What big teeth you have

Me, with a mighty big bear skull.

That’s the kind of question you ask when you’re a small kid with a big imagination. Except this time, I’m not asking for fun.

Imagine a place where African game and temperate woodland species co-existed, a place where rhino, hippo and elephant were hunted by hyena, wolves and bears. Believe me, this place isn’t fictional, and it’s much closer than you think.

I am, of course, talking about the Yorkshire Dales. Today, sheep are strewn over its treeless hillsides, charity fundraisers follow a well-trodden path up the Three Peaks and tourists frequent its picturesque villages, while a lively caving community explore the tunnels below its limestone scars.

Settle train station

First stop on the Settle to Carlisle railway, the closest station to the cave.

But for 600,000 years, it was a proper wilderness. Ice ages came and went, variously bringing with it cave bears, wolves, elephants, hippos, rhino, lions, hyena, deer and palaeolithic hunters, before pushing them out again. There are extensive cave networks in the area, many of which have been repeatedly occupied by humans and animals, preserving their remains in incredible detail. Wild horse bones with human cut marks? Check. Rhino bones chewed by hyenas? Check. Cave bear skulls? Double check.

Ingleborough

The view of Ingleborough on the way up to the cave.

Victoria Cave is one of the best preserved. It’s a one-and-only record of how climate, wildlife and human occupation have changed over the last 600,000 years. It’s produced the first evidence of Magdalenian people in the north, and the last evidence of wild lynx in the UK (a vital bit of evidence in the case made for re-wilding by George Monbiot). Somewhere in between, it was used by Romano British cave cults, until the entrance collapsed and the cave was forgotten.

Victoria Cave

Standing inside the mouth of Victoria Cave

That was until one day in the 1830s when three men and a dog went walking. The dog disappeared down a hole in a rockface; Victoria Cave had been rediscovered.

Returning with some friends and, later on, the support of a few famed scientists (Charles Darwin and Charles Lyell to name a few), Joseph Jackson diligently excavated evidence that would prove the Ice Age was not continuous, but cyclical. Victoria Cave was set to become a star of the geological and archaeological world, but consigned to the dustbin of history when two of its experts fell out over the interpretation of a hyena bone, souring the site to the point where no scientist wanted to be involved. Victoria Cave and its incredible treasures were forgotten once again.

cave tunnel

Going deep into the cave! There are many caves nearby, each of which has its own secrets.

Later, a working men’s club formed in the 1930s. Meeting in a pig farm, they called themselves the Pig Yard Club and set about retrieving the Victorians’ evidence and continued the research at Victoria and surrounding caves.

Over the next few decades, they amassed thousands of artefacts, including cave bear skulls, hyena coprolites, palaeolithic harpoons and Romano British brooches. And that’s the collection we’ve come to visit. I literally couldn’t wait to re-re-re discover it. But first, we had to get acquainted with the cave itself.

Victoria Cave team

Nigel, Tom, Brendon, Lisa, Hugh, Adam and Fergus outside the cave. The entrance is out of shot to the left.

As the DigVentures team assembled, including Nigel (cave expert and community archaeologist), Adam (photographer and drone-master), Hugh (3D imaging superstar) and Fergus (dog, and our mighty leader), we were joined by Tom Lord, whose grandfather started the Pig Yard Club and left him to look after their collection, John ‘Lugger’ Thorp, who has explored pretty much every corner of every cave in the area, and John Howard, a wizard when it comes to Romano British cave cults.

Heading up, we marveled at the three peaks on the horizon, admired the dry-stone walls and finally, gawped at the entrance.

Anti-Wolf Wall

This isn’t just any wall, it’s an anti-wolf wall. The overhang indicates it was built to stop wolves jumping over, but they stop being built when wolves disappear from the landscape.

As we entered, it became a full sensory experience. The temperature dropped, the smell changed and the main chamber echoed with the sound of the drips falling from the ceiling into small pools on the floor.

IMG_5219

Adam (aka ‘AerialCam) explores the cave by torch light and discovers that the walls are covered in graffiti left by the cave’s Victorian excavators. This one reads R. Snell 1872.

Emerging from the cave mouth, blinking into the sun, I was as dazed as someone who’s come out of the cinema in the daylight.

It’s going to be an enormous job, but we can’t wait to get started. You can expect to hear more about our discoveries over the next few months and we hope you’ll join us on a Dirty Weekend, an archiving session, or even on an excavation in a neighbouring cave at some point over the next 18 months!

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Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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