The Southern Magnesian Limestone

Creswell Crags is located in the southern part of the Magnesian Limestone, a geological term for deposits of Upper Permian age that includes a series of formations of well-bedded oolitic to dolomitic limestones. The Magnesian

Limestone forms a narrow north-south oriented outcrop that runs from near Nottingham in the south to the North Sea coast near Tynemouth in the north (Fig. 6.1). About 30 km to the west of the southern part of the Magnesian Limestone is the older Carboniferous Limestone outcrop of the White Peak, which, like the Magnesian Limestone, contains many archaeological caves.

The southern part of the Magnesian Limestone outcrop, between Doncaster and MansWeld, is cut through by a series of vales and gorges which expose caves, fissures, and rockshelters along the cliff lines. The caves and fissures are mainly developed in the Lower Magnesian Limestone formation, and are of two kinds: solution caves formed by hydrological dissolution of the limestone, and rift-slip caves and Wssures formed by tectonic movement of large blocks of limestone. The rift-slip type of cave and Wssure formation is usually restricted to locations close to the edges of large scarps and steep valley sides.

Although the prominent limestone gorge at Creswell Crags has received by far the most attention from archaeologists, there are caves, Wssures, and rock-shelters distributed throughout the vales of the southern Magnesian Limestone outcrop. Most of the area's limestone vales show subdued relief with low cliffs and rocky outcrops with small caves running into the sides of the hills (Figure 6.2). A research report on the cave archaeology of the Creswell area undertaken in the 1970s identiWed Wfty caves, Wssures and rockshelter sites of signiWcant archaeological potential (Jenkinson 1978) and this figure was increased to over 160 sites during a recent systematic survey of all of the vales and gorges between Pleasley Vale and Roche Abbey Valley (Davies et al. 2004). Thus caves and rockshelters are abundant in the local area, and although most ofthese localities have not been archaeologically excavated they constitute a valuable component of the regional historic environment resource.


The scientiWc exploration and study of caves in Britain began in the early nineteenth century, with reports being published on the recovery of the remains of extinct fauna from caves in Devon (Home 1817) and other parts of the country (Buckland 1822). Scientific interest in the caves of the southern Magnesian Limestone outcrop began in the 1860s, when discoveries of extinct fauna were made in caves exposed by construction of buildings and a railway in

Pleasley Vale, a limestone gorge about 10 km south of Creswell Crags (Dawkins 1869). Between 1870 and 1875 sporadic discoveries of fossil animal bones were made at Creswell Crags (Heath 1882: 169), and scientific excavations were started in the Creswell caves in 1875 by the Revd J. Magens Mello, assisted by Thomas Heath, George Busk, and joined subsequently by William Boyd Dawkins (1877). These scholars, assisted by other members of the Creswell Caves Exploration Committee, carried out excavations in Church Hole, Pin Hole, Robin Hood Cave, and Mother Grundy's Parlour. Contrary to some reports, these excavations were of a reasonable standard for their day: deposits were dug (albeit rapidly) by layers, some sieving for finds was undertaken, and the contexts from which finds were recovered were recorded. Mello and Dawkins also discovered the first portable cave art to be found in Britain—an engraving of a horse on an animal rib—in Robin Hood Cave (see Bahn, this volume).

Further campaigns of excavation were conducted in the Creswell Crags caves during most decades of the twentieth century (see Jacobi, this volume), but only limited explorations took place in the numerous other vales and gorges of the southern Magnesian Limestone outcrop. A number of these sites contained Palaeolithic artefacts, though these were present in smaller quantities than were found in the Creswell caves.

Pleasley Vale contains more than twenty caves, fissures, and rockshelters (Davies et al. 2004) including the Devensian faunal site of Pleasley Vale Cave and the possible Late Upper Palaeolithic site of Yew Tree Cave, which was excavated by William Ransom in the 1860s and by A. Leslie Armstrong in the 1930s (Armstrong 1939). Langwith Cave, which is situated in the Poulter valley about 5 km south of Creswell Crags, was excavated between 1900 and 1930, first by the Revd Mullins (1913) and later by Dorothy Garrod (1927). Langwith Cave contained late Upper Palaeolithic stone tools, Pleistocene fauna, and a human skull, which was subsequently determined by radiocarbon dating to be just over 2,000 years old (Table 6.1).

In the Whaley Valley, two rockshelter sites were excavated between 1937 and 1949 by A. L. Armstrong (Armstrong 1949; Radley 1967). Whaley 1 contained shallow sediments and mainly Holocene artefacts with a few Upper Palaeolithic flint tools. Whaley 2 yielded deeper deposits which Armstrong claimed contained Ice Age fauna and artefacts. Although subsequent work at the site by Radley (1967) failed to substantiate the existence of pre-Holocene artefacts, some faunal remains from the site have been radiocarbon dated to the Middle Devensian. A human skull from Whaley 2, initially thought to be Palaeolithic, has been radiocarbon-dated to the Early Bronze Age (Table 6.1). Armstrong and colleagues subsequently excavated Ash Tree Cave in Burntfield Grips (Armstrong 1956), a site that produced Early and Middle Devensian faunas

Table 6.1. Direct radiocarbon dates on human bones from Magnesian limestone



14C bp

Lab no.


Ash Tree Cave

3730 + 90



Langwith Cave

2330 + 60


Iron Age

Markland Grips

4760 + 90



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