Burials, rabbits and bats

This week I have been concentrating on various other ongoing projects, leaving me nothing very exciting to report on the way of new discoveries from New Laund. Mostly I have been thinking about Neolithic cave burial from the whole of Britain, trying to review: 1 – when it happened; 2 –  which kinds of caves did people choose to be buried in; and 3 – what else went in the caves at the same time (answers at the bottom of the page).

Most of the problem with studying caves as burial sites using archaeology is the extremely active nature of cave sediments. Underground rivers, debris flows and burrowing animals all contribute to a very mixed up set of layers to work with. The contrast with an above-ground site like the New Laund enclosure is striking. There, if you find an object next to another object within a feature then you can be reasonably sure that the two objects went into the ground at the same time: and that all the other objects in that feature are about the same date. More importantly, if a feature has been disturbed in the past, as when the central posts were removed for example, you can usually see the evidence to show what happened. Similarly, if there has been a rabbit burrow across a feature it will show as a visible change in soil colour and texture – you can plot the extent of the disturbance and treat all finds from this area with a degree of suspicion. Once, on a round barrow dig in Scotland, the change in colour and texture was from dark brown sandy loam to light brown fluffy fur and a very surprised rabbit jumped out of the section I was trowelling and ran away across the site, but I digress…

Caves and rock shelters, especially the upper layers with the more recent archaeology in them, are full of screes and other open-textured deposits. Disturbances don’t show as clearly in these loose layers and there are a lot more air spaces for things to move down into. For example, in the summer of 1990 I was digging with Stephen Aldhouse-Green of the National Museum of Wales on the scree slopes outside Little Hoyle cave near Tenby. The upper layers were full of 19th century and later debris. I was hacking away at my bit with more speed than care when I hit what looked like a circle of thick copper wire. I thought it was a wire jar closure – the sort of thing you still get on Kilner jars and Grolsh bottles – and flicked it out with my trowel. It was only when it was out and I turned it over and saw the decoration on the terminals that I realised it was actually an Early Medieval penannular brooch. Little Hoyle Cave is part of Longbury Bank, which has a well known high status Early Medieval settlement on top of it. This kind of thing happens a lot in these scree deposits, relatively modern material and much earlier stuff, in this case a Dark Age brooch and later in the same week quite a bit of pottery too, coming from what is to all appearances the same layer.

The other problem  is that things washed into caves can travel quite remarkable distances and then all get trapped in the same part of the cave over very long periods of time. With this in mind it is not really surprising that even though there are a lot of caves where human bones and Neolithic artefacts have been found together the only way you can be really sure that a burial is Neolithic is if it has a Neolithic radiocarbon date. This point was first made by Stephany Leach in her study of Neolithic burials from caves in the Yorkshire Dales, but it applies everywhere. I’ve been looking at the published radiocarbon dates on burials from British caves and fishing out the Neolithic ones. About half of these bones were originally dated in the hope that they were either Palaeolithic or Mesolithic and subsequently proved a sad disappointment to their excavators. These bones weren’t chosen at random, but were selected as coming from Palaeolithic cave deposits and being found alongside the bones of extinct Ice Age mammals. Phrases like ‘despite apparently being securely associated with a Pleistocene fauna sample xxxx proved to be Holocene in date’ crop up time and time again in the reports I’m reading.

Also this week, through the wonders of inter-library loans, I have got hold of a copy of a book called British Caving from 1962. I got this because it has an excellent review of cave archaeology going on at that time by J Wilfred Jackson. The rest of the book is a revelation though. There is a big section of fantastic vintage caving photos in the centre. Mustachioed, pipe-smoking chaps pose nonchalantly up to their waists in freezing underground streams or hanging from aluminium ladders. There are some terrifying early  cave-diving photos featuring dodgy looking home-made drysuits and ex-naval re-breathing apparatus. Those were apparently also the days when the way you counted the bats roosting in a cave was to fish them all off the roof with a giant version of an angler’s landing net. Two pounds extremely well spent.


Answers (of a sort): 1 – mostly, but not exclusively, in the Early Neolithic; 2 – any and all sorts, if you could fit a person in it someone, somewhere in the Neolithic will have tried to bury someone in it; 3 – surprisingly little. There is animal bone and worked bone from Scottish burial caves but otherwise a very few pieces of pottery and worked stone. There is loads of Neolithic stuff from British caves but very little of it can be reliably associated with a dated burial.

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