Cave Sites and Human Occupation of Britain during the Upper Palaeolithic Period

The Upper Palaeolithic in Britain covers the period 38,000-10,000BP. The evidence for man's presence is mainly artefactual, principally in the form of worked flints, although there are also some bones which have provided the basis for radiocarbon dating. Most of the evidence comes from only four sites: Kent's Cavern [NGR SX 934641], Paviland (Goat's Hole) [SS 437859], Gough's Cave [ST 466539] and Creswell Crags [SK 534742]. Following a brief consideration of the geographical and environmental conditions in Britain during the Upper Palaeolithic, this article will review the evidence from each of these four sites in turn. It will then very briefly consider evidence from elsewhere before concluding with a few words on the nature of human occupation in Britain during this period.

The Devensian glaciation reached its maximum between 27,000BP and 12,000BP. The Upper Palaeolithic is therefore split into two human occupation periods, the Early Upper Palaeolithic (EUP) 38-27,000BP and the Late Upper Palaeolithic (LUP) 12- 10,000BP. During the period of glacial maximum Britain would probably have been too cold to occupy. Even during the EUP and LUP Britain would have been greatly influenced by the ice: It was physically linked to Europe (see Fig.1) and the land not covered by ice yielded a tundra environment. Britain was therefore very much on the periphery of human occupation and the principal occupation sites (see Fig.2), which are all cave Sites, may be 'base camps' used periodically by hunters pursuing herds of herbivores across "the Bristol and English Channel plains" [Green,1989,P72]

Britain as an isthmus of Europe
Fig.1 Britain as an isthmus of Europe [after Green,1989]

Fig.2 Location of Principal Upper Palaeolithic Sites [after King, 1976,p53l]

The principal EUP sites are Kent's Cavern and Paviland.

Kent's Cavern was first excavated by Fr. J MacEnery in 1825-29 and then by William Pengelly in 1865-80. It contained both pre- and post-EUP artefacts as well as over 100 stone tools from the EUP period. These included: 46 scrapers, 27 saws/notches, 11 leaf-points (10 of them unifacial) and 8 burins [Campbell,1977,v2p97]; a fairly typical range of tool types characteristic of the EUP. Various animal bones from the cave earth layer which yielded these artefacts have been radiocarbon dated to c28-29,000BP one specimen, however, was dated to 38,270±1470/-1240BP [ibid, p19].

Paviland is an even more important EUP site, "being 10-times richer in artefacts [i.e. tools + 'waste'] than Kent's Cavern [Green 1989,p72]. The principal discoveries were made by Dean Buckland in1823 and WJ.Sollas in 1913. The stone tool assemblage includes: 310 scrapers, 131 burins, 39 saws/notches, 23 borers/awls and 11 leaf-points [Campbell,1977,v2pp102-3]. Based on the tool typology Green [op.cit,p73] suggests that this was "an 'Aurignacian' industry of around 30,000bc". However he also says that the "leaf-points [may be] indicative possibly of settlement as early as 36,000bc".

The most famous find at Paviland was the human burial in a red ochre deposit which Buckland called 'The Red Lad of Paviland'. This now known to have been a young male. C-14 dating of bone from his skeleton suggests that he died c18,500BP. This date is very close to date of the maximum glacial advance in the Devensian period; the nearest glacier ice would have been only a few kilometres north of Paviland Cave. However, Campbell [1977,v1p144] says '..I suspect that this 'date' is somewhat too young..'. King [1976,p532] agrees with him, observing that "as Buckland excavated the material in 1832 [sic] it seems That too much emphasis should not be placed on the date of 16,460BC+340". -

Associated with this burial there were about a dozen ivory objects and seven perforated wolf and reindeer teeth. [Campbell 1977 v2pp102-3]. The majority of the ivory was in rod-shaped segments which are, as Green observes [1989,p73], the National Museum of Wales) that the perforations in the teeth "are consistent with conventionally interpreted as blanks for beads". He also confirm s(quoting a source at perforations for suspension rather than for the removal of the flesh as Buckland suggested". Campbell [op.cit] describes three of the ivory objects as: a pendant, a bracelet/armlet and an engraved plate. "A mammoth's skull, complete with tusks" was also found at Paviland [Greeii719S9~p73JI It does not seem unreasonable, therefore, to conceive of Paviland Cave as the base camp/workshop of mammoth hunters/ivory carvers, activities not inconsistent with cold climatic conditions.

