Writers of a romantic bent are fond of quoting Gustav Mahler’s assertion “With the coming of Spring I am calm again”. Mahler clearly was not a field archaeologist, for whom “With the coming of Spring I start packing for fieldwork” would be more appropriate. Come to think of it, an archaeologist’s Das Lied von der Erde would be interestingly different. Anyway, it is Spring and fieldwork beckons. I have done little enough work on site in recent years, and therefore jumped at the chance to join a hand-picked team of volunteers investigating Haggs Brow Cave in the Yorkshire Dales.
The project is a collaboration between cavers and archaeologists. The site is a small cave entrance not known to have been previously investigated, in an area of the Dales where many such caves have yielded archaeological remains dating from the late Upper Palaeolithic through to Romano-British times. The project therefore has two main questions: does the small entrance lead to a significant new cave system, and are there any in situ archaeological deposits?
The cave is in a pasture field at Lower Winskill farm [http://www.lowerwinskill.co.uk/], where Tom Lord curates an important cave archaeology collection and actively encourages and supports new investigations. The team varies in number between five and ten, mostly men of mature years with joint problems and a limited range of names. At one point, we had four Johns at work in the one small trench. Possession of replacement hips or knees is not essential for inclusion but does seem to be a feature of the excavation team.
At the time of writing, we are only a few days in. Excavation of limestone blocks, mainly by crowbar and explosives, and assorted brown clays, sometimes by trowel, has established that the cave is a cave. The small entrance gives restricted access to a chamber beyond which at least one passage leads further into the hill. Cultural remains so far consist of bits and pieces of relatively recent material representing 19th and 20th century littering around the original cave entrance. A 19th century bottle in thick greenish glass has emerged in several pieces, driving fanciful speculation about picnicking Victorians.
Quite a lot of sediment has been wet-sieved, giving us a substantial assemblage of rabbit bones and snails, the latter probably more useful than the former.
Over the next few days, we aim to take down deposits within the excavation trench with the hope of encountering earlier in situ sediments and to excavate within the cave in order to improve access, enabling a survey of the interior. In this part of Yorkshire, it is difficult to separate archaeology from cave exploration, and our working methods have to satisfy both objectives.
It is possible that the cave will only ‘go’ for a few tens of metres and that there will no cultural archaeology. In that worst case, we will at least have explored an intriguing landscape feature, recorded that exploration systematically and spent some enjoyable days in good company in some of the UK’s finest scenery. Even Mahler would have enjoyed that.
The view from Haggs Brow. Nice lynchets in the middle distance, Lancashire on the horizon.