View of Creswell Crags, c.1908.
Creswell Crags is a valley in limestone rock with a watercourse (Millward Brook) running through it and caves on either side. The National Grid Reference is SK 535 742. The caves were hollowed out by the action of water seeping underground. The rock is a band of Magnesian limestone that stretches from the southwest in Derbyshire to northeast in Yorkshire, running through the northwest of Nottinghamshire. Indeed the county boundary runs down the middle of Creswell Crags with the southern caves in Nottinghamshire and the northern in Derbyshire. (For a map of area click on www.creswell-crags.org.uk/CHT/What_is_Creswell/Caves.htm.) To understand prehistoric human occupation of the caves we must put aside any territorial claims between Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire and view the valley as a whole, because that is what the people did.
Our story goes back some 60,000 years and deals with people who lived a hunting and gathering way of life. They had a rich supply of clothes, bags, spears, twine, portable shelters and other objects made of grasses, animal skins and wood. But nothing of their life survives in these caves except the stone tools they used to make these perishable objects and the bones and teeth from the animals they killed and brought into the caves. They were meat eaters to survive and used the carcases for their clothing and tools. Their way of life had similarities with hunting and gathering people of recent times such as the Inuit of the north of Canada and the Indians of the plains of north America. During the majority of the time of our story glaciers covered the mountains of Scotland, Wales and the Pennines. Creswell crags and the south of Britain was tundra.
These people lived where they could kill the game to keep them alive. Often they lived in the open but where there was a supply of water where the animals came to drink, and ready-made homes in the rock as at Creswell Crags, they used caves. Fragments of rock falling from the cave roofs over time mixed with the objects they left behind so that the cave floors gradually grew higher and held the archaeological story with the oldest objects at the bottom, youngest at the top. Creswell Crags is so rich in human evidence that it gives a summary of the prehistoric past of the area.
The earliest human tools are Mousterian, made by Neanderthal people, Homo Neandertalensis, who were genetically different from modern humans. Their body type had evolved for the cold. Neanderthals lived in Britain, leaving their tools in the Creswell Caves from around 60,000 years ago up to the time when modern humans came into Europe from Africa and reached Britain some 40,000 years ago. The whole of Europe was Neanderthal then, with the people living from the south of Spain and across the cold north European plan into Russia. The term Middle Palaeolithic is used for the archaeological material they left. At this time Britain was not an island; the sea level had gone down due to the amount of water lying as snow and ice on the ground across the world. The Neanderthal tool kit had many stone scrapers connected with their need for animal skins for clothing. At Creswell and some places elsewhere in Britain and France the tool kit included handaxes, an all purpose tool which goes back to the first humans in Britain half a million years ago. They left few bone tools, none at Creswell, and no signs of art. They have their place in our hearts because they dug into cave floors to bury their dead with a variety of rituals, although no burials have yet been found in Britain. A reconstruction picture of what life was like for the Neanderthal people living at Creswell Crags can be seen by clicking on www.creswell-crags.org.uk/virtuallytheiceage/Activities/Explore/cave.htm.
Modern humans, (otherwise called Cro-magnon man, Homo sapiens, Upper Palaeolithic, ourselves), evolved in Africa, spread into Europe by way of Palestine and reached Creswell around 40,000 years ago. Few tools exist from this period anywhere in Britain and it was a time of cold when people travelled great distances following the game animals. There was a common tool type, a stone leaf shaped spearhead, excellent for piercing the hide of mammoth or woolly rhinoceros, excavated from sites in Britain (including Creswell Crags) and over into the Russian plane. It was similar to the final tools in this area of the Neanderthal people and suggests some interaction between the two. Because Neanderthals and ourselves were genetically different, little or no interbreeding took place. What happened to cause the Neanderthals to die out? Answer this question and you will be an archaeological star. Disease, poorer hunting techniques so the new people always got the food, perhaps what we would rather not face, the killing off of the old by the new? Most creatures of the same size as Neanderthals died out at this time.