Other EUP Sites include caves in the Mendip Hills, notably Badger Hole [ST
53244795] and the Hyaena Den [ST 53234792]. However these two sites have yielded fewer than two dozen recognisable EUP tools between them [Campbell,1917,v2pp98- 9] and there is a date for Badger Hole only not very precise >18,000BP [ibid,p19].A few EUP artefacts have been found 'on open-air' (mainly gravel pit) sites in East Anglia but "no definite open-air Earlier Upper Palaeolithic finds have yet been made in southern England" [ibid,v1p150.

The main LUP sites are Creswell Crags and Gough's Cave.

Creswell Crags contain a number of rock shelter type caves including: Mother Grundy's Parlour, Robin Hood's Cave, Pin Hole and-Church Hole Cave. The first of these, "Mother Grundy's Parlour, is the Type Site (the international standard of comparison) for the Creswellian stone tool industry" [Jenkinson,1989~p93] This industry is characteristic of the LUP; "the characteristic tools are large trapezes, obliquely blunted blades and small backed blades" [Bray & Trump,1982,p69]. In these four caves alone a total of 98 backed tools of LUP date are known out of a total stone tool assemblage of 201 [Campbell,1977,v2ppl30-7].

A number of items of worked shell, antler and bone have also been found at Creswell. Notable amongst these was the discovery at Robin Hood's Cave in 1876;

".. of a small fragment of rib... with the incised figure of a horse; ..It is the first instance of the discovery of the figure of an animal in this country,..?" [Dawkins,1880,pp184-5]

Although there. was controversy over this at the time, Jenkinson states [1989,p93] that it "is now thought to be a genuine in situ discovery". Campbell concurs [1977,v1p149] with this view saying that it "may be either Earlier or Later Upper Palaeolithic'. However the fact that in Dawkins [op.eit] it is described as coming from the "Upper Cave-earth" (my italics) - see Fig.3 -may indicate that an LUP date is more likely.

Fig.3 Horse, Upper Cave-earth, Robin Hood Cave, 1:1 [copy of Fig.53,Dawkins,1880]

Another notable inscribed bone was found in Pin _Hole in 1929. This is frequently described ~s a 'Masked Human Figure' (Fig.4). -This, according to Campbell' [1977,v1p174], "is the only example in British Upper Palaeolithic 'art' of a human figure known thus far". He suggests that this may belong to the "Mesolithic/Later Upper Palaeolithic".

Fig.4 Masked Human Figure [after Campbell,1977j

Radiocarbon dating of bones from Creswell Crags has yielded dates of 10,590+90 and 10,390+9OBP [Campbell,1977 ,v2p19].

Although Creswell has the honour of the Type Site, Mendip has the most productive LUP site: Gough's Cave. This cave has produced 4,525 extant artefacts (tools + 'waste') of which 799 are stone tools. Backed tools are the largest single category at 34% of the total [Campbell,1977, v2ppll4-6]. This flint industry is thus "Creswellian in type" but Tratman [1975,p367]notes that "it does have its own specialities known as Cheddar points, but this is not sufficient to dub it a separate culture".

As well as stone tools, Gough's Cave has also yielded items made of bone, antler, ivory and even amber. It has been shown by infrared spectroscopy that the amber was of Baltic origin (Beck,1965,p2721. Reindeer antler was used to make two so called 'Batons de Commandment'. Tratman suggests [op.cit] that "their function was possibly for straightening arrows.. .or, more probably, for cleaning off tissue matter when preparing thongs for various purposes". A few of the pieces of bone have incised groups of lines on them. Some writers have described these as "tallies"; Powers [in Hawkes et al,1970p141] has suggested that one of them might have been used for some kind of game and Tratman has queried whether another might be a "Calculator (?)" [Tratman,1976,p1231.

