Cave Ritual in the Peak

Recent research on the role of caves in funerary ritual around prehistoric Britain is here summarised by Mike Haigh

From the earliest times, caves have held a fascination for humans. During the Ice Ages, they were both a sheltered dwelling place and an arena for ritual.

However, in spite of the art produced by our early ancestors and some superficial changes made when people dwelt in cave mouths, they remained natural places; they were not constructed and so were thought to be ‘primitive’. It was long believed that as the climate improved, people left their caves and gradually became urban dwellers. Recent studies which I summarise here have shown that the shift was not as straightforward as supposed.

However, in spite of the art produced by our early ancestors and some superficial changes made when people dwelt in cave mouths, they remained natural places; they were not constructed and so were thought to be ‘primitive’. It was long believed that as the climate improved, people left their caves and gradually became urban dwellers. Recent studies which I summarise here have shown that the shift was not as straightforward as supposed.

Some of our earliest surviving buildings are chambered tombs and passage graves, which can be seen as artificial caves built into fabricated hills. Where real caves existed, some people apparently still felt that only the real thing would do and used them for burial rituals. This blurring of the natural with the artificial seems to have been an important feature in cultural development.

One example of this is Gop Cairn, an impressive monument at SJ086802, near Prestatyn, North Wales. It is a large barrow some 70m (230ft) x 100m (328ft) in plan, rising to 14m (50ft) in height and located on a prominent limestone ridge overlooking a fertile valley that was probably home to the Neolithic and Bronze Age farmers who raised it. Directly below it is a limestone crag, at the base of which are a number of low cave passages burrowing into the hill.

Its age is unknown. Round barrows are usually assigned to the Bronze Age, but during the 19th century, a shaft and tunnels dug into the centre of the mound found nothing, as at a similar dig at Silbury Hill. It is thought that the monument could be Neolithic, like the large unchambered mounds on the Yorkshire Wolds, like Duggleby Howe.

As mentioned, the cairn stands on the top of a limestone ridge. There are a number of caves along this ridge, and in one of these rock shelters, a Late Neolithic grave was found. The remains were interred in a drystone-walled cist, built against the back wall of the cave; this structure contained the remains of about 14 individuals, apparently placed inside in a crouched position. Evidence suggests that some time elapsed between each burial. There were a few grave goods inside, including a polished stone knife, some quartz pebbles, two jet sliders and a few pieces of Peterborough ware pottery. Eventually, the shelter was filled to the roof with limestone slabs, sealing the grave.

This juxtaposition of natural cave and artificial mound may not be accidental. Perhaps an attempt was made to give the impression that the monument was much larger than it actually was. It could also represent a blurring in the minds of ancient people between what is natural and what is artificial. The cairn was built over the cavern to suggest that the mound was pierced by a passage, similar to other sites, such as Newgrange in Ireland. Another suggestion is that this combination of artificial mound and natural cave was transitional in a process that led to the return to caves for ritual purposes. This process can be seen to reach fruition in the Peak District.

In the Peak, caverns were used for ritual funeral activity, but the entrances were secret and hidden. Fox Hole Cave in the upper Dove Valley can, perhaps, be seen as a transitional site. It is in High Wheeldon, a natural hill which, when viewed from the NW, looks almost artificial. It draws attention to itself by resembling a huge barrow [cf Silver Hill, Stanbury, on the cover of NE93 – ed]. The cave, however, is barely visible. Inside, there is evidence of ritual activity, but unfortunately, much has been disturbed (in 1928 animal-loving quarrymen blasted the entrance open to rescue a trapped dog). At the entrance are the remains of a cist, though some suggest it could be the remains of an artificial, slab-lined entrance. The internal arrangement of the caverns resembles a cruciform passage grave. Inside these natural chambers were a number of human bones, together with Neolithic Peterborough Ware pottery and Bronze Age Beakers.

In the upper part of a small, steep-sided valley is Calling Low Rock Shelter. Out of the way and probably as difficult to find in ancient times as it is today, this overhang was sought out as a place to deposit the dead. As at Gop Cairn, some were placed in drystone cists abutting the shelter wall. One of two oval-shaped cists contained a collection of disarticulated bone, and the other the body of a woman. Beside the latter cist were the remains of another woman and nearby was the body of a child. The remains of six other children were found in the shelter. Other signs of ritual activity include a niche on the back wall, which contained a human pelvis and the skull of a fox.

Elsewhere in the Peak, Dowel Cave is high on the steep sides of small dry valley, and was also used for ritual activity, secret and hidden from the mundane world. Its mouth is hidden by even low vegetation like nettles, and it is reached only by a steep climb. The inner space was artificially divided into three. In the first area were the remains of seven people and two dogs. Most of the bones were mixed together but six of the seven skulls had been carefully placed together against the wall; at least three of the skulls were protected by a simple ring of stones. Drystone walling completely sealed this section, and the narrow passage beyond was almost totally filled with soil, within which were the remains of two individuals. Beyond these skeletons, the passage was again blocked, and beyond lay the skull of a child, without its jawbone and resting on a flat stone, accompanied by an ox femur and half an ox mandible – possibly food offerings. At this point the cave was only 30cm (1ft) wide.

Other sites like these can be found throughout the Peak District and elsewhere. These cave burials are curious in many ways. The caverns are natural but appear to have been chosen to mimic passage graves. The character of the remains, however, is very different. Passage graves usually contain disarticulated bones showing signs of having been manipulated, whereas the caves contain the whole skeletons of individuals. All this suggests, perhaps, that a new tradition developed, based on passage grave ideas but focusing on natural caves. In ancient times, both customs may have been viewed as the two extremes of a continuum of practice. Our ancestors probably didn’t differentiate between the natural and artificial in the way that we do.

Reference

‘Places Apart? Caves and Monuments in Neolithic and Earlier Bronze Age Britain’ John Barnatt & Mark Edmonds, Cambridge Archaeological Journal 12:1 p113-29.

See also ‘The Hollow Land’ elsewhere on this website

Published in NE96 (Winter 2003), pp.8-9

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