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!

bull-ring

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.

mastadon hunt.jpg

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.

Evidence for a top predator of the past

This week Museum Manager, Ros Westwood looks at early evidence for some terrifying local fauna!

Sabre tooth and mastodon diaroma

Sabre-toothed cat and mastodon diaroma at Buxton Museum

Last week there was another amazing natural history programme on BBC, following lions in the drought torn Kalahari Desert in Botswana tracking equally emaciated elephants. Nature is grim in both tooth and claw, and everything needs to eat. No, I did not watch it – in programmes like this I always want the targeted ‘dinner’ to survive, and prefer not see the blood and gore of the kill, but I know it cannot be so, but it did make me think.

You see, that same tale was being lived out 1.9 million years ago in a local landscape, in fact not four miles north of Buxton near the village of Dove Holes. I can’t comment about the weather at the time – but I suggest the area was more like a savannah grass land, with less rain than we are familiar with.

But the events that occurred were similar, even if the protagonists may have been a little different – sabre tooth cats rather than African lions and mastodons not elephants. It may not have been so hot and parched, but the evidence of the Victory Quarry assemblage suggests the story of cats as top predators seeking the easiest prey.

How do we know this? Museums are places of story and memory, and this story goes back to 1901 when young Master Hick (we do not know his first name) was assisting his father at the quarry. When the dust from the charges settled, the boy found a collection of bones and teeth among the scatter of rocks. He brought these to the local museum which was then at Buxton Town Hall. The curator Mr Hill called on Professor Boyd Dawkins at Manchester Museum to help identify them.

With this evidence, Boyd Dawkins could explain that the plains of this ancient landscape were home to hyena, mastodon (adult and juvenile), mammoth, rhino, horse and deer but the lead carnivore was the sabre tooth cat.  After much consideration, Boyd Dawkins identified a piece of tibia and two teeth as belonging to as Homotherium sainzelli Amyard. Further research in recent years by Dr Ross Barnett at the University of Durham has reattributed this recommending it should now be recognised as H. crenatidens.

Sabretoothcattibia

Tibia of a Sabre-toothed Cat found at Dove Holes.

Boyd Dawkins declared these to be “the very oldest collection of remains of animals from caves which have been met with in the whole world”.  This claim continues to have relevance, with Dr Barnett asserting in 2010 that it currently represents the earliest appearance of Homotherium in the British Isles. Although Boyd Dawkins described this as Pliocene, the age has been revised and is now considered as Early Pleistocene, but to the museum visitor that is still a very, very long time ago.

The bones are on display at Buxton Museum and the teeth are at Manchester Museum.   As part of collections in the Landscape we are investigating the possibility of establishing a better date for the assemblage by examining the dentition of the baby mastodon molars.

The Victory Quarry site is now owned by Derbyshire County Council and is managed as a fishing lake, but beware, the ghosts of the sabre-toothed cats may still prowl around the rocks.