Dove Holes is an Incredible Place!

It’s good to get out into the landscape and get a sense of where exactly Buxton Museum’s artefacts have come from. Some of the staff braved the winter weather last Friday to visit local Stone Age monument The Bull Ring, where flint tools have been discovered. The plucky adventurers were accompanied by experimental archaeologist and expert flintknapper James Dilley.

Dove Holes is a village just over three miles away from Buxton. Despite being a quiet and unassuming place that most people just drive through to get to somewhere else, it has a rich heritage. Apart from the henge known as The Bull Ring, the local quarry has yielded remains of some remarkable prehistoric animals such as the mastodon and the scimitar-toothed cat. The remnants of these dentally-challenged creatures are an insight into how different the Peak District must have been thousands of years ago although the snow, wind and sub-zero temperatures made it easier to imagine an ice age!

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photo by Laura Waters

The Bull Ring is clearly sign-posted about halfway along the main road but its location seems at odds with the patchwork arrangement of the village. The circular earthwork has had a fight for survival over the centuries. Apparently, the stones from the henge were removed and used on the Peak Forest Tramway in the late 1700s. Developments in the 19th century caused further damage and until recently, the annual village bonfire was held here. In terms of history, The Bull Ring is as vital as the other famous local stone circle, Arbor Low, but it has not been quite so lucky. Arbor Low still sits majestic and mysterious, largely undisturbed and surrounded by the rugged landscape of the Peak District. Fortunately, both monuments are protected these days and are free for visitors to speculate on their exact purpose and meaning. It is interesting to note that both henges are accompanied by burial mounds. The barrows lend weight to the sense of ancient significance.

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Dove Holes 15,000 years BC

You can visit The Bull Ring for yourself. The closest part of Buxton is Fairfield where I have already explored a wealth of history, including the barrow known as Fairfield Low or Skeleton Wood or even Skelebob Wood so you could include this on the same tour but the land is private so seek permission from the adjacent farm first.

Buxton Museum and Art Gallery reopens on May 1st 2017 and the brand new Wonders of the Peak gallery will feature artefacts found in Dove Holes. Like us, you may come to think of the village as the home of The Bull Ring and the scimitar-toothed cat.

Peak District Cave Lions!

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This amazing Cave Lion foot is part of Jackson’s collection of animal bones from Hindlow near Buxton. We recently decanted it from its ‘Bone hole’ on the gallery where it lay along with other Hindlow remains of bison, horse, mammoth and wolf. Up close, it’s much more obvious what a large animal the Cave Lion was, much larger than present day lions.  Going for a walk would be very different if these creatures still roamed the Peak District!

Painting of lions at Chauvet Cavern, Southern France (museum replica). Wikimedia Commons

 

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Part of the Cave Lion material in store.

Most of the Hindlow material is held in store because there is just too much of it to display. One of our expert volunteers Bente Loudon is working her way through assessing the material but previous research by Danielle Schreve (1997) on the Hindlow bones identified the presence of at least two lions. The bones include most of a right hind leg and may be the most complete articulated lion remains from the Pleistocene era. Along with the lions were the remains of at least three horses and four animals identified as cattle or bison. Gnaw marks on the bones and the variety of animals led suggests that the cave was a den for lions preying on horses and bovids (cattle/bison).

Also in the cave were the remains of another large, wild bovine, an aurochs. This led Schreve to suggest the bones were laid down in a warmer interglacial period when aurochs were here, rather than a cold stage, and this might explain the very large size of the lions and horses.

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Representation of the now extinct aurochs. (Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.)

We’ve really enjoyed sharing the objects with our visitors close up and our Artists in Residence @KidologyArts have been taking inspiration from the Cave Lion too!

What Ewe Looking At?

Gazing down upon the Boyd Dawkins study at Buxton Museum with glassy-eyed indifference are two sheep heads.  You can be forgiven for missing them; the room is crammed with a bewildering variety of objects and the sheep heads are mounted high on the wall. Despite their inconspicuous position, the two dismembered ewes are actually local heroes.

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Sheep are not an uncommon sight in the Peak District. The national park has an association with sheep farming that dates back to medieval times. These two specimens earned distinction in 1830 when they were sold by their owner in Hope Valley to a farmer in Kent. It seems that they did not care a great deal for their new surroundings and decided to walk back to Derbyshire. Sheep are not well known for their decision-making skills but this couple were from a hardy breed called Penistone Ewes, bred to survive on the bleak moors of the Peak. Perhaps it was a call to their natural environment that spurred their return? We can only speculate.

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As a reward for their loyalty, the audacious duo were allowed to live the rest of their natural lives back home where they enjoyed a degree of fame. When the sheep died, their owner had their heads mounted and displayed for many years in Hope parish church and then, of course, Buxton Museum and Art Gallery.

Next time you are passing, perhaps you can spare a few minutes to pop in and ponder their miraculous journey? Their tale is an obscure local legend. Infact, despite working at the museum for nearly twenty years, I can only recall two visitors who asked about the sheep that decided to walk from Kent to Derbyshire. Hopefully, this blog will permit them a little more recognition.

Thanks to the staff at the Derbyshire Record Office for their assistance.

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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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