Just about to go…

Last Saturday was the third day of the QRA/BCRA field visit based in Austerwick in the Yorkshire Dales that I described part of in my last post. We started by driving to Grange-over-Sands for a look at archaeological cave sites around Kent’s Bank led by Hannah O’Regan and Ian Smith. The weather had perked up a bit overnight (as we get nearer to the actual dig season the weather is likely to get at least as many words as cave archaeology in this blog).

‘Look,’ said Hannah as we got off the bus into watery sunshine, ‘It’s always dry in Cumbria.’

‘This isn’t Cumbria,’ came a voice from the back of the group, ‘It’s occupied Lancashire.’ The injustices of 1974 clearly still rankle…

International geopolitics aside, this is the exterior of the first site we visited: Kirkhead Cavern or Kirkhead Cave. The site has a complex sequence of infills which can be linked to a series of events around the end of the last glaciation. I should be in a position to give rather more detail than that as there was an intense geomorphological debate about formation processes while we were in the cave but unfortunately I had seen a bat flying around and was too busy trying, unsucessfully, to photograph it to do good listening. Kirkhead has lots of Holocene cave archaeology too, sadly very badly disturbed, but there seems to have been burial activity in the cave. Some of this was probably prehistoric, on the basis of nineteenth century reports of ‘Urns’, but one tibia from the cave archive has given a 6th to 7th century AD radiocarbon date. I know of other early medieval burials from caves at Little Hoyle, near Tenby and Wolf Cave, Goldsland, near Cardiff – both in South Wales.

From Kirkhead we walked through the woods to Kent’s Bank Cavern which is another cave with evidence for Holocene burial activity. In this case, there were at least two Early Mesolithic burials discovered during the early 1990s. This makes the site one of the very few Early Mesolithic burial caves along with Aveline’s Hole and Gough’s Cave in Somerset. About a metre underneath the burials, and dating to the late Glacial period, were lots of different kinds of animals including a horse and an elk (Alces alces – the animal that North Americans call a moose). There were also lots of carnivores: wolf; lynx; bear; and pine marten. Most suprisingly there were bones of a dolphin from around 7000 years ago. This is probably an animal that had become stranded and was dragged up to the cave by either people or carnivores who were using the site. On the opposite side of the valley is Whitton’s Cave which was also excavated in the ’90s and has produced more human bone which hasn’t been dated yet. This is presumably another example of a Holocene burial cave.

After dinner we emerged into the daylight for the afternoon and were guided around the limestone pavements of Hale and Gate Barrows by Peter Standing and Helen Goldie. Apart from the fascination of the formations themselves this was extremely useful for understanding how uplift can affect the direction of limestone bedding planes and hence any caves that form. This is particularly relevant for the limestone around New Laund Farm where some of the rocks have been tilted up to 45 degrees from their original horizontal plane of deposition.

Tomorrow morning we will be starting this season’s excavations at New Laund Farm. We will be updating the blog as often as possible with details of what we find and speculation about what it might mean.

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