In 1903 a skeleton of a young man was found when a drainage trench was being dug in Gough's Cave. He appeared to have been deliberately 'laid to rest' in a crouched position in a shallow hollow . C-14 dating indicates that he died in 9,080+15OBP [Campbell,1977, v2p20] i.e. at about the time of the transition of the LUP to the Mesolithic.

Other, less important, LUP sites include: Aveline's Hole [8T4765871, Soldier's Hole [ST469540] and Sun Hole [ST467541], all on Mendip, and Kent's Cavern (see above). A number of finds have also been made at open-air sites; the most important of these is at Hengistbury Head [SZ 170908]. This has produced 46 LUP stone tools, of which 28 were backed tools [Canipbell,1977,v2pp142-41. The distribution pattern of the heavier flint cores has been interpreted as indicating that they were used to weight- down a tent [Campbell,1977,v1p74 and v2p2011. Recently another open-air site has been identified at Three Ways Wharf near Uxbridge. As well as LUP flint tools this site has yielded other material which has been dated to 10,270 +100BP and 10,010+12OBP.

In conclusion, it can be seen that there is ample evidence for human occupation in Britain in both the earlier and later parts of the Upper Palaeolithic. Most of this evidence comes from a limited number of, mainly, cave sites. However this concentration may be a disfunction of the archaeological record; such sites provide good preservation of the record and were therefore obvious foci for nineteenth century antiquarian excavators as well as more modern archaeologists. Even accepting that they would have provided good 'base-camps' for hunter-gatherers pursuing large game up to the limits of occupation (see Fig.2); it seems unlikely that there would not have been 'transit-camps', or even 'non-cave base-camps' (such as might be represented at Hengistbury Head), in other parts of Britain south of the glaciers.


Beck,C.W. (1965) 'The Origin of the Amber found at Gough's Cave, Cheddar, Somerset', Proc Univ Bristol Spelacol Soc 10(3) pp 272-6.

Bray,W. and Trump,D. (1982) The Penguin Dictionary of Archaeology, Penguin Books Ltd.

Campbell,J.B. (1977) The Upper Palaeolithic of Britain, Clarendon Press - Oxford, (2 Vols.).

Dawkins,W.B. (1880) Early Man in Britain and his Place in the Tertiary Period, Macmillan and Co.

Green,H.S. (1989) 'The Stone Age cave archaeology of South Wales' in Ford,T.D.(ed), (1989) Limestones and Caves of Wales, Cambridge University Press, pp7O-78.

Hawkes,C.J., Tratman,E.K. and Powers,Rosemary (1970) 'Decorated piece of Rib
Bone from the Palaeolithic Levels at Gough's Cave, Cheddar, Somerset', Proc Univ
Bristol Spelaeol Soc. 12(2) ppl37-142.

Jenkinson,R. (1989) 'The Archaeological Caves of Creswell Crags', Cave Science -Trans British Cave Research Assoc. 16(3) pp91-4.

King,A (1976) 'Cave Archaeology' in Ford,T.D. and Cullingford,C.H.D. (eds) (1976) The Science of Speleology, Academic Press Inc. (London) Ltd. pp 522-540.

Tratman,E.K. (1975) 'The Cave Archaeology and Palaeontology of Mendip' in Smith,D.I. and Drew,D.P. (eds) (1975) Limestoncs and Caves of the Mendip Hills, David and Charles, pp 352-395.

Tratman,E.K. (1976) 'Late Upper Palacolithic Calculator (?), Gough's Cave, Cheddar, Somerset', Proc Univ Bristol Spelaeol Soc. 14(2) pp123-9.

Martin Hatton