VC Circular Romano Brooch 600x390

Catch the first behind-the-scenes glimpse of Yorkshire’s Ice Age treasures, and even handle them for real.

One afternoon in 1837, just before the accession of the young Queen Victoria, two men were walking in the Yorkshire Dales. Running off ahead, one of their dogs disappeared down what seemed to be a foxhole. Inching his way into the narrow passage to fetch it, Michael Horner returned with a handful of artefacts. What he’d discovered by accident turned out to be one of the most archaeologically rich caves ever discovered in the UK.

Excavations by the Victorians, and later by a working men’s club in the 1930s led to some incredible revelations. These five artefacts are just a handful of the discoveries that have been made at Victoria Cave, and which will be turned into 3D models by the Under the Uplands volunteers over the coming months. There will also be a unique opportunity to handle them for anyone joining us for Victoria’s Secrets – a very special DigVentures’ Dirty Weekend.

1. Big game species roamed the Yorkshire Dales 125,000 years ago

Believe it or not, there was a time when straight-tusked elephants, hippo and narrow-nosed rhino roamed the Yorkshire Dales, along with giant deer, bison, and hyena. The tooth was still erupting when the baby elephant died, and may have been killed or scavenged by hyenas who were using Victoria Cave as a den during a warm period in the Ice Age. A stalagmite in the cave has been dated showing that this spectacular collection of mega-herbivores lived in the Dales around 125,000 years ago.

2. This brown bear skull was a pioneering settler of a freshly de-glaciated landscape

Between 130,000 years ago and now, there were a few more periods of glaciation. This skull of a 12-14 year old female brown bear has been radiocarbon dated to around 14,600 years ago, just after the last Ice Age. It’s the only adult female bear known to have hibernated and died in the cave, which was mostly used by adult males and juveniles, and she may have died from starvation soon after giving birth, as she is found along with bones from a new born cub. The skull is one of the first objects indicating that the area had been resettled, shortly followed by cutmarked horse bone and a carved javelin point which provide the first evidence that humans returned to the north of England just a century or so later. When they first arrived, they would have seen bear bones scattered all over the cave floor.

3. This pierced bone ‘spoon’ is an enduring mystery

Quite what this artefact represents is an ongoing mystery. It looks like a spoon, but the bowl is perforated. Dozens of these have been found at the back of Victoria Cave, representing almost half of all the known examples found in Britain. They are nearly always found at sites connected with the Roman army or Roman lifestyles, and were probably made around 150-250AD, during the Roman occupation of northern England. This one has a twisted stem with the head of a water bird, but each one is completely unique, so what did the spoons represent? Were they tokens of an emotional relationship, a bit like Welsh love spoons? Were they placed at the back of the cave in rituals related to necromancy? Hundreds of suggestions have been put forward, and your guess is as good as ours. Whatever their purpose, they are arguably the oldest surviving folk art in the Dales.

4. Romano-British cave cults once deposited artefacts in the cave

This circular copper alloy plate brooch would have once gleamed like gold when it was worn was found by Joseph Jackson – the original excavator of Victoria Cave – in the 1850s. Like the spoons, it dates to around 150-200AD, and the colour today is the result of corrosion. The raised swirling foliage enclosed within a circular border makes a wheeled form of the triple-spiral symbol – a design that was popular with the Roman military in Britain. Again, many brooches have been found in Victoria Cave, adding weight to the idea that army personnel may have been in some way connected to religious or ritual activities there.

5. This graffito is evidence of Roman soldiers arriving from eastern Europe

This fascinating little potsherd is a typical example of Samian ware dating from the reign of Emperor Trajan (98-117 AD). Found during the 1870s excavations, the name Annamus is carved onto the base. It’s the first recorded instance of this name in Britain, and is specific to the Roman province of Noricum, now part of present-day Austria and Slovenia. Back then, Noricum was an Imperial mining district exporting iron, silver and lead. Stamped pigs of lead in the Yorkshire Dales indicate Roman lead production involving the military. Is it just chance that a piece of pot with the name of a man from Noricum ended up in Victoria Cave? Or did Annamus bring with him knowledge that helped get the industry going?

If you fancy getting involved in the Under the Uplands project, join us for the first Dirty Weekend, or sign up to our mailing list for more ways to join in.

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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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