Above the layers with these few leaf points of the earliest Homo sapiens are layers with little except the occasional conglomeration of bones left by hyenas. Britain was just too cold. The exception is one Font Robert point, a diagnostic but uncommon tool of an archaeological period in France and Spain called the Gravettian dated to around 29,000 years ago. A small group had explored far to the north. Let us hope they got safely south again.
Then the Creswell cave floors become rich in stone tools and bone tools along with the bones of the hunted animals from the people who came north some 13,000 years ago when the glaciers began to melt and retreat. A landscape of ice and rock changed to vegetation as may be found now in Iceland and there were animals to go with it. Now there were red deer, wild ox and many birds of warmer environment. The stone tools are peculiar to the people and are termed Creswellian. There were also a few bones from the cave floors engraved with the art of the people. In Nottinghamshire these Creswellian tools are also found to the south of Newark around Farndon beside not a stream along a valley floor but by the river Trent, swollen by melting ice at this time and attracting animals to come to drink where they were easy prey. To get an idea of the life of these Cresswellian people click on www.creswell-crags.org.uk/virtuallytheiceage/Stone%20Age%20People/Tool_kit/index.html.
Creswell Crags was famous enough for its archaeological remains in its cave floors. It suddenly increased its fame in spring 2003 when the news was broken to the world that cave art was found for the first time in Britain. Everyone knows of the painted caves such as Lascaux and engravings on cave walls in France, Spain and Italy. Art on bone had been found in Britain. There was no reason why the people would not have practised their art on the cave walls of our island. Britain was not an island then. The cold and damp might well have removed paint. And there was more dripstone in Britain from the lime in dripping water becoming solid on the walls in the same way as it became solid in stalagmites and stalactites. But surely the people did engraving in Britain! Indeed they did. Three archaeologists set out in April 2003 to together find this art which should be there. By chance they began at Creswell Crags and they found it in abundance in Church Hole. Let it be known that Church Hole is in Nottinghamshire. To see some of the engravings on the walls of Church Hole click on www.creswell-crags.org.uk/virtuallytheiceage/Stone%20Age%20People/Culture/Cave_painting.htm
The rest of the story is not an anticlimax but an expected lack of any rich archaeological layers. Mesolithic people had tiny stone tools they used at the tips of their arrows and did not live to any extent in caves. The climate by this time was much as today. There are some of these small Mesolithic flints from Creswell Crags dating to around 8,500 years ago. Then we leave the thousands of years of hunting and gathering ancestors to find in the Creswell cave floors a couple of arrowheads of the new way of life, the Neolithic, 4,700 to 3,700 years ago, when farming began. The next archaeological period, the Beaker period of the early Bronze Age, left a pottery bowl. From the Iron Age there is only a human skull from a century or so before the Roman invasion of 43 AD. We leave the prehistoric behind when all we can know comes from what we dig up, or find engraved on the cave walls. We enter the time of written records.
The future of the caves and the whole of the site with its potential for visits for research, education and enjoyment is looking good. A Lottery grant has been made and other money is expected to update the existing facilities and possibly have the loan of the actual artefacts from the British Museum. More can be found on the websites:
The main archaeological interest in Creswell Crags is probably in the recent discoveries of the cave art. This is published in
- Paul G. Bahn, Paul Pettitt and Sergio Ripoll, 2003, Discovery of Palaeolithic cave art in Britain, Antiquity, Volume 77 Number 296 June, 227 – 231
- Paul Bahn, Francisco Muñoz, Paul Pettitt & Sergio Ripoll, 2004, New discoveries of cave art in Church Hole (Creswell Crags, England), Antiquity Vol 78 No 300 June, antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/bahn/index.html.
- Ripoll, Sergio, Francisco Muñoz, Paul G. Bahn, and Paul Pettitt, 2004, Palaeolithic cave engravings at Creswell Crags, England, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society vol 70. 93 – 105.
A web site is at: www.antiquity.ac.uk/ProjGall/bahn/
The official Creswell Crags Heritage Trust site is excellent and can be seen at www.creswell-crags.org.uk/index.html.