Burrington Coombe and Cheddar have roads running through them but
Ebbor Gorge is only accessible by narrow footpaths.
From the grassy
car park you cross a stone style and plunge into woodland. As you
descend the steps, you start to feel that the modern world has been
lost. Who knows what ancient creature might emerge from the dense
vegetation. It feels like a remote place and the bottom of the gorge
is warm, still and humid. Then there is the steep ascent up the
other side, pausing for breath from time to time, keeping an eye
open for the slight hidden path created for the dig between the
trees, along the gorge edge.
The woodland path into Ebbor Gorge.
There it is. I weave up and down and start to hear faint voices.
Turn a corner and the cave is there. Much activity and a welcome
from Danielle who has been expecting me.
Many of the Ebbor Caves were discovered by Victorian and Edwardian
explorers and dug away. There are displays of some of their finds at
nearby Wookey Hole. They were big on enthusiasm but their techniques
were not great.. so to find an unexcavated cave is exciting and
The Gulley Cave in 2005 before excavation.
Ebbor is a Natural England reserve leased from the National Trust.
Bob Corns, the NE ranger showed me the potential of Gulley Cave in
2005 and Danielle and her team from Royal Holloway College, London
have been investigating the site since 2006. They are top experts in
the Palaeolithic and each year descend a little further into the
remote past. They tell me that this is an extremely important site.
40% of the cave deposits have been preserved for the future and have
been kept in place by scaffolding.
The finds consist of animal bones, beautifully preserved because of
the lime-rich conditions of the soil. Danielle tells me about the
extreme cold following the last glaciation.
We would have to go to
the Russian Steppes to find such conditions today and the animal
bones in the cave reflect this. Lemming, arctic fox, wild cat, an
extinct type of wild pony, reindeer and hundreds of tiny animal
bones. These are the remains of voles and other small rodents
probably brought to the cave as pellets from hunting birds like
owls. They have provided a range of radiocarbon dates from
10,000-13,500 years ago. The changing types of rodent reflect the
fluctuations in temperature during the Holocene.
The limestone soil preserves bones extremely well.
holds a wildcat jaw and the massive bone in the background is
the femur of an extinct species of giant cattle (aurochs)
The hope is for evidence of human occupation but no tools have been
found. The larger meat bones have been discovered welded to the back
of the cave with a hardened lime solution, which seeped from the
cave wall over time.
The massive bones, representing the haunch of an giant extinct type
of cattle (aurochs) were found there. Not something that would be
tip-toeing around the gorge and probably too large to be brought
there by wolves. Another long bone showed burning and had been
fractured to extract marrow.
The cave has filled up over many thousands of years. Beneath a
thin crust of lime which has dripped and accumulated from the
cave roof is a breccia deposit of soil and stone deposited
during post-glacial cold tundra conditions 11-14,000 years ago,.
This year, Danielle told me, the finds have been few. The excavation
has entered the last ice age. 15,000-25,000 BC was a very cold time
and people probably didn’t live in Britain then. The soil has
changed to frost fractured fragments of rock. Below this, about
30,000 year ago, might be found remains of woolley rhino, mammoths
and perhaps earlier remains of Neanderthal man.