Yorkshire’s caves have been visited by humans for thousands of years, as shelter, for burials and, for all we know, the simple curiosity of seeing what ancient things remain inside – just as we do today.
One of Victoria Cave’s most intriguing discoveries has come from new research into its use soon after the Roman conquest of the north of England around AD 70. Excavations at the cave had uncovered numerous of brooches, coins, spindle whorls and other personal items, and the standard interpretation had been that these were left behind by people using the site as an artisan’s workshop.
But recent research is changing all of this. If this was a workshop, why were so many of the objects found in totally dark and wet parts of the cave? Why were they left in narrow passageways that people could only have reached if they’d been crawling on their bellies? Surely, these areas did not provide the warm, dry and well-lit conditions ideal for craft making.
The Romans also left other curiously personal effects, like make-up palettes, combs and nail-cleaners, but one of the biggest unsolved mysteries yet is that of the perforated bone ‘spoons’. What were they? Who made them and why did they leave them here?
Perhaps one of the strangest things of all is that almost none of the objects, whether they were ceramic pots or metal brooches, are whole. Despite thorough excavations, hardly anything can be fitted back together.
Maybe people were intentionally placing broken personal items into the cave, but we’ll never know. What we do know is that the people using the cave were probably soldiers, family members or civilians associated with Roman forts nearby.
Many of the Roman soldiers would have come from places such as Italy, Iberia and Gaul where beliefs about caves as places to conduct ritual observances and make contact with the spirit world were well established, and it is not unreasonable to argue that Victoria, as well as other caves nearby, were used in this fashion.
It is also possible that people who visited the Romano-British summer farm that lies nearly directly above Victoria Cave, with their livestock to produce butter, wool and dairy products in the summer months may have also been among those who left these strange offerings in the cave.