Archaeologists Dig Up More Ice Age Remains At Creswell Crags

By Graham Spicer | 23 August 2006
aerial photo of a tree lined gorge with a lake at its end

Creswell Crags is a limestone gorge containing important evidence of Ice Age life. Photo Creswell Heritage Trust

Archaeologists searching for clues about Ice Age artists have completed a major excavation in Nottinghamshire, unearthing more than 1,000 finds.

A team from the University of Sheffield and The British Museum conducted the dig in Church Hole cave at Creswell Crags between August 7 and 18 2006, the site of the only British discovery of Ice Age rock art.

The rock art discoveries, made in 2003 and 2004, are one of the most important finds from the Palaeolithic era in Britain, dating back 13,000 years. Other rock art has been found in Britain, but was mostly made some 8,000 years after the animal and bird images found at Creswell.

photo of several peope working on an archaeological dig

Archaeologists from Sheffield University and the British Museum conducted the dig. Photo Creswell Heritage Trust

Church Hole had been excavated in the 19th century, and the latest dig aimed to first explore the Victorian ‘spoil heap’ of discarded earth and materials outside the cave.

Dr Paul Pettitt, leading the project, explained: “We know that Church Hole was excavated very rapidly by the Victorians in the 1870s, and as a result very little is known about the animals and people who inhabited this cave during the Ice Age.”

The team have now been able to find the original Ice Age sediments below and examine the bones and artefacts from that period and later. The finds indicate that there has been activity at the gorge since the Ice Age onwards with later remains from the Roman and medieval ages and beyond.

photo of several trays laid out on the grass with small objects in them

More than 1,000 artefacts were found. Photo Creswell Heritage Trust

Many bones of now extinct animals were found, like the leg bone of an arctic hare (not found in Britain since the end of the last Ice Age) and teeth of hyenas, which would have used Church Hole as a den some 25,000 years ago.

There was also a reindeer antler showing signs of being gnawed by hyenas, a mammoth tooth, woolly rhino bones and evidence of human flint working and tools.

A fragment of an awl, used for piercing animal hide and made from the tibia of an arctic hare, was found to have regular scratch marks on it, akin to the lines on a ruler. A similar find at Cheddar Gorge like this one indicates that the people who lived at Creswell Crags may be of the same group of hunter-gatherers.

photo of a rock with a series of square engravings in it

This engraved rock is thought to be an early games board. Photo Creswell Heritage Trust

Another fascinating discovery was of a deeply engraved stone, thought to be a ‘nine men’s morris’ board – a game of possibly Egyptian origin popular in the Roman and medieval periods. Further analysis will be carried out to date it to one of those periods.

There was one possible find of Ice Age art, which researchers will be examining further, and the excavation will provide the archaeologists with enough information to plan a further major dig at the site next year.

The last Ice Age started about 50,000 years ago and ended around 8,000 BC. Ice covered Britain as far south as Wales and the midlands and the south was frozen tundra. Temperatures were about minus eight degrees Celsius.

photo of a rock art stag

Some 80 items of rock art were found - the outlines of this stag have been hightlighted. Photo Creswell Heritage Trust

More than 80 engraved figures were found in the soft limestone at Church Hole during the 2003 and 2004 research. Subjects include horses, bison, birds and stags and are similar to those found in continental Europe.

Creswell Crags is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and Site of Special Scientific Interest and could also become a World Heritage Site. Creswell Heritage Trust was also awarded £4.2m from the Heritage Lottery Fund in January 2005 to create a new museum and education centre.

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