Creswell Crags

Photo:Limestone caves and fissures at Creswell Crags site

Limestone caves and fissures at Creswell Crags site

BBC website:Seven wonders of the world

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Creswell Crags' page

Fantastic Prehistoric Revelations on the Nottinghamshire Border


 Mr. Matthew Beresford, a Consultant Archaeologist with responsibility for education and research in the local community, delivered an address to the Society, focused on nearby Creswell Crags, a Derbyshire site of caves and rocky shelters.1 Here, findings have revealed tools and animal remains dating back to the Ice Age, some 60,000 years ago. Later generations have also left evidence that they occupied the area. Deciding to make this into a specialist theme, Mr. Beresford has written his book, Beyond the ice, on the subject. This has been published.2

The writer explained that evidence shows the existence of both Neanderthal, or Ice-Age man, and modern man as having successively thrived at Creswell Crags. Confirmation lies in the discovery of bones, art and objects of the day, remains of which have been discovered in the cavital rocks and soils Skeletal remains can be dated by examining their structures, because Man's body adapts according to climatic and environmental conditions. The Ice Age was far colder than later generations. Consequently, the population was shorter but stockier, to give corporate protection from the conditions. Noses, heads, brows and navels were all larger. However, Neanderthal man apparently became extinct 35,000 years ago. It is uncertain why modern man should have survived for so much longer than his predecessor, for the former continued through the generations until the present day. Possibly, Mr. Beresford suggested, the answer lies in modern man's more advanced thought-process, which allowed him to develop tools for hunting. It enabled him to learn the processes of the hunt, including following the prey. Man was able to implement hygienic strategies such as burial of the dead. He learnt to think his way through a progression of techniques, culminaing in what is termed civilization. In short, iron-Age simplicity grew into modern complexity. Although accommodation has developed from caves into houses, which it would have been impracticable and unnecessary to build at Creswell Crags, modern living owed its existence to an ever-expanding thought process. Neanderthal man may have been satisfied to go on as he was. Later man sought improvements and primitive comfort. There was a period of co-existence, lasting some ten thousand years, but Neanderthal man made no attempt to learn from the practices of his counterpart. Perhaps he did not even notice them! Yet, 45 thousand years ago, modern man began to use hare-hunting, not just for food, but also for the useage of each part of the hare's body. Wolves were trained to function in place of hunting-dogs. The environment was put to every useful purpose that could be discovered.

It was noted that Neanderthal man may well have had sound reason to be satisfied with what he had. Local materials, such as quartsize, were used to make most of the chopping-tools that have been found at Creswell Crags Flint, the usual material, was not yet to be found in the area. Rocks and soils change with the earth movements of the generations. Yes, much flint has been found inside the caves; it came later from the south of England. England was, during the Ice Age, adjoined to the continent of Europe, and in this context Creswell Crags was part of a broader, non-insular geographical zoneFlint could have been found had the Ice-Age population gone out looking for it. But why bother? The point was this: quartsize worked, and that was what mattered!

Excavation of the caves is first recorded in the 1870s, thanks to John Megan Mello and William Boyd Dawkins, who investigated Robin Hood's Cave in 1876. Their strategies would have been questionable to a twenty-first century archæologist, as they involved blasting through a hard layer of limestone, using explosives! However, their task was fruitful; they discovered many animal bones and teeth, including evident mammoth-remains. Rhino bones have also been found. Evidence of an Ice-Age horse rib from 13 thousand years ago emerged, not the remains themselves, but a representational engraving of the time. The animal would have been like a small pony. Lines engraved across the image suggest that the horse fell into a trap, made by lying sticks across a sizeable cavity. On venturing innocently onto these sticks, which would no doubt have been concealed, the unsuspecting animal would have fallen into a pit below, from which depth made escape impossible. Elsewhere have been found Ice-Age animal carvings, distinguishable by the way its composite grooves were designed to pick up illuminating sunlight. A red deer stag, for example, was discovered in 2003. Unfortunately, contemporary scorn for the artefacts of history has led to the spoilation of some cave art by graffiti. This, in turn, has meant that grills have had to be applied to the entrances of caves, which necessarily deprives the genuine historian of effective research. Elsewhere at the site, images have been built by means of box reliefs, whereby the crevices and shapes of the rocks have been used creatively.

A minority of cave art was not confined to animal depictions. A pinhole engraving of a man, dancing, has been discovered. Dance is thought to have held a spiritual significance, It should be noted, too, that no feet were included in any Ice-Age image. Feet were considered earthly. Cave art thus seems to have been essentially spiritual; it hints at the dependence of Neanderthal man upon a deity. The caves led into Mother Earth, seemingly a source of life and sustenance.

As research moves beyond the Ice Age, evidence reveals that inhabitation of Creswell Crags continued. Discoveries of arrowheads of varying point design, and of a burial mound, suggest that man presided during the Neolithic period of 5000 to 2500 B.C. Then, during the Bronze Age, which went on until 700 B.C., pieces of pottery affirm human occupation. A burial site from the Iron Age, of 700 B.C. to A.D. 43, has also produced, in Mother Grundy's Parlour, the skull of an infant child between the ages of two and three years. Why should the skull have been so well preserved? Possibly the head was revered, as being the home of the soul. Spirituality played an essential part throughout. Evidence of mediæval life is interesting, as it has come in the form of a merels board – a gaming structure – engraved on the back of a limestone block. This came to light in 2009.

There will be much more still to be discovered. A crypt has recently been found below Church Hole Caves, and who knows what secrets lie hidden in its depths? Excavations are continuing throughout Creswell Crags by ever-vigilant archæologists, and new finds encourage this to go on. Visitors have come to the area since 1876, and interest is high. An earlier application from the guardians to become a World Heritage Centre was, unfortunately, rejected. Over the last three years, however, work has taken place to construct a purposeful visitors' centre on the site. This has been completed, and the centre opened in 2009. It comprises a museum, an education suite and an information department. An exhibition of discovered bones and other artefacts has been set up to enable visual learning, and tours continue around the caves and the area in general. Now a new application for World Heritage status has been submitted and is expected to succeed.

© Roger Peacock for NALHS: 18th May  2012

1The illustration is reproduced from Seven wonders of the world, at and depicts the typical relief of Creswell Crags. Entrances to the caves can be seen.  The directional map is from [both accessed 18th May 2012].

2Matthew Beresford has written several publications on cultural and educational themes. This book, Beyond the ice: Creswell Crags and its place in a wider European context(2012) is published by Archæopress, Oxford. See a summary of Mr. Beresford's work at www.mbarchaeology [accessed by this writer: 28th April 2012]

This page was added by ROGER PEACOCK on 18/05/2012.

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