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The Yorkshire Archaeological & Historical Society

Since 1863

For everyone interested in Yorkshire's past

Palaeolithic Yorkshire – Victoria Cave



Victoria and other archaeological caves: locations

The sands and gravels of southern Lancashire and Cheshire were deposited after 28,000 BC and it seems likely that the retreating ice freed virtually all of northern England, apart from the Lake District and some parts of the adjacent high Pennines by about 10,000 BC. We know that Scandinavian Ice perhaps 50 miles off the present east coast deflected the ice which flowed down Teesdale around Flamborough Head where it and other materials built up Holderness. Once that ice began to melt, the lake which covered the Vale of York was able to flow down the Humber. Unlike the caves in southern England or even those in the Cresswell Gorge area which were south of the last (Devensian) ice front, Victoria, Jubilee, Dowkerbottom and Gaping Ghyll were close to the top of the ice mass while other caves were completely buried. Though the ice wasted away locally and was replaced by tundra conditions it still existed further north and generated a high pressure feeding continuously freezing winds. These blasted the north of England so that the early exploratory hunting groups of the Late Upper Palaeolithic period would have been grateful for the cave’s shelter.

Discovery and excavation


Victoria Cave: excavation July 1870

Although Victoria became Queen in 1837 her coronation was not until 1838, the year of the cave’s discovery - which is how it got its name. Michael Horner, who was walking his dog over Settle Scars, followed the dog into a small opening which widened into a chamber. There he was able to collect off the floor a number of objects which he subsequently showed to his employer, Joseph Jackson – the person usually credited with the cave's discovery. Jackson collected more material from the cave and in the following thirty years a number of small digs encouraged the British Association to fund a major excavation. The excavation was directed by W. Boyd Dawkins in the 1870 to 1872 seasons and he included the information in Cave Hunting, published in 1874. Subsequent work until 1878 was directed by R. H. Tiddeman of the Geological Survey. Joseph Jackson entered every find of the excavations into his diary (a copy of his diary is in Settle Museum).


Formerly, discussion about the harpoons and other early projectile points from the caves was limited to comparing their shapes with others from France or Germany. But we now have a list of published C14 dates for the more important finds. AMS dates on bone objects reveal human presence at different times during the second part of the Lateglacial Interstadial from around 12,000 BC to 10,900 BC.


Victoria Cave: decorated bevel-based reindeer antler rod (Upper Palaeolithic 12,521±434 BC)

The two pieces of the bevel-based rod of reindeer antler were found during excavations at Victoria Cave in August 1870. They were found close to the back wall of the main chamber, Chamber A, about ninety feet from the entrance in an area of the cave that would have been in darkness during the Lateglacial Interstadial. The new AMS date of 12,521±434 BC, making it presently the oldest directly dated artefact from Yorkshire.

A cut marked horse atlas vertebra AMS dated 12,502±438 BC was also found close to the back wall of the main chamber in 1870. It records the removal of the head of a wild horse using stone tools. It is the only such bone with evidence of butchery from the cave, and most likely got into the cave naturally, having been carried in from an open-air butchery site by a scavenging animal. The bone has tooth marks attributable to a large canid. The hunting of wild horses may have been facilitated by the many limestone cliffs and gorges in the vicinity associated with the prominent fault scarp of the Craven fault. Whatever activities were undertaken by Final Magdalenian groups in the Dales, it is very likely that the caves were only of peripheral interest. Taken at face value the finding of an implement in a dark part of Victoria Cave suggests these people explored the caves for non-functional reasons.


Victoria Cave: bone harpoon (Upper Palaeolithic 10,846±153 BC)

The well known bilaterally barbed antler point or ‘harpoon’ was found at the entrance to Victoria Cave in April 1870. The new AMS date of 10,846±153 BC indicates that it belongs almost at the end of the Lateglacial Interstadial. However there are no obvious parallels for the more or less contemporary grooved and bevel-based artefact AMS dated to 10,911±203 BC. It was found by chance in 1931 in three pieces underneath calcite flowstone in an area beyond the limit of the 1870s excavations in Chamber B. As the illustration of the point attempts to show, it was probably mounted with two similar points to make a fish spear or bird lance. Again it is suggestive of people exploring deep into the dark inner areas of Victoria Cave and placing objects there during the Later Upper Palaeolithic: only this time a thousand years or so after the Final Magdalenian bevel based ‘rod’ was put in the cave.

Victoria Cave goes virtual

A London-based digital archaeology company, DigVentures Ltd., thanks to an award of £100,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, have successfully digitised the Victoria Cave archive. Objects in the collection dating back over 600,000 years range from the remains of Palaeolithic fauna such as hyaena, elephant, rhinoceros and Cave Bear (Ursus arctos) to Upper Palaeolithic implements and Romano-British jewellery. The ‘Under the Uplands’ project ended in December 2016 and also included material from the previously unexcavated cave site of Haggs Brow Cave, also near Settle.


Victoria Cave: bone fish lance (Upper Palaeolithic 10,991±203 BC)

Working closely with Tom Lord, the holder of the archive, the company has created 3D digital models of all of the artefacts in the archive, as well as a 3D model of the caves’ interiors. This will allow anyone with access to the technology – on a computer, mobile phone or similar device – to view the entire collection at the touch of a button and navigate their way around it object by object, without having to visit or handle the physical archive directly, as well as experience the cave environment.

As Lisa Westcott Wilkins, DigVentures’ Managing Director, says, this will put “the entire collection in everyone’s pocket.” The creation of what is in effect a virtual museum it is hoped will tie in with the latest communication and presentation technology, enabling cave archaeology to enter the digital age and reach a much wider and more diverse audience than traditional methods of communication such as journals, lectures and museum exhibitions could ever do.

Cave bears


Victoria Cave: cave bear skull (Ursus arctos) (Upper Palaeolithic c. 11,000 BC)

In a recent comprehensive study of ancient cave bear (Ursus arctos) remains found in caves throughout Yorkshire and Ireland, an analysis of radiocarbon dates and mitochondrial DNA has shown that bears moved back into Yorkshire after the last glacial maximum and were all descended from a single group with its source south of the ice in Iberia.

Mitochondrial DNA is inherited unchanged from mother to daughter, and so can provide excellent evidence for direct (maternal) lines of descent. The study also recognised that the requirements of bears, with their omnivorous diet and need for shelter and warmth which drew them to caves, closely resembles ancient human requirements, and that the two may well have followed very similar timing and routes of post-glacial colonisation of the British Isles in the early Holocene.

16 sets of assorted bear remains from 6 Yorkshire cave sites and 1 from Star Carr were examined, providing dates from 15 different individuals ranging from 14,645±367 cal. BP for a skull from Kilnsey Cave, Giggleswick to 10,188±54 cal. BP for a mandible from Raven Scar Cave near Ingleton, with a mean of 13190±225 cal. BP.