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A North-Western Habitat: the Paleoethology and Colonisation of a European Peninsula

Rogan D.S. Jenkinson

Cite this as: Jenkinson, R.D.S. 2023 A North-Western Habitat: the Paleoethology and Colonisation of a European Peninsula (a comprehensive analysis of excavations in Pin Hole Cave, Creswell Crags), Internet Archaeology 61.

1. Introduction

This publication sets out to describe the extensive archaeological and palaeontological remains from the Quaternary deposits discovered within Pin Hole Cave. This includes the 19th-century work of Magens Mello, the extensive research by Leslie Armstrong and that of the current author. There are many aspects of interest for Quaternary studies that include unusual archaeological evidence and unique palaeontological evidence. Despite a prolific series of publications by Armstrong (see Bibliography), his reports are general in nature or often refer to specific discoveries. Since his death, a number of studies have been undertaken and for various reasons, doubts and uncertainties have been expressed concerning the reliability of his observations or interpretations, and these have been aggravated by issues related to his later studies elsewhere. A number of concerns have also been raised relating to the geomorphic and stratigraphic integrity of the excavated evidence. This study will attempt to clearly, and somewhat exhaustively, set out his methods and interpretation and their associated difficulties. This will include description of all of the extant evidence and remains that previous studies have dealt with in a piecemeal fashion. The study also sets out to describe topographic features that have played a significant part in the accumulation of an infill of sediment and remains within the cave and which have rarely been the subject of previous discussion.

Description and analysis of the extensive palaeontological record indicates mutualism within the context of similar trophic niches. The nature of the description will unavoidably appear to be defensive. From a personal point of view, studies of evidence from the Creswell Area Quaternary sites have occupied more than 20 years of research (starting from 1983), and within this context, it is my view that Pin Hole Cave provides one of the best sets of data available within the UK. The conclusion of the study sets out unusual evidence that suggests the locality may have sat within an important ecological niche during the Quaternary.

2. Nature and Context of the Evidence

2.1 Regional and local context of explorations

The archaeological and palaeontological discoveries within Creswell Crags, in the English East Midlands, have been extensively excavated over the last 160 years. Five of the caves have featured in many subsequent studies of the English Quaternary, (Campbell 1969; Jenkinson 1984; White and Pettitt 2011) and many of the palaeontological remains have been partially reported. By the mid-1970s, the general feeling was that the cave had been more or less fully explored, some using 19th-century excavation techniques that presented difficulties for modern interpretation. During 1976-1992, all of the locatable information was reviewed and new field surveys and excavations were undertaken (Jenkinson 1984; Jenkinson and Gilbertson 1984). These studies demonstrated that some nine gorges and valleys within the Magnesian Limestone contained a large number of caves and rock shelters, many with surviving Quaternary deposits and remains, and which formed a regional concentration of such sites for both archaeological and palaeontological evidence. The Pin Hole Cave within the Creswell Gorge had been particularly well excavated and published, but interpretation of the evidence was made difficult by a misunderstanding of the recording methods. The cave and its surviving sediments were remapped, which allowed a comprehensive reconstruction of Leslie Armstrong's excavation and finds. Partial publication of the results by Jenkinson (1984) demonstrated that evidence from the cave was some of the best available for studies of the English Late Quaternary. Two key objectives of the current study are the re-analysis of the available information, particularly to identify taphonomic processes, the relationships between human groups and vertebrate populations and to consider these in a regional Quaternary setting.

One of the most startling aspects of the evidence from the caves at Creswell Crags and its surrounding area is the apparent richness and diversity of evidence seemingly concentrated in a relatively small geographic area. Despite the many problems caused by fairly primitive exploration techniques and a concentration upon a narrow range of scientific interest, the data still have few parallels within England. The intense interest in both archaeological remains and the chronology of Palaeolithic colonisation and use of the site have provided a useful and intelligible story of the site's importance within the past and which has seen at least three phases of human use and the presence of 190 species of mammal life. Explanation of the reasons for such a concentration is fraught with difficulty and may be related to the location and form of the area itself, which is clearly of a different nature from the geographical form of the surrounding areas and where essentially the region may have offered specific functional refugia for both humans and animal.

This study attempts to examine and understand the taphonomy in the belief that they may indicate, at least, some of the attractions for both mammal and human populations throughout the Quaternary. The form and diversity of evidence and the quality of excavation at Pin Hole Cave at Creswell make the site of key importance for these questions.

2.2 Nature of the evidence

The nature and context of Pin Hole Cave has been the subject of many reports. Archaeological studies in particular have described and synthesised variation within lithic assemblages (Garrod 1926; Campbell 1969). These studies have identified within the UK at least two phases of the Middle Palaeolithic and two for the Upper Palaeolithic. In all cases, typological change has been considered in terms of correlation with similar European, particularly French, evidence. Many studies have also concentrated upon occurrences within current UK territory with little consideration of the Quaternary landscape and setting, which provides a remarkably different geography and which was much more orientated to the east and south-east.

Virtually all studies have drawn comparisons between UK sites based upon distribution, site type, technological type and variation. In these studies, individual sites are often considered by using actual number counts of lithics with no attempt to calibrate this to site and, particularly, excavation size, an approach that has resulted in judgements of site size and importance that may not reflect their actual significance.

A more useful approach is to consider locations in terms of lithic and vertebrate bone numbers, which are related to the known variation in excavation size. Such an approach indicates a more accurate assessment of frequency and aids more realistic comparison between temporal and geographically separated localities.. The results of such an approach are set out in Figure 1. The data used for this study do not represent an exhaustive account of such sites but simply sets out details of sites important to this study with a range of other UK sites and site types. It is probable that the addition of a more extensive range of sites would not change the overall impression.

It is immediately apparent from the results that localities within the eastern area of the UK have produced a greater frequency of objects than sites in western areas. It is also clear that such differences are not a product of excavation techniques, a point illustrated by the results for Mello and Dawkins' excavations at Robin Hood's Cave, which compare very favourably with more modern work. The extensive use of sieves has made a difference at some locations, such as at Pin Hole Cave and Steetley Cave, but it is also known that these sites have more a frequent occurrence of objects anyway. Poor conditions for preservation are clearly seen (for bone) on some cave talus sites and although not fully understood, there is some evidence to suggest that vertebrate bone is more frequent on palaeontological sites or at least on sites unaffected by human use.

Figure 1: Table illustrating the frequency of lithic and vertebrate remains, shown as an average per cubic metre for a sample of UK Quaternary sites (source data: Digital archive Vertebrates and lithics frequency / Frequency of remains)
Av. per cubic metre= average number of lithics or vertebrates excavated per cubic metre
Quaternary Sites Volume (i.e. cubic metres excavated)Total Lithics Av. per Cubic Metre Total Vertebrates Av. per Cubic Metre Excavator(s) / Year of Excavation
Palaeontological Sites
Steetley Cave 8    77914 9739 Jenkinson 1984
Dog Hole Fissure 1.6 2 1.2 336 210 Jenkinson 1984
Open Air Sites
Fardon     14.1     Garton and Jacobi 2009
Hengistbury Head 136 3551 26     Campbell 1977
Cave Talus Areas
Robin Hood's Cave 9 242 26 139 15 Campbell 1969
Mother Grundy's Parlour 18 18 1 37 2 Multiple
Cave Interior Sites
Church Hole Cave 18.7 160 8.5 999 53 Dawkins and Mello 1875
Robin Hood's Cave 36 742 20 2973 82 Dawkins and Mello 1876
Pin Hole Cave 10     202 20 Mello 1876
Pin Hole Cave 24 370 16 22516 938 Armstrong 1924
Mother Grundy's Parlour 9.6 150 15 49 5.1 Dawkins and Mello 1877
Long Hole 35 5 0.1 316 9 Campbell 1969
Sun Hole 22 1 0.04 231 10.5 Campbell 1969
Dead Man's Cave 12.9 24 1.8 827 64 Jenkinson and White 1984
Badger Hole 6       348 Campbell 1977

Despite variation in the volume of sediment excavated, the frequency of lithics is remarkably similar. The point is very clear for sites such as Hengistbury Head, where the lithic frequency is very similar to that in Robin Hood's Cave although the excavation sizes are vastly different. Similarities of this type can also be seen for the open air site of Fardon and the much smaller Pin Hole Cave, where there are also large differences in the area excavated. The table seems to confirm the view that the frequency of recovered lithics does reflect the original deposition, in the sense that different environments do not seem to have affected preservation and survival. The results for bone fragments are very different and there is an obvious very large contrast in frequency between sites of mainly palaeontological interest and those sites where human presence is known. Even sites that are archaeologically thought to be 'rich' (e.g. Pin Hole Cave) have frequencies that fall below those recorded for animal occupation sites. The results for some individual sites are intriguing. In the case of Mother Grundy's Parlour, the talus excavations have virtually no vertebrate bone present, which appears to confirm the view that talus areas are not conducive to bone preservation. In this case, the site is extremely small and has prolific artefact survival in a context where there is no clear boundary between cave interior and talus. It also contrasts with a very similar circumstance at Robin Hood's Cave where some bone material has survived. The fact that the preservation environment is so similar suggests that there may have been deliberate clearance at Mother Grundy's Parlour. Lastly, attention must be drawn to the fact that while differences in technologies used to recover data have varied over time, the discovery frequencies are not vastly varied.

In summary, whatever the evidence is for variation between sites, it is abundantly clear that the sites located within eastern UK and the southern site of Hengistbury Head have much higher frequencies of archaeological evidence and an apparent much greater degree of biological activity.

The nature, context and frequency of Quaternary evidence available from Pin Hole Cave is dramatically illustrated in Figure 2, which shows the numbers of vertebrate bone, per average cubic metre discovered during the excavations by Leslie Armstrong. Comprehensive details of the vertebrate remains are given in the Creswell Archaeological and Palaeontological Inventory (CAPI). The frequency of these remains are illustrated in respect to other fossil localities. Pin Hole Cave is unusual not only because of the frequency of remains when compared to similar sites, but also because of the high standards of excavation and vertebrate bone recovery.

Figure 2
Figure 2: The graph shows the frequency of vertebrate bone survival for the average cubic metre (Av. cm) within Pin Hole Cave (listed twice as excavated by both Mello then Armstrong) with other sites shown for comparison (source data: Digital archive)

Regionalised concentrations of Quaternary archaeological and palaeontological evidence within the UK are seemingly restricted to a few areas. Such locations are often known today from the presence of one individual 'rich' site apparently surrounded by a widely dispersed distribution of sites extending over an area of many square kilometres. One of the few exceptions can be found within the East Midlands of the UK and particularly within North Nottinghamshire and Creswell Crags. This relatively small area is dominated by the occurrence of caves within the north-south oriented outcrop of Magnesian Limestone, where an epicentre of Quaternary evidence has been discovered within the Creswell Gorge. Despite much excavation within the currently known caves, there is great prospect of further locations yet to be discovered, both within the Creswell site and nearby locations. It can be argued that the coincidental occurrence of available caves plays a significant part in the development of this relatively small concentration. There are, however, numerous archaeological sites, particularly of Last Interglacial and Late Quaternary age dispersed over the area of North Lincolnshire, South Yorkshire and South Nottinghamshire many of which are open-air locations and often associated with significant fluvial systems. Interglacial sites are often palaeontological and contain diagnostic evidence of Hippopotamus with Steppe Rhinoceros. Sites of later age often include a more numerous and diverse fauna. Leaving aside the obvious variation in age during the Late Pleistocene, it does appear that the concentration occupies a relatively small regional area where the nature of the evidence owes more to the preservation environment or excavation techniques than biological circumstance.

Contrasting with other Quaternary sites, a number of local issues relating to vertebrate bone distribution were recorded during an extensive environmental survey during 1978. As part of this survey, a series of seven transects at various locations across the Creswell Gorge were sampled at 1m intervals. In each case, all surface occurring vertebrate bones and molluscan remains were collected from small 5×5 centimetre samples of the surface deposits. In addition, the molluscan remains (Transect Q) have been analysed, the results of which are of considerable interest for this publication.

The limited results of the survey demonstrate clearly that vertebrate bone accumulates in the modern limestone gorge and that it is concentrated at the base of cliffs and specifically near cave entrances. This suggests that, at least for smaller vertebrates, the rock screes and talus areas offer favorable living environments. The results from the Transect Q molluscan populations suggest that the rock faces are of particular interest for predation upon aquatic species of molluscs. The results also clearly suggest that many, in this case, smaller species, utilise the shelter and protection offered by the cliff faces, bases and most probably caves.

A central theme of this study is to review the diverse range of evidence from Pin Hole Cave, where archaeological and palaeontological data indicate use of the locality over a long time period characterised by environmental change and colonisation events. Comparison with other UK Quaternary localities and adjacent localities in the Creswell region clearly show that Pin Hole Cave has exceptional evidence in both the quantity and diversity of remains. Additionally, the evidence is well stratified despite the controversy surrounding the excavations, an observation clearly established from the detailed inventories which are now incorporated into the digital archive.

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