Going Underground

There’s only so much we can do for the project from behind a desk. We also need put on our walking boots and get into the landscapes that we want to tie closer with the collections. Last week I was lucky enough to join partners from National Trust in a tour of Fox Hole Cave.

The cave is high up the steep sides of High Wheeldon, a dome-shaped hill that dominates the landscape near the border between Derbyshire and Staffordshire, close to the village of Earl Sterndale. The museum holds a significant amount of material from the site, some of which will be described below. I’ve visited the area many times, climbing High Wheeldon as a youngster and staring into the gated entrance, pondering what secrets might lie inside. But this would be the first time I ever had the chance to venture into its depths.

Getting ready - High Wheeldon in the background

Getting ready – High Wheeldon in the background

Our guide, Paul, handed us our hardhats and lamps before leading us up the steep slopes of High Wheeldon. The cave entrance is tucked away and easy to miss. The site was rediscovered in 1928 when a dog disappeared down what appeared to be a fox hole. A boy, crawling in pursuit, returned clutching a bear skull and news that the ‘fox hole’ was in fact a cave. Early excavations followed, uncovering the bones of a brown bear, Neolithic pottery, stone tools and a bronze wire armlet identified as Roman.

Venturing into the dark...

Venturing into the dark…

We carefully lowered ourselves through the unlocked gate into the entrance chamber. We followed the passage into the First Chamber. Paul described the layout of the cave and pointed out clues to its formation. The entrance passage was a distinctive keyhole shape, indicating it had been formed by a high pressure stream of water creating a tube in the rock. Later, as the flow lessened, it carved a trough in the base of the tube.

It was in the entrance of the cave, and the passage leading to the Main Chamber, that most evidence for human activity had been discovered. Evidence indicates the cave was used in phases, from the Upper Palaeolithic to the Romano-British period, perhaps becoming lost then rediscovered many times. Highlights include worked antler points, dated to the Late Upper Palaeolithic, and pottery sherds and hearths associated with the Beaker culture.

Worked stone and antler from Fox Hole Cave, now on display at Buxton

Worked stone and antler from Fox Hole Cave, now on display at Buxton

I could rattle on about discoveries at Fox Hole for some time, and there’s plenty more to discuss. If you’d like to know more I’d recommend checking out the Derbyshire HER record. It’s also worth keeping your eye on the Buxton Museum website, where we’ll soon be launching an online catalogue of our collections, including objects from the cave.

A lot of material has been excavated from the entrance chambers and passages. A line of carved dots on the wall indicated the original level before excavations began in the late 1950s. This wouldn’t be first the ‘archaeology of archaeology’ we encountered.

Dots carved to mark the original height of cave deposits

Dots carved to mark the original height of cave deposits

Venturing into the Main Chamber we imagined how prehistoric cavers may have experienced the space, turning off our torches and lighting a solitary candle. The gentle orange light transformed the space, deepening the shadows but providing a more diffuse light than the harsh, directional glare of our head torches. How would only ever experiencing a cave by firelight affect your perception of the space?

Here we also found more ‘archaeology of archaeology’, the remains of a cable system used by the Peakland Archaeological Society to haul sediments to the entrance for sorting.

Studying the remains of the cable haulage system

Studying the remains of the cable haulage system

Next the cave offered us into two routes. First we pressed straight ahead to the end of the cave. The passage grew lower and tighter as we progressed and we soon ended up on all fours, crouched in a tiny space as far as any sensible human being could go. Amazingly, the mud and stone in which we were sitting was littered with tiny bone fragments from small mammals and amphibians. I learnt this is often referred to as ‘Frog Earth’.

Retracing our steps to the Main Chamber we turned left and followed the passage to Bear Chamber, so called because of the bone material recovered here in the past. Even recent tours had spotted bear remains, so we were all keeping our eyes peeled for a bear skull peeking through the mud. No luck this time though. In fact the only thing we found was a long abandoned trowel, ‘archaeology of archaeology’ again!

Passing around a bear tooth in Bear Chamber

Passing around a bear tooth in Bear Chamber

The bone material from Fox Hole far outweighs the artefact count. Some of the animal remains recovered are particularly ancient and include lion, horse and reindeer, as well bear. None of these were still roaming wild in Britain last I checked.

After a thoroughly enjoyable and informative scramble underground I didn’t really think the afternoon could get any better. Then we emerged to this view:

No words required...

No words required…

Although the cave is usually locked to protect it’s important archaeological value, National Trust can arrange access to the site and run a number of public tours throughout the year. You can find out more by calling the White Peak Estate Office on 01335 350503 or find out more on the National Trust White Peak website http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/white-peak/.

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