One of the reasons that posts on this blog have been a bit intermittent over the last two years is that I have been working on a book for Manchester University Press on Neolithic Cave Burial. I theory this ought to mean that I had loads of ideas to share on the blog. In practice, any spare time when I used to sit down to sling together feeble puns and random jottings has been taken up with proof-reading or fiddling with illustrations. It has also meant a bit of a break from fieldwork, which was always the main source of material for the blog. However, it is nearly done now. Recently, as part of getting the illustrations straight, I realised that I needed better quality photos of some of the sites in the Yorkshire Dales. Whenever I go to the Dales for archaeological purposes it always seems to pour with rain, like this and this. Most of my photos were therefore more atmospheric than informative. So, I stuck a digital SLR in the car and took myself off to Giggleswick to try and get some better pictures.
First stop, Langcliffe, and a layby unexpectedly crowded with school minibuses unloading pack-laden 6th formers on their Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expeditions. As I was only carrying a camera and a map I beat them up the hill and was able to take uncluttered shots of the view from Jubilee Cave. Jubilee is an important site as it is one of the few cave sites with evidence for individual primary burial in the British Neolithic.
Stephany Leach’s analysis of the human bone from within the cave showed that an adult man was buried beneath one of these rock ledges sometime in the later part of the Early Neolithic. This is what we would describe as a ‘primary burial’; that is one where the whole body was placed in the ground soon after death and not moved or interfered with afterwards. Most people who were buried in caves in the Neolithic had more complicated funeral rites than this. I took all the photos I needed at Jubilee, annoying many sheep who were using it to shelter from the sun, tried and failed to photograph some curlews and then set off back down the track past the gasping and labouring queue of teenagers.
The other caves I wanted to photograph were both close(ish) together on Common Scar, near Giggleswick: Sewell’s Cave and Cave Ha 3. Cave Ha 3 is easy to find as there are a whole lot of rock-climbing routes on the crags around it. If you park in the layby at the north end of the B6480, you can follow the clinking sound of climbing kit being sorted up any number of unofficial pathways to the Cave Ha complex.
This is Cave Ha 3, which is really a small rock shelter just to the east of the main Cave Ha itself. There were four people buried at this site, again in the later part of the Early Neolithic. This is another collection of human bone which was studied by Stephany Leach. The funerary rite here was what is known as successive inhumation. The bodies were placed at the back of the shelter and left to decompose. However, as there as an active layer of tufa forming in the cave at the time the bones became coated in this quite quickly, in some cases before becoming completely disarticulated.
The last site on my list, Sewell’s Cave, is at the other end of the scar. At this stage of the trip I made a slight route-planning error. There is a nice broad ledge running along the base of the Cave Ha complex and I thought that, rather than climb back down to the road and have to climb back up, I would just follow the ledge along the escarpment until I got to Sewell’s Cave. This does not work. The broad ledge quickly becomes narrower and more exposed, making for slow and nervous going. I backed up and tried to bash my way through the woodland instead but this is almost worse. The scar is still pretty steep and the only handholds are vegetation, most of which is either brambles or nettles, and, of course, if you are up to your eyebrows in dense undergrowth it is really difficult to keep any sense of where you are going.
I got there in the end but I have no guidance to offer on the best route to this site, apart from don’t try to do what I did. Sewell’s Cave, which was excavated by the local Pig Yard Club archaeological society in the 1930s, had evidence for another different kind of funerary rite in the Early Neolithic. All the human bone was found clustered together against the northern wall of the rock-shelter (on the left hand side in this photo). Stephany Leach was able to show that all this bone was from disarticulated skulls. She suggested that this cave was the final resting place in what is known as a secondary burial rite. These people must have been buried or exposed somewhere else when they first died and then, once the bodies had decomposed the heads were removed and brought to their final burial place in Sewell’s Cave.
Stephany Leach’s research on the human bone from these caves is published in her 2008 paper which is on the reading list.