Victoria Cave:

First evidence of human activity in Yorkshire itself is restricted to a hunter gatherer lifestyle dating from around 8000 to 7000 BC; evidence for this was found in Victoria Cave, which is located at Settle, in the Yorkshire Dales; the cave was discovered by chance in 1837 and has now been completely excavated.

Within the cave’s thick clay deposits, scientists found an amazing record of climate change spanning thousands of years; projectile points were found in the cave that include the bone head of an harpoon, which has been dated to within 110 years of 8270 BC, the late upper palaeolithic period.

The earliest finds were ancient animal bones which dated back to 130,000 years ago; at the entrance to the network of caves large deposits of hyena dung were found, along with evidence that the hyenas had scavenged on the abandoned prey of larger carnivores; in the lowest level of the cave were found the bones of straight tusked elephant, narrow nosed rhinoceros, giant deer, red deer, oxen, bear and hippopotamus along with the bones of hyenas, which had fed on them; they date back to an Upper Pleistocene interglacial when the climate was much warmer than it is today; it points to the fact that hyenas were using the cave as a den and dragging scavenged bones back to it, but no evidence for human activity was found during that period.

Ice age glaciers then came and went from about 120,000 to around 12,000 years ago and the cave gradually filled with layer upon layer of clay, which was deposited by the melting glaciers; after the last Ice Age the cave became habitable again but the new tenants were animals that could withstand the rigours of a near Arctic climate; bones of hibernating brown Bears and deer were found, pointing to the fact that bears used the caves and herds of deer eked out an existence on the then sparse vegetation.

In amongst the animal bones was found an 11,000 year old antler harpoon point, the first actual evidence of people living and hunting in the Yorkshire Dales; the grooved and zigzag decorated harpoon was probably mounted with two similar points to make a fish spear or bird lance; the spear point has now been dated back to 8270+/-110 BC, while two other pieces of reindeer, also from Victoria Cave, have been given dates of 9020+/-120BC and 9640+/-130BC.

The Antler Harpoon Point - Move the mouse over the picture to see an Antler Harpoon.

An 11,000 Year Old Harpoon Point

Around 120,000 years ago:

At this time, the cave would have had a much narrower opening than can be seen today, so it would have been ideal as a lair for wild animals; during that time the the climate was much colder than today and the rolling Siberian type landscape stretching out before the cave would have been the home to many now extinct animals.

It would have been a barren landscape with glacial rivers and lakes and scrubby vegetation and was the habitat of grizzly bears, brown bears, foxes, badgers, reindeer, red deer, wild goats, pigs, horses and wild fowl; it would have been a good summer hunting ground for the new arrival, man; the hunter gatherers were armed with harpoons and spears fashioned from antlers and stone; their arrows were barbed with flint or chert; they lived in tents made of poles and hides or lean-to shelters roughly constructed from the available materials found around them.

The tundra conditions, at the time, would have generated a high pressure, which would have fed continously freezing winds, so early exploratory hunting groups of the Late Upper Palaeolithic period would have been grateful for the cave’s shelter and may well have taken temporary refuge in the cave in times of desperate need, but it would still have been a wet, dangerous and uncomfortable place.

Today, the cave and the lands around it are in the care of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority and the cave itself is now nothing more than a gaping hole in the cliff and is silent save for the dripping of water. See photo!

The Excavations and Discoveries:

The archaeologists discovered a Roman layer with a collection of unusual bronze and bone artefacts which included brooches and coins; the unusual nature of some of the finds has led archaeologists to believe that the cave was being used as more than just a storage place, or shelter, for craft workers; it may also have been used as some sort of shrine.

The initial discovery of the cave was made in 1838 by Michael Horner, a local tinsmith and mechanic, while out rabbiting with two other men; one of the hunting dogs went into a hole chasing a rabbit, but didn't come back out; the men thought it had got fast so Horner squeezed himself through the hole, which was only the size of a horse collar and he found a cave; Michael later told his employer Joseph Jackson, a Settle plumber, about the cave, who then started to explore the cave himself and it was he who found the first coins amongst other things; this led to Jackson seeking expert guidance from Charles Roach Smith, a Roman archaeologist who's notes on the finds were read to the Society of Antiquaries in April 1840, but it was another thirty years before a funded excavation of the cave was organised.

Jackson continued his own excavations during this time and found some fine Romano-British decorative pieces, but it was the discovery of the jaw of a spotted hyena which gained the interest of Dean Buckland, a Professor of Geology at Oxford University; Buckland, the foremost authority on cave research at that time, travelled to Settle to see Jackson and examine the collection of finds.

The site then became recognised as an important resource and Professor Mckenny Hughes set up The Settle Cave Exploration Committee in 1869; the subscription list, which was opened to raise the funding for a major excavation, includes the names of many noteworthy local families, academics and the aristocrats; Jackson was appointed as site superintendent; the British Association for the Advancement of Science supported the enterprise and between 1872 and 1879, R H Tiddeman of HM Geological Survey issued reports on the finds and their significance.

The Cave Excavations Yielded The Following Results:

In the lower level, dated about 120,000 years ago, were found the bones of Brown Bear, Spotted Hyena, Elephant, Rhinoceros, Hippopotamus, Giant Deer, Red Deer, a bovine and Lion.

In the upper layer, dated about about 12,000 years ago, were found the bones of Badger, Horse, Reindeer, Pig, Goat, Sheep, Grizzly Bear, Brown Bear, Deer and Fox; the bones of the domestic animals were heavily gnawed and suggested the presence of dogs and human settlers in the area.

In the Bronze and early Iron ages, dated about 3000 to 2600 years ago, were found Pottery shards and decorated stones.

In the Romano British layer, dated about 1500 years ago, were found a large number of artefacts; among these were:
Over a hundred coins which had been minted between 83 BC and 346 AD.
Brooches (Trumpet, Head stud, Dragonesque, Disc and Annular).
Bracelets of twisted wire.
Rings, earrings and buckles.
A coin balance.
Ivory and bone armlets, spindle whorls, needles and tool handles.
Curiously pierced bone spoons.
Beads of amber and glass, bottles and flasks.
Stone whetstones and burnishers.
Many shards of Roman pottery.


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