A onetime base camp for hunting expeditions into the Peak District, Creswell Crags are yielding vital information left thousands of years ago. Brian Spencer recently took a short stroll beneath the ancient crags.
Scattered across the low lying stretch of countryside east of the M1 between Doncaster and Mansfield, shallow but steep-sided limestone gorges almost man-made in appearance, feature in the part agricultural, part industrial landscape. Formed by uplifting and tilting of the limestone strata laid down in tropical seas around 260 million years ago, they have been found to contain some of the finest collections of Ice Age remains in Britain.
Around 10,000 years ago when through natural global warming, the last great Ice Age was coming to an end, and when Britain still had a land bridge connecting it to Europe, early hunters began to move northwards, following the retreating ice. What we now call the Dark Peak was tundra, a wild landscape of sparse vegetation above a layer of permafrost. Discoveries of flint arrowheads which have lain in the peat of Bleaklow for thousands of years prove that it was once a fruitful hunting ground.
Much of the credit for preserving such a pristine record of prehistoric activity must be given to the 5th Duke of Portland who created the lake and allowed woodland to develop as a pleasure ground – he also fought off a proposal to route a railway line through the gorge!
Excavations in the shallow caves lining Creswell Crags have yielded evidence that they were used as temporary shelters by the hunter gatherers on their forays north from warmer areas. The tongue-in-cheek suggestion that the caves were an early version of motorway service stations is a fair comparison, for just like service stations, they were only used as temporary stopping places to and from nearby hunting grounds.
Not only did wandering tribesmen and women shelter in the caves lining the sides of Creswell Crags, but animals nowadays more often found in Equatorial Africa either used them as their dens, or their remains were washed there after localised flooding. The remains of bears, giant deer, as well as the teeth of woolly mammoths and rhinoceros along with dwarf horses and even lions have been found. Hyenas, now only found as wild scavengers on the dusty African plains, dragged the remains of their kill into the caves’ dark recesses, where the gnawed bones of their feast still show the marks of their powerful teeth. Fragile snail shells and the bones of tiny creatures such as birds and even pollen grains have been found alongside the larger sized bone remnants, giving a unique record of the pre-historic wild life of the gorge and its surrounding countryside.
Careful excavations over the last couple of centuries, have unearthed an astonishing array of archaeological remains left by the people who camped in the caves more than 10,000 years ago. Simple stone and bone tools have been discovered showing a marked degree of skill acquired by these so-called primitive wanderers, but of all the finds, the most exciting by far have been the number of simple but expressive drawings of animals scratched on the cave walls.
Why these early inhabitants of our island made these drawings is far from clear; a simple explanation could be that they were the records of a hunter boasting of his catch, rather along the lines of a Victorian big-game hunter’s stuffed trophies, but more serious thoughts will turn to those of an older hunter describing suitable animals to his children before they too set off on their first hunt. Another suggestion is that the drawings were a way of asking whatever gods the hunters worshipped to help them in the hunt for food. Although the cave drawings are not as dramatic as the painted cave decorations in France or Spain, they do however offer an accurate record about the way these early people lived. Dating the Creswell cave art has not been as easy as say the Palaeolithic cave paintings in French or Spanish caves where the animals were first of all outlined with charcoal before colour was added. At those sites it was comparatively easy to accurately radio carbon date the charcoal, but at Creswell where the outlined drawings are carved and etched into the living rock, a more complex technique known as Uranium series dating gave the information that the minimum age for many of the samples of art were at least 13,000 years old.
Alongside numerous small openings in the limestone crags there are at least six main caves along the crag sides, above the attractively man-made Crag Lake that fills the gorge bottom. Most of the caves have been investigated, originally by Victorian archaeologists who used picks and shovels and even dynamite, seeking only large trophy-like artefacts, but in more recent times scientific research, being more painstaking, has unearthed far more significant results.
Of all the caves to be searched so far, Pin Hole about two-thirds of the way along the northern cliff has, over the years, provided the most information. As far back as 1875 a number of amateur archaeologists, prompted by the discovery of a young woolly mammoth’s milk teeth, moved huge amounts of debris to dig further into the recesses of the cave. Not being terribly scientific they soon tired of their efforts and it was not until 1924 – 1936 that a small group under the leadership of a trained archaeologist, Leslie Armstrong, discovered numbers of large bones as well as finely worked bone tools. It was not until the 1980s that the latest and most accurate investigations took place and the discovery of flint tools showed that the cave had been used, not just from the end of the last Ice Age, but by Neanderthal people between 55,000 and 40,000 years ago as well. The crude stone tools they made were simply for butchering game, but later cave dwellers developed a more sophisticated art form, not only carving the outlines of animals on the cave sides, but of simple figures or delicate cross-hatchings on rib bones.
All the main caves have been given fanciful sounding names. One of them is named after Robin Hood and is where if traditional local folk-lore is correct, he or one of the many characters who took his name, hid when on the run from King Edward II; it was in this cave that researchers found the etching of a horse carved on a rib bone. Mother Grundy’s Parlour is an adjoining cave where, from its name, a local wise woman, or witch, sheltered in less enlightened times. Almost at the dale head Pin Hole was a place where only a century ago, locals left small offerings such as coloured pins to what they thought were fairies that lived there. Church Hole on the opposite side of the lake was perhaps used by Dissenters for their undercover meetings; it also has yielded quartzite tools dating from the Neolithic period, together with bone needles and awls from later post-Ice Age dwellers.
It is in Pin Hole Cave that most of the finest cave art can still be seen. Although it needs a marked degree of imagination, a stag and bison can be seen, together with a deer, horse and ibis. There are also a number of enigmatic triangles of various sizes ranging up to around 9cm high, along with stylised birds.
There is an excellent state of the art Museum and Education Centre together with a small café together with car parking close by the caves, but to protect their rare treasures, none of them are open to the public other than by the guided tours organised throughout the year on advertised days. Booking is advised, by ‘phoning the Creswell Crags Museum on (01909) 720378. Email: email@example.com. Web site: www.creswell-crags.org.uk.
Similar limestone gorges to Creswell Crags are dotted about the area, roughly between Pleasley Vale in the south and near Roche Abbey in the north. While many are accessible by public footpaths and have also been shown to have housed early inhabitants, the Creswell Crags site is by far the best investigated.