Although I am a cave archaeologist, unlike some of my colleagues, I have never been a caver. When I go into a cave it is to dig stuff up and I generally don’t go in that deep or down very small holes. This is fine, except when the archaeology happens to be a long way down a very small hole. This weekend we have been working with some caving colleagues to excavate Late Iron Age and/or Roman human remains from a cave near Carnforth and I have been right at the very feeble limit of my caving skills.
Di, one of the caving team, discovered the front part of a human skull while digging at the end of a narrow passage last spring. She reported it to Lancashire Constabulary, who had it radiocarbon dated and discovered it died sometime in the first two centuries AD and therefore was slightly too old to be a live enquiry. We then took the bone to Preston, cleaned it up and discovered that is was the frontal bone (basically the face bit) of a young child between 3 and 4 years old. The aim of this weekend’s dig was to find out how the skull got into the cave and if anything or anyone else was with it.
The passage where the find was made ends in a series of pools, dammed by flowstone curtains. This photo shows the view across them looking back towards the way out. What we needed to do was divide this area up into 30 cm blocks and excavate the sediment out of each block in 5 cm layers. Working like this means that when we sieve the mud we know where everything we find comes from. Sieving took place at the surface and to get the sediment out to be sieved involved a long chain of bodies.
Di, because she made the original find and had the skills to get in and out of the chamber, did the actual digging and recording on site. She put all the sediment into 10 litre lidded sample buckets and passed them out to me.
This is as far into the final chamber as I could get. I leant round the corner like this and passed archaeological advice in one direction and waited for Di to pass buckets of mud and finds in the other. I labelled them and took them backwards behind me to a slightly wider fissure where I could turn round and pass them on.
This is Andy, waiting for the next bucket. He then had to crawl about 15 metres to pass them on to Simon at the entrance.
Once Simon got hold of them he then loaded them onto the fantastic Tyrolean ropeway which would carry them over the big drop into the main cave entrance and down to the streamway where they could be sieved and sorted.
Josh and Tom spent all day getting very wet indeed sieving very intensively. By late afternoon they had gathered both an admiring audience and an alarming backlog of buckets. This is actually the hardest part of all. It is cold, wet, backbreaking work while everyone else is having all the fun digging or playing with rope tramways.
Thanks to everyone’s hard work we successfully removed all the sediment from the end of the passage. We discovered most of the rest of the original cranium and also quite a bit of animal bone. Because we didn’t find either the jawbone or any of the rest of the skeleton we are assuming that the original burial was much nearer the surface and that the cranium was later washed into the depths of the cave.
Final shot of the day. Di emerging from the passage entrance as the last one off site.