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