Cannington Park Quarry Cave, Somerset – Re-examination of the human and animal remains

The site

Location of the cave in the Quarry – original archive
Location of the cave in the Quarry – original archive

Cannington Park Quarry Cave (also known as Boulder Cave or South Quarry Cave) was located in c. 1962 (some notes state 1959) when quarry blasting opened up a chamber. The cave was explored by various individuals, most notably in 1964 by Tony Locke, who recovered a number of bones.

These bones were recovered from a breccia layer around the cave, although they were from heavily disturbed contexts and were partly covered by blasting material. The bones were examined in 1984 (Powers and Currant 1985 in Rahtz et al. 2000) and found to represent at least seven human individuals, along with the bones of red deer, badger, horse and bovine.

Illustration from the publication (Rahtz et al 2000) based on sketches from 1960s
Illustration from the publication (Rahtz et al 2000) based on sketches from 1960s

This group of bones were initially believed to represent disturbed material from Cannington Cemetery, a Late Roman – post-Roman cemetery excavated in 1962-3 and published by Rahtz, Hirst and Wright (2000). This cemetery was sited above the quarry and had been considerably damaged by it, with a quantity of loose material disturbed by blasting in the south-east part of the cemetery area. While the proximity of the Roman/post-Roman cemetery allowed for the possibility that the bones were from the graves above, the bones were reported to be from a small area and may originally have been deliberate burials within the cave. Indeed, the report in the cemetery publication concluded:

“…it is at least possible that these were deliberate cave burials…….only radiocarbon determinations could resolve this problem”.

The close proximity of the Cannington Cemetery to Cotswold Archaeology’s excavations associated with the Cannington Bypass and Hinkley Point power station, where the respective discoveries of a Roman villa and a Post-Roman cemetery were made, meant that it was important to consider the potential relationships between these sites. As such, we wished to determine with greater certainty the date of the bones found in the cave; research grant funding from BABAO (British Association of Biological Anthropologists and Osteoarchaeologists) allowed for two radiocarbon dates on the material, which now resides at the Somerset Heritage Centre near Taunton, contained in two separate boxes.

The research

One of the boxes in the musuem, with original description
One of the boxes in the musuem, with original description

Physical examination of the bones confirmed that they were those described in the Cannington Cemetery Publication. It was noted in the report that a ‘considerable calcareous deposit’ was removed from some of the fragments. These calcareous deposits remained in places and the bones were notably well-preserved. These deposits are usually found on material which has lain on a cave floor for a long period of time, and the light colour of the bone, together with a lack of surface erosion, did not fit with the expected appearance of bone that had spent considerable time in the earth.  Aside from this, the dental attrition on one maxilla was not the expected pattern for normal dental wear, but more in keeping with the use of the teeth as a tool. The use of teeth in such a way is much more commonly seen in prehistoric than later human remains. Together, these observations indicated that the bones were more likely to have come from a prehistoric cave burial than from the Roman cemetery.

To investigate this, two bones were selected, one from each box, from different individuals (one adult, the other immature), and samples were sent for radiocarbon dating. The results were very surprising. Both samples returned dates of over 9000 years BP. When calibrated this provides date ranges of 8545-8328 cal BC and 8237-7976 cal BC (both at 95.4% probability). This places both of the bones very clearly in the early Mesolithic.

These are very exciting dates and are comparable with those for the human remains known as ‘Cheddar Man’, recovered from Gough’s cave, nearby in the Mendip Hills, which were dated to 8540-7990 and 8470-8230 cal BC. Mesolithic human remains are extremely rare discoveries in England, with just 20 firmly dated sites known (Meiklejohn, Chamberlain and Schulting 2011).

Right facial bones today compared with the original photograph before the calcareous deposit was removed
Right facial bones today compared with the original photograph before the calcareous deposit was removed

Sadly the cave was completely destroyed by quarrying during the 1990s and the boxes of bones, sketches and notes are the only surviving evidence for what now appears to have been a rare Mesolithic burial site. Fortunately, we now know the site existed. This demonstrates the archaeological potential of material residing in old archives in museum stores, and the value that can be gained by returning to re-examine it. The findings will be fully reported on and published in the coming months.

Cotswold Archaeology are grateful to BABAO, Graham Mullan (UBSS) and Rick Schulting.

The human and animal remains belong to the Somerset County Council museum collection, cared for and managed by the South West Heritage Trust.

Sharon Clough

References

Meiklejohn, C., Chamberlain, A.T. and Schulting, R.J. 2011 ‘Radiocarbon dating of Mesolithic human remains in Great Britain’ Mesolithic Miscellany Vol 21: 2, 20-57

Rahtz, P., Hirst, S. and Wright, S. 2000. Cannington cemetery: Excavations 1962-3 of prehistoric, Roman, post-Roman, and later features at Cannington Park Quarry, near Bridgwater, Somerset. Britannia Monograph Series 17. Society for the promotion of Roman studies, London