaeolithic occupation are known from Dorset but they are nevertheless rare, and all discoveries, including individual pieces such as this, add to and confirm the distribution of human groups in this period.’  So someone left it on the hill all those years ago, I wonder what they saw as they looked out across the estate that was yet to be.

The second object is our smallest, a Portland chert (a type of flint) barb from the Mesolithic period (6000 to 10000 years ago) excavated at Thorncombe Beacon on the West Dorset coast, the site  would have been many miles inland in the Mesolithic period (coastal erosion has cut the cliff back to where it is today) It is so small and every side has been reworked. Small half-moon chips have been flaked from it to sharpen the sides, how did they hold it to do the work on it! Any flint knappers out there let me know.

Mesolithic Portland chert barb

Mesolithic Portland chert barb

It would have been hafted into a wooden rod along with others to make the barbs on an arrow shaft.

Our little barb was used last year by an artist Simon Ryder as part of the  Exlab Project http://exlab.org.uk/ he worked with Southampton University and produced a ‘pelt’ of the barb and a larger scale 3D print in resin.

Part of Simon Ryder Exlab exhibition featuring the mesolithic barb, the 'pelt'

Part of Simon Ryder Exlab exhibition featuring the Mesolithic barb, the ‘pelt’

The 3D print of the microlith barb, part of Simon Ryders exhibition

The 3D print of the microlith barb, part of Simon Ryder’s exhibition