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This is what it’s like to meet a bunch of strangers in a pub and spend the weekend exploring archaeology in a dark, wet cave together.

It’s 8pm at the Helwith Bridge Inn and the saloon doors swing open like some cowboy movie. In walks a newcomer, sizing up everyone in the room before his eyes finally settle on us.

“Are you… the archaeologists?” he asks.

Grinning, Lisa pulls him a chair. Yes, we most certainly are. Dave is soon followed by his friend Tony and they settle happily into our little circle of archaeology enthusiasts. We’re having an earnest discussion about tomorrow’s weather forecast. Would it hold out long enough for our intrepid Venturers to complete our task this Dirty Weekend? Or would it totally scupper our plans? There was only one way to find out: tomorrow we (Chris, Tony, Dave, Hannah, Rosie, Brendon, Lisa and I) would head out to explore one of Yorkshire’s best kept secrets: the archaeology hidden deep inside its caves.

Jubilee Cave

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As it turned out, my weather predictions (or should I say the BBC’s) went completely to pot. As soon as we set off, the heavens opened and threw every kind of weather imaginable at us. We headed straight for shelter, scrambling over the stile that leads to Jubilee Cave. We were soon inside, and dry.

The huge sense of relied these natural shelters provided was outstanding, and we grinned at eachother. Imagine what this must have been like when people first sought shelter here in the last Ice Age.

To make it even more authentic, we lit four candles (and then lit another two to prevent any jokes about burning fork handles). Torches extinguished, we sat under the flickering light of the candles, giving our senses the chance to wake up to the natural atmosphere in the cave.

The warm glow of the candlelight seemed to dance along the wall of the cave. And with our eyes struggling in the dark, our hearing seemed to gather strength and we begin to pick up the amplified sound of the water entering and leaving the cave passage as though a giant was showering at the back of the chamber.

Blue skies

The jewels in the landscape

By now, we were adequately cleansed of any 20th century detritus and we decided to make a break for it, we stepped out into bright sunshine; the sky had magically changed from a musty grey to a bright azure blue.

With the sun shining over the limestone upland, the light was picking out the scars and scarps of rock like jewels on a crown of green baize.

Next Stop: Victoria Cave

We gathered pace down the hill. Victoria Cave was just in sight and this was the place we’d all come to see! Entering the huge chamber, we explored all its nooks and crannies. We saw the canoe shaped recesses that had formed over a million years ago. We saw the huge boulder that had fallen catastrophically on top of a bone bed during the last interglacial.

 

We sniffed around the area where brown bears had once hibernated. We crawled into the inner chamber where, during the Roman occupation, people connected with the Roman army had also crawled in and left small offerings. Rosie even managed to find some bone, though they were modern, on the floor of the cave.

Fire in the archives

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The next day started bright, but a deluge like the previous day soon returned. Thankfully, today was a day for being inside. We were heading to the archives, where Tom had lit a cosy fire in the back room, to dig through the vast collection of artefacts that had been excavated from Victoria Cave by the Victorians. Everything in boxes, and so much of it, it was a bit like discovering everything again for the very first time.

Rosie pulled out a small, round, white object. She giggled when she realised what it was: a 120,000 year old hyena poo!

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Gathering around the fire, we discuss the Ice Age, how glaciations came and went, and how the climate and environment changed over millennia. The Yorkshire Dales was once a flat, open savanna, populated with the hyena, lions, straight-tusked elephant and hippopotamus and other now-extinct animals whose remains we were now holding in our hands.

We looked at maps of how the bear bones were distributed over the cave floor, and after an almost forensic discussion, we agreed that they matched the pattern of scattering produced by scavengers. We looked closely at the chew marks on the bone, and concluded they had probably been had by wolves.

There’s so much to discover in the Victoria Cave archive, and we’ve only made a tiny dent. Reanalysis of old materials can produce as much new knowledge as a new excavation – who knows what we’ll discover next time?

As the embers in Tom’s fire dimmed and the light outside faded we decided to make our respective departure, for some it was a long journey home.

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Nigel Steel

Nigel Steel

Community Archaeologist at DigVentures, Nige’s mission is to bring cave archaeology back into the limelight.

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