Rain and dense fog set the scene. We were standing close to the edge of a sinkhole, peering in when the mist suddenly closed in, like something out of a Hammer Horror film.
The sinkhole was beautiful. Mist was swirling around the edges of its walls, which were covered in a rich array of mosses and ferns, giving it an almost tropical feel. We were there because just a day or so earlier, I’d received a message from Richard:
‘A friend has found some bones in a cave he is exploring. Might be a bear. Are you interested?’
Yorkshire’s caves are full of interesting stuff, from the remains of Ice Age animals and palaeolithic hunters, to the elaborate artefacts left behind by Romano-British cave cults. Hell yes I was interested!
We’ve just kicked off a new project called Under the Uplands, and it’s all about exposing the Dales’ hidden archaeology, and working with cavers to deal with any potential archaeology they find when they’re exploring new passageways.
And now, here we were – John, Jonny, Richard and I – doing what we set out to do and ready to recover what could potentially provide important clues to Yorkshire’s long-lost landscape.
We tied a lifeline and ladder to the fence surrounding the shaft and climbed down sixty feet, one by one, each of us listening out for a call from below to be lifted up by the mist.
When everyone was in, we stopped and looked around. We were standing on a great talus slope larger than your average house, and whose edges tumbled down into a dark slot where the entrance to the passage lay. One by one we switched on our helmet lamps, crouched under the lintel and entered the darkness of the cave.
Almost immediately, we came across the bones, which were set in the thick, sticky cave mud, but I was instantly distracted by what was next to them on the wall; a set of peculiar linear markings in the thin layer of sediment that covered the walls.
There were two distinct styles, the first set were on a steep slope and were numerous and small. The second set was even more strange. Set between 1.5m and 2m high up, they snaked down the wall. They clearly weren’t anthropogenic, but we had to wonder, were these made by small animals moving over the surface? Was something lurking here deep underground with us? Or were they the result of natural geological processes?
Leaving my curiosity aside for now, I moved further along the passage, squeezed through a narrow aperture in the floor, and started scouting around the small chamber that lies under the floor of the upper passage.
‘Dust and small stones fell from above… this was not a good place for me to be’
As the rest of the team passed overhead, dust and small stones fell from above. This was not a good place for me to be! But wait, what was that on the wall?
Looking more closely, I could see another decorative pattern on the wall of the cave, a patination that reminded me of the cup and ring marks that are a feature of prehistoric art in Atlantic Europe.
It was spread across a small part of the cave wall. I took photos and called the rest of the team. Again, the pattern was clearly not anthropogenic, but none of us had ever seen anything quite like it before… And we were all experienced cavers! It must surely be a fossil print, although of what none of us was quite sure.
Leaving our curiosity aside once again, we pressed on through the cave to find the rest of the bones, and on the way found the proximal end of a large femur, probably that of a horse or a deer. For now, we just recorded and collected the remains – analysis would have to wait until we weren’t 60 feet underground!
Having recovered, recorded and photographed all of the bones we could find, we resurfaced. Outside, the weather was hammering down, and we got a thorough soaking on the way back to the vehicles. But we didn’t care; we’d successfully recovered bones that could potentially date all the way back to the Ice Age, and which could be evidence of a time when king predators and spectacular megafauna roamed the Yorkshire Dales.
Back at the Pen y Ghent café in Horton, a hot cup of tea and eager ears were waiting to hear whether we’d succeeded in our mission. Grinning from ear to ear at the sight of a steaming mug of Yorkshire, we told them we had.
Earlier in the day, the café owners had brought us a bowl of water to gently clean up a sample that had been brought up by Jonny, who had cleverly left the rest in situ in the cave for us to recover from their proper archaeological context.
Among the finds were some interesting elements; a couple of dog skulls and two bones cemented with calcite, one of which looked rather more unusual and which on first inspection could possibly be a bone from a large cat.
So, were these the remains of Ice Age animals? Or of some more unfortunate animals who had fallen in more recently? I’m afraid we’re going to have to wait until they come back from specialist assessment in the lab to find out…
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