Creswell Crags is a spectacular magnesian limestone gorge that straddles the border between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. It is dotted with a large number of caves, fissures and rock shelters, many of which harboured secrets from our Prehistoric past. Archaeologists have been excavating these caves since the 19th Century, when the Victorians first discovered the artefacts that lay beneath the cave floors. So much material was excavated early on that many of today’s archaeologists now excavate the spoil heaps (rubbish dumps) of previous excavations to find any artefacts which were missed!
Our 9 largest caves are detailed below, but there’s no better way to get to know the caves than by visiting them for yourself!
Robin Hood Cave
Legend has it that Robin Hood Cave provided a hide out for the famous outlaw to evade capture by the Nottinghamshire authorities. However, as with many Robin Hood tales, it is likely that fiction far outweighs the facts. One thing we can be sure of however is that it seemed to provide a popular home for people during the Ice Age.
The Neanderthals arrived first, occupying Robin Hood Cave until around 40,000 years ago. They made hand axes and scrapers from flint, quartzite and clay-ironstone to help them survive on the Ice Age grasslands. Homo sapiens came later and used the cave from around 22,000 years ago until the end of the Ice Age and beyond. They left a wide range of tools and butchered animal bone, as well as an image of a horse’s head that had been intricately engraved on a piece of horse rib bone. You can see this rare find for yourself in our museum!
Church Hole is a world-famous cave, containing examples of the oldest verified cave art in the UK. This includes images of bison, reindeer and birds, as well as some abstract symbols which may have had religious meaning.
As well as these artistic and religious activities, it appears that Church Hole was also inhabited at some stages. Archaeologists have discovered quartzite and flint tools which they believe belonged to Neanderthals, and flint, antler and bone tools used by modern humans during the last Ice Age.
Excavations of Pin Hole found two examples of engraved bones which represent some of the earliest ‘Art Mobilier’ (portable art) from the UK, roughly 12,500 years old. ‘Pin Hole Man’ is a bone which features a profile of a man or beast stood on two legs. A rib-bone with a cross-hatched design has also been found. This may have been some form of symbol, language or counting, or it may simply have been a doodle; we’ll never know for sure.
Mother Grundy’s Parlour
In the mid 19th Century, a woman from Creswell village dreamt that there was treasure to be found in Mother Grundy’s Parlour. Her husband decided to see if this was true and conducted the first excavation of the cave. We do not know the results of this excavation but believe that a hippopotamus tooth was discovered and sold soon afterwards. Treasure of sorts.
Since then at least 6 teams of archaeologists have excavated inside the cave and within the scree deposits and spoil outside. An interesting find is the collection of fractured horse teeth which show that Ice Age hunter-gatherers were butchering horses at this site 12,000 years ago.
Boat House Cave
In the 19th Century the Duke of Portland created the picturesque lake which separates the crags. Originally conceived as a boating lake it was formed when the stream was dammed.
A channel was dug to flood this cave and create a boat house for the Duke to moor his boat. Concrete was used to create a watertight foundation. When the archaeologist Leslie Armstrong tried to excavate the cave later, he was forced to use explosives to penetrate the concreted surface to the cave floor below!
A small area of The Arch was excavated in 1974 but no evidence was found of any humans. However, the cave was home to bear, spotted hyaena, woolly rhinoceroses, reindeer and bovids.
A reindeer leg bone with cut marks on it was also found in either The Arch or nearby Cave 7 or Cave 8. The archaeologists are undecided as to whether these could have been made by humans or Neanderthals.
Yew Tree Shelter
Yew Tree Shelter is a 22m-long rock shelter on the North side of the gorge. It would have been sunny and appealing to Creswell Crags’ hunter-gatherers.
It was excavated in the 1930s and was found to contain stone tools and animal bones, like many of our caves. However, flint tools dating from the Mesolithic were also found. This shows that Creswell Crags was occupied by hunter-gatherers long after the last Ice Age.
The excavations at Dog Hole are something of a mystery. We know that the cave was excavated by Robert Laing, a Newcastle doctor, sometime in the 1870s or 1880s. However, all of the artefacts from this excavation have been lost.
More recent excavations of Laing’s spoil (rubbish heap) have found lion, spotted hyena, woolly rhinoceros, horse and reindeer bones that he missed.
Dog Hole Fissure
This narrow fissure was discovered in 1978 when a rock fall west of Dog Hole exposed the opening. The fissure was excavated by staff from Creswell Crags Museum, and finds are now housed in our collection store.